Hosting a holiday dinner can feel overwhelming. This is especially true if you’re a novice cook, or frankly, if you haven’t had a gathering of more than your pod since the start of the pandemic. All that food, the dishes, the cleaning, the table decor… where to start? I’m here to help. Start with a deep breath.
Remember the math. Most classic holiday dinner menus include a main dish, gravy or sauce, potatoes, two to three vegetables, some bread, plus dessert. Figuring out what to serve is Step 1 in hosting a holiday dinner.
But then Step 2 is figuring out whom to help you. Ham is a popular option at Christmas and Easter. To make things easy on yourself, get one that’s already cooked or smoked, so you just have to slightly reheat and serve.
If you’re opting for a roast turkey – a favorite for both Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S. and Christmas in other countries – then you can focus on the turkey, gravy and stuffing and then delegate all the side dishes and at least a couple of pies (or buy them), you’ve wildly cut down on the tasks at hand. This is the same advice that Rick Rodgers, the author of Christmas 101, offers novice cooks in his excellent primer for novice cooks on Epicurious.
Food writer Jess Thomson has this advice: “I try to reduce the number of dishes I feel have to be piping hot. I think there’s a huge misconception that all the food has to be ready at exactly the same time.” With that in mind, she includes dishes that are more flexible – roasted carrots, for instance – and dishes that are better after they sit for 15 to 20 minutes, such as a potato gratin.
Get 37 Awesome Hosting Tips from Pro Food Writers
Check out this awesome infographic on the subject from SavvyEats.
How to Create a Menu
As soon as you know you’ll be hosting a holiday dinner, you’ll want to do two things. Create a guest list to get an idea of how many you’ll be hosting. Second, start thinking of the menu. When I am hosting any kind of party, I start by making a table, like the one below. It can just be a rough sketch on a legal pad or sheet of paper. Your goal is to buy or assign at least half the items.
Holiday Dinner, 12 guests, Christmas
|Main dish||Honey-Baked Ham||Buy||Pick up on Dec. 22|
|Starch||Mashed potatoes||Make||Make day early, reheat|
|Veg||Roasted Brussels sprouts||Sandy|
|Veg||Roasted carrots||Make||Make early, reheat|
|Bread||Dinner rolls||Buy||12 rolls|
|Dessert||Pies – three||Sandy||Get from bakery|
Here are my go-to recipes for classic main courses.
- Roast Beef: Impressive, yet uncomplicated.
- Braised Lamb Shanks: Great comfort food. After initial browning, shanks cook themselves.
- Old-fashioned turkey with gravy: It’s hard to beat Rodgers’ detailed step-by-step guide. Spend an extra $10 or so and buy a fresh kosher bird, which is salted and rinsed as part of the kosher process so it requires no brine.
- Ham: Easily feeds a crowd, most come pre-cooked, and honestly, you can buy one from the likes of Honey Baked Ham.
- Vegetarian: I served Kim O’Donnel’s terrific Shepard’s Pie a couple of times. I made two – one with meat, one with the wine braised-lentils and chard called for in her version. Everyone preferred the vegetarian option. So, there you go. I’ve also served this vegetarian wellington from omgyummy.
The good news is that all the prep for stuffing can be done a couple of days ahead and tossed into a baking dish – just don’t add the liquid or eggs until just before you’re ready to bake it along. This year, I’m once again making this fabulous stuffing with apples, bacon and caramelized onions by Diane Morgan. Want something else? I’m a big fan of this interactive build-your-own-stuffing guide from Fine Cooking. One of my tricks: baste the stuffing with a bit of the turkey juices toward the end of cooking.
For mashed potatoes, you can prep them in the afternoon and then keep them warm by putting into a bowl covered with plastic wrap and settling it into a simmering bath on the back of the stove. My friend Chef John has a great video on making mashed potatoes, although I prefer Yukon Gold potatoes over russets, but it’s a minor point. Don’t have a potato masher? Fear not. You can always use a large fork.
My husband is partial to scalloped potatoes, and I’ve become a fan of them for big meals because once baked, they can hang out lightly covered for a half hour or so until everything’s ready. I’ve tried a dozen recipes, and my favorite by a long shot is Thomson’s potato gratin with chevre and pancetta.
Don’t go too crazy. With stuffing and potatoes, three vegetable side dishes are enough for groups up to about 12. After that, add another side dish for each additional three people. Don’t forget colors, and go with a variety: green beans, carrots, corn, etc. Here’s what I am making for my side dishes this year: Roasted carrots with mustard, glazed brussel sprouts and apples in brown butter and cream and roasted cauliflower with gremolata bread crumbs. Some other great sides: SpoonandSaucer’s How to Make Cranberry Sauce (with video!) and Northwest Rice Pilaf, TheSpicedLife’s Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup and Food Goes Healthy’s Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Dates
Cranberries are a die-hard staple, and ever-so-good on leftover sandwiches. Making a dish from scratch isn’t much more difficult than opening the can and slicing them. Here’s my family recipe for cranberries with port and ginger.
Pie is traditional, obviously, but it doesn’t mean you have to slave making a huge coterie of them. If you’re hosting dinner, ask other diners to bring pie and ice cream. Or, order some pies from a local bakery. If you want to try something with a twist, try my recipe for Light Pumpkin Cheesecake. Also, don’t overlook cheese as an option for dessert. “It seems like people forget the option for Thanksgiving,” says Judith Finlayson, the author of a dozen cookbooks, most recently 750 Best Appetizers. “My husband goes crazy on buying cheeses for a final course…served with port.”
Be sure to stock up on wine, non-alcoholic beverages and the like as part of your shopping. Not enough food writers focus on pantries. Here’s a good take on a holiday pantry from MyRecipes.com. I’m also a fan of this cranberry cocktail recipe from CreativeCulinary and this slow cooker apple Chai from FarmFreshFeasts.
To sum up
Hosting a holiday dinner is inevitably a lot of work. But these festive tables are often home to many great memories. Pour yourself a favorite beverage, start with a chart, check out these tips and don’t worry. It will all be fine.