6 Ways To Simplify Your Holiday Meal

For all you Americans preparing for Turkey-fest…

Have you ever had small crisped up sausages with your Christmas meal?

It was part of the spread growing up. Turkey, sausage stuffing, mashed turnip, brussel sprouts, potatoes (mashed and roasted), cranberry sauce, bread sauce, gravy and mini sausages. Can you tell my mum is Scottish? Lots of meat and root vegetables.

Dessert was a huge trifle with sponge and custard and canned mandarin segments immersed in red and green jello. The kids trifle love started and ended on Christmas day. After that the leftovers sat in the fridge and my mother made a valiant attempt to finish them as the jello hardened, the sponge got soggy and the whole thing turned to soup.

One year my mother made a serious announcement on Christmas Eve: she couldn’t find the small sausages. There would be no crispy mini sausages with the meal.

It was like she had announced Christmas had been cancelled.

We were all despondent at the idea of no cocktail sausages with the big meal. I was in my early 20’s at the time…

There is a lot of pressure on the big holiday meal. I know this and yet, I don’t want to miss Christmas day and be exhausted by the time we sit down to our meal because I was up at six in the morning stuffing a turkey.

So I’ve decided to set the bar a little lower for my family. A turkey and just a few side dishes. I’ll prepare one or two of the side dishes in advance and freeze them. And I’ll recruit my husband and son to help on the day.

I might even, GASP, used a prepackaged gravy.

If I don’t bake something in advance dessert will be whatever is left from the chocolate Santa brought.

I’m not losing my day of rest, connection and thankfulness to a complicated potato gratin or five vegetable side dishes.

Here are a few ideas for simplifying the holiday meal so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your family.

6 Ways To Simplify Your Holiday Meal

1. Make fewer side dishes. Sure there is drama around the turkey, will it be ready in time and is it moist, but the piece that usually garnered the most stress and work in my family was the side dishes. If you can cut a few out it will save you time, fridge space and dishes.

2. Freeze/prepare in advance. Easier to thaw than to peel, slice, cook and mash on the day of. Anything that can be prepared in advance, even just chopping a few heads of broccoli, should be.

3. Recruit help. I tsk, tsk my younger self at how lazy I was on Christmas day. There was a lot of whining about helping out with the meal: shelling brussel sprouts, peeling potatoes and setting the table. My mother had to drag us away from our Christmas bounty of magazines, books and movies to get us to help.

Give people jobs before the big day so they know what is expected of them. Also helpful when you have a lot of helpers: make a schedule for when each person will use the kitchen to prepare their dish.

4. Make smaller quantities. Leftovers are a beautiful thing but so is a turkey that can be cooked in under four hours. Consider just making enough for that day’s meal to cut down on preparation and cooking time.

5. Ask people to bring or make side dishes. Many hands make light work as they say.

6. If you’re really tired of it all skip the big meal. Last year we were away and I knew we would be out of our rental apartment on Christmas Day. We had a nice festive brunch before we left and then I think it was curry for dinner. It was a different Christmas but I still felt festive and thankful. That’s what counts.

Anyone else have ideas for simplifying large holiday meals? Has anyone drastically changed their holiday meal menu to cut down on time spent in the kitchen?

Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt

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  • Oh definitely go for pre-packaged gravy! You won’t remember you did it when you’re looking back at past Christmases, but you might remember stressing out over everything from scratch. A dash of juice from the meat dish into the pre-packaged stuff and it’s practically the same – right? I always use pre-packaged stuffing and just mix it up with some sausagemeat and seasoning and it’s glorious (And the leftovers make a great pie when sandwiched between puff pastry!)

  • And this is why my family has never done Christmas dinners. We will have a nice big breakfast (usually an egg cassarole, muffins, bacon, sausage, juice, and a lotto ticket ^_^). It is super easy to prep the night before, takes about an hour to cook/bake everything during which time we open stockings, then the rest of the day is for enjoying family, enjoying gifts, and relaxing. Lunch and dinner are like any other day. It is a wonderful tradition I intend on continuing when my kiddos get old enough to celebrate!

