How to plan a low-stress holiday meal

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The whole holiday season will be different for us this year, and I'm imagining it will be very different for your family, too.  We're planning to cook more than ever, because we love to do it and it's a form of celebration for us. But, I know many people have never made an entire holiday meal on their own and it can definitely be intimidating.

I'm sharing my tips for planning a special holiday meal for your family so you can enjoy the time and not stress about dinner. 

1) Right-size your menu. If you will have 4-8 people (and that number includes some kiddos), I suggest a main dish, 2 hot sides and a cold/room temperature side.  If you are having more like 8-12 people, you might need two main dishes, then I still suggest 2 hot sides, and then 2-3 cold/room temperature side dishes. I like keeping hot sides to just a couple because having space to keep them warm can be a challenge, and they tend to take more effort. If you have someone who can bring a dish in their crock pot/slow cooker, great!  Take advantage of the help and the extra food, especially if you're having more than six people for the meal.

If you're having a later meal, you may also want to plan a simple appetizer course to serve 2ish hours before the meal.  I love having very simple no-cook nibbles around just in case... This is usually some deli meat, a few kinds of cheese, a couple types of crackers, maybe a baguette and some jam. NO COOKING is key to keeping this low-stress.⁠ The only exception for me is something like meatballs or sausage in a sauce in the slow cooker, which I just dump and forget.

2) Keep it familiar. Don't make all new dishes for a big holiday meal. I suggest at least half the recipes should be something you have made before. 
3) Outsource! This is one of my favorite holiday meal tips, especially if you are making the meal on your own. Have at least one thing that you simply BUY. Some ideas:
🍖 Main dish: Many restaurants are offering main dishes that are already cooked and you just reheat and eat this year. This is great if you don't want to deal with a big roast or turkey, or if you have enough people that you need a second main dish.
🥘 Side dishes: Have a salad, rolls, mac 'n cheese, or other dish you love from a local restaurant? Order it big. Do you love mashed potatoes from the hot bar at your grocery store? Order 10 lbs and take that to-do off your list! Again, lots of local places are offering side dishes to-go for the holidays this year, so take advantage of that.
🍰 Desserts. I love making desserts, but sometimes with all the other cooking for the holidays this is just too much to worry about. Again, find a local gem or something you absolutely LOVE and pick it up.
Oh, and if you do outsource, make sure to ask someone else to run the errands to pick things up - you don't need that on your list!
4) Plan your menu and grocery list at least 10 days before. Get the menu decided, get all the recipes in one place (I prefer to print mine and have them in a folder), and make your grocery list.  Do an inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer so you are SURE about what you need from the store. If you dread the idea of doing this (or figuring out the timeline for the day), I have a Holiday Meal Plan with literally all the planning done. The recipes are simple and fool-proof. Check it out here.
5) Start picking up groceries 10-14 days before. Add at least half the pantry-friendly items from your grocery list (if not all!) to your next grocery trip. It's SO nice to scale back on what you need to pick up in the days leading up to the holiday. It's also nice to get exactly what you want and not risk the store running out of something!

6) 7-10 days before: Get your equipment ready.  Clear out space in your fridge and freezer. Make sure you have a serving dish/slow cooker, and a cooking pot/pan/other for every dish so you don't run into issues. I even label mine with sticky notes of what's going in each one, so I don't forget!

If you live somewhere that it is cold enough to store food outside (instead of the fridge) or in a cooler, make sure the temperature is going to stay between 30-39 degrees the whole time. Once it reaches 40 degrees, you reach the danger zone and food can go bad. If you will be in that zone, use coolers with ice. I also recommend keeping outdoor food storage to items that aren't as high risk, like fresh produce. It lasts longer in the fridge, but it's fine to leave at cool temps for a few days.

7) 5-7 days before: Make your timeline. This one takes some effort, but it is SO WORTH IT! Sit down with your menu and recipes and figure out your timeline between now and meal time on the big day. Again, if the idea of doing this makes your head hurt, my Holiday Meal Plan has this all done for you. Click here.
My method:
  • I prefer to start with a blank paper that I block into chunks with every day from Sunday through Wednesday for the week of Thanksgiving, and then a separate paper for Thursday broken down by hour. 
  • Then I just go through recipe-by-recipe and map it out. 
  • What can I do before the big day? I put it in that block. Some things to keep in mind:
    • Washing and chopping produce
    • Measuring spices and throwing them in baggies with a label so that day I can just dump in while cooking
  • What needs done at a specific time that day? I put it in that block with a note on the specific time.
  • What needs to be held warm? How will I keep it warm? (Slow cooker, second oven, etc.)
  • Look it over, identify conflicts and figure those out.
  • DON'T FORGET time for you to shower and get ready!
  • THEN, I re-write it on a fresh sheet (or two!) of paper so it's all clean and organized.


8) 3-5 days before: Finish your grocery shopping. Anything fresh will last 5 days or longer, so I really recommend getting groceries around 4-5 days before. The closer you get to the holiday, the crazier the stores get and the more likely they are to run out of something. I also go at like 6:30 in the morning to avoid the crazy crowds.

12) 1-3 days before: Implement your food prep timeline. Get things going so you're set up for success on the big day!

I hope these tips help and you have an awesome and joyous holiday!



If you are looking for a simple and delicious holiday meal that is planned for you, start-to-finish with all the steps coordinated and the grocery list already made, check out our Holiday Meal guide!  Check out the menu and how to get yours!

Click here