  • Rather than cut back on side dishes, I cut back on the main dish this year. I hate turkey. I hate turkey leftovers. So we’re having an easy shrimp dish instead. It was supposed to be just me and my husband plus three children, but we’ve had a last minute addition of another family. They’re bringing beer and another side dish. I’ll be making the desserts the night before, and we won’t eat until 4:30 or so, leaving plenty of time to sit around and do nothing.

    For us, the food is very important, so we won’t get any part of it catered, but doing less helps me focus on making the fewer dishes really spectacular. And I can recruit the little kids to help me prepare, too, if I’m not in a rush. Katie might be old enough to peel shrimp…

  • My family always did the large meal Christmas Eve & then finger foods on Christmas Day. As we got older we added in Chinese food for dinner Christmas Day. With my own family however we do finger foods Christmas Eve and if there’s a Chinese food place open where ever we happen to be for Christmas we go. If not we do more finger foods.

  • Your Christmas dinner was identical to ours! (I grew up in Northern Ireland). I insisted that my family carry on the tradition of what I was used to for Christmas dinner – and everyone was miserable! They didn’t like brussel sprouts, bread sauce, or even trifle (gasp!), and they complained that there was too much on their plates – there was not enough room for their ketchup! After a couple of years of valiantly forcing them to eat it all, I learned to make a lot less – turkey (no ham), roast potatoes (no mashed), two vegetables, and gravy. Of course we make the table look really nice…and still have crackers. I have a little bowl of brussel sprouts and a little bit of bread sauce by my plate, and everyone is happy!! Why I spent years slaving in the kitchen to make cranberry and bread sauces etc when nobody liked them – I will never know!!

  • Until we moved abroad, I ALWAYS ordered Thanksgiving-in-a-Box! Called the grocery store down the road and ordered everything, to be picked up HOT at noon on Thanksgiving. Talk about stress free!

  • In Sweden the christmas tradition is a HUGE buffe, with loads and loads of dishes. I would start about two weeks ahead and cook one or two things every day to get it all ready – but what we have done is to have that buffe not on christmas eve (as you would in Sweden) but the last saturday before Christmas. We’d invite friends over and have a real party. And then on Christmas – we cook something easier and relax. This way we still get the whole Ta-Da – but not at the same time as you’d want to relax. I might point out that I don’t live in Sweden any more and that my husband is German – so maybe it is easier for me to step away from a tradition like that… :-)

  • One year we did Thanksgiving in a slow cooker. We dropped carrots, onion, and celery in the bottom. . . .added some broth and cooked a turkey breast for a few hours. Easy, minimal clean-up and a great gravy that doesn’t require any thickener.

  • Many years ago my extended family decided we would no longer go eat at each other’s houses for Thanksgiving, we would go out to eat. Shocking, I know. We have a local buffet restaurant everybody loves and that’s where we go. We’ve been going there every year for about 10 years now. We actually go about 2 days before Thanksgiving so there are no big crowds to deal with, then on the actual day of Thanksgiving we chill out at our own houses and do what want. The kids all LOVE it because if all they want to eat is mashed potatoes and root beer floats they can. The adults all love it because nobody is stuck in the ktichen feverishly cooking or cleaning dishes. I also think it cuts down on over eating because when we leave the restaurant the meal is over, we aren’t continuing to gorge ourselves for days afterwards. Some people find it shocking but for us it is really fun, we all look forward to it every year.

  • When my husband and I realized it would be just the two of us for Thanksgiving dinner one year we sat down and talked about what we needed to feel like we’d had that special meal. It turned out to be turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. It was also important to have leftover turkey for sandwiches to go with more pie. Easy to do for two people. Especially if your husband likes to bake pumpkin pies from scratch. And thinks Cool Whip is as good as whipping cream. And thinks a boneless turkey breast is a good idea. All the tradition with little work.

  • And for pete’s sake, if you don’t like the “traditional” holiday fare, by all means change it! Your family doesn’t have to eat what everyone else is! No one in our family likes ham or turkey but a nice prime rib does nicely. I’m not big on the usual pies, but we make pecan bars and serve with ice cream. It’s a holiday; celebrate with those you love with the food you love!

  • I recently decided that all birthdays at our house would be an occasion for our favorite take out (usually wood fired pizza). My daughter reminded me just a few days ago that she really loves dumplings, so I decided that we will try a new Christmas Eve tradition this year of Chinese takeout and a Christmas movie. I see that someone else mentioned Chinese food above! My mom forgot to thaw the Christmas turkey one year and we ended up at the Chinese restaurant–we all secretly hoped it would happen again!
    For Christmas breakfast last year I assembled baked oatmeal (the Heidi Swanson recipe) the night before and then baked it in the morning. It was even tastier for having soaked overnight. This year I’ll probably add a pre-prepared egg dish and maaaaybe cook some sausage in the morning.

  • One year we went to Disneyland during Thanksgiving week and arrived back home on Wednesday evening. After being gone 5 days we didn’t want to drive to my parents’s house for Thanksgiving like we usually do, so we went out. It was great! There are only 3 of us in my family, so it didn’t seem to make sense to go to a lot of trouble. The place was packed with families. Everyone was able to talk and enjoy each other and leave the mess behind. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but once in a while it is fun.

  • We host Christmas Eve every year. We’ve kept my husband’s family tradition which is to order Chinese take out. I still set the table with the good dishes and a great centerpiece, which is perfect because I love hosting and decorating and am not a huge fan of cooking for large numbers of people. To me, not having to cook is the perfect way to entertain.

  • I wanted a break this year, so we are going out to eat on Thanksgiving. It will be a nice change and I can enjoy being with our family and not worry about cooking or cleaning up. Next year, we may just cook the meal ourselves or have friends over, but not this year. The only thing I do feel bad about it having others work on Thanksgiving so we can enjoy going out. They would have to work anyway, but we are contributing to it.

  • For me, it’s mostly about the timing. I make desert the weekend before (home made ice creams); and then everything else is prep and walk away until service, really. So about an hour of prep then walk away for cooking time. And since I serve in courses, it takes about 15 minutes to plate each course and with 4 courses that’s another hour. While I’m plating, DS and DH clear plates and wash dishes, while guests relax.

    It comes to about 2 hrs of work total.

    But when we moved here, there isn’t a thanksgiving, really — holidays are mixed up and confusing when the seasons are flipped (it’s spring here now). So, we celebrate thanksgiving in a completely different way.

    We write thank you notes to people in our lives who have really impacted us.

    DS, DH and I sit down and come up with a list of people for whom we are thankful. We write down how they impacted our lives and what we really love about them and how thankful we are to have them in our lives. DS then picks some paintings that he’s done (water colors), and we put this into our printer and print out our letters to them. We include some photographs of ourselves (or of us with them).

    We take them to the post office, pick special stamps for each envelope, and mail them away.

    It’s a really nice process.

  • We order side dishes (veggies, mashed spuds and gravy) from a local catering company and pick them up Xmas eve. On Xmas day we cook cornish game hens which are smaller so take less cooking time (nice if you want to be out part of the day). Add a fresh salad and some XMas baking for dessert and you are good to go!

  • I still do the traditional meal, because I like it. However, I do prepare as much as possible in advance, and I’m not shy about asking for help. For instance, since we don’t eat gluten, someone else always brings the buns and the stuffing and the wheat-filled desserts.

    The other big thing I’ve done is to let the little extras go, especially over Christmas. After years of feeling guilty because I couldn’t find the time to send holiday cards, I just don’t. I don’t bake Christmas cookies, and I don’t go all-out with decorating. I’m happy to cook a turkey, but I’m not going to stress about all the other stuff.

  • Our family takes turns hosting holidays. I always host Thanksgiving. The day before, my older grandchildren arrive and we bake, cook, set tables and generally have a fun day together. The next day the whole family arrives and we have a big traditional dinner. No one is asked to bring anything. Then for Easter, New Years, Christmas day and Christmas eve we are able to enjoy meals at another family member’s house and never have to bring anything. We have done this for years and everyone loves it.

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