"I Already Spend all Day in the Kitchen, How Will I Ever Have Time for Special Holiday Food?" {Eat Well, Spend Less}

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Making time in the kitchen for special holiday food

It’s embarrassing to admit, but on the morning of Thanksgiving, I was at the grocery store at 6 a.m., buying cheese.

Well…6:30 is more like it, although six was the plan. I’m just not a morning person.

I had been up making pumpkin pies the night before until at least midnight.

And yes, I’m going to tell you how to plan special holiday cooking and shopping.

Aren’t you ready to sit at the feet of the master? Winking smile

The Eat Well, Spend Less theme this month is, appropriately, holiday foods, and this post is sponsored by Plan to Eat.

Learn from my Mistakes


It’s neither frugal nor efficient to run to the store for extra ingredients, and when you’re doing special cooking and baking that is out of the ordinary, that’s the time when it’s the easiest to forget something, don’t you think?

If  you’re hosting a party, you’ll need many foods in greater quantities than a normal day, and your shopping habits have to adapt to that, too. This year, we hosted Thanksgiving and also made a few dishes to pass for a second family Thanksgiving.

I ended up using sour cream in about five different recipes, often a cup at a time, and I’m honestly quite lucky I wasn’t buying sour cream at full price that morning when I was grabbing the forgotten cheese. It was mere coincidence that I had purchased the 3-pound tub of Daisy sour cream at Costco the week before, which doesn’t cost much more than one pound at the 2-minute-from-my-house grocery store. (Phew!)

I wish I could say I had the foresight to consider all the dishes I was planning to make, but really, I just buy that sour cream whenever I’m at Costco because I know we’ll get through it eventually. It’s long gone now, and time for me to brush up on my proper planning skills.

Even a seasoned meal planner needs to tweak the system a bit when trying to bake four batches of the family’s favorite Christmas cookies, make an appetizer for a get-together, and figure out a healthy snack that’s still a treat for a child’s school party…all in one week. With the prospect of something similar the following week.

That’s December for you.

December is a time for extra lists, and writing “buy cheese” in the calendar and then forgetting why you need cheese and skipping that item on the to-do list is not the best way to achieve success. Ahem. (How could I have forgotten it was for my Spicy Cheesy Chicken Dip? We love that stuff!)

Making Your List Work for You

Although I know how to plan meals, I get lazy sometimes. I don’t check all the ingredients. If I’m out of a staple (like, hmmm, sour cream?) I can either substitute a little bit with yogurt, or just move the meal to another night and punt. With holiday parties, you don’t have that flexibility.

The trick to a successful month of baking and food-centric events without any extra grocery store trips is to work backward from the goal:

  1. Make a list of events you need to attend.
  2. Make a list of all the food you’ll take to those events.
  3. Make a list of other special foods you want to make this month (like the St. Nicholas cookies I posted last week, which I’m writing in my calendar for Wednesday…)
  4. Gather the recipes.
  5. Use the recipes to make a shopping list plus a “have on hand” list – and make sure you have and keep those items on hand.
  6. Write all the dishes you need to make in your calendar on appropriate days, making sure you actually will have the time to make them that day or can shift one day ahead if you get busy. Be realistic.
  7. Work backward to write in any prep work the recipes will take, including making sure a dish or pot is clean if the recipe is not flexible. This might include steps like thawing meat or bone broth, making homemade yogurt or yogurt cheese because that’s in the recipe, roasting a pumpkin, soaking grains or cooking dry beans.For example, I always make the potato saladfor my husband’s extended family Christmas gathering. It’s on a Saturday, so that week might look like this:Tuesday – buy eggs when Paul goes to hip hop class (and I’ll need them for a crustless quiche I’m taking to our Bible study brunch this week Wednesdsay, phew!)
    Wednesday – bake extra potatoes (I’ll plan baked potatoes for dinner if I’m smart); make homemade mayo and lacto-ferment it (I know I already have whey on hand or I’d have to plan that, too)
    Thursday – hard boil eggs
    Friday – assemble potato salad – I’ll shoot to start right after breakfast when John is still sleeping, because Leah is fantastic at cutting cooked potatoes and eggs, and it’s nicer to work when we’re  not distracted by our little Tasmanian Devil.
  8. Schedule the appropriate shopping days, before you need the ingredients.
  9. Check sale flyers to figure out the best store(s) to hit.
  10. Stick to your schedule.

You might think number 10 is unnecessary. If so, you probably didn’t need anything on my list. Some folks just aren’t born organized, and I can empathize with that! You might need to remind yourself that if you put one thing off, it will pile up with other tasks, and then you’ll be waking up at six in the a.m. to buy cheese.

Planning the Whole Party?

grandparents at a party

If you think bringing a dish to pass three times in one month is tricky, hosting the party yourself is an even bigger organizational feat. You’ll want to use all the above strategies plus:

  • Choose some dishes (many, perhaps) that can be made in advance. Make sure you have room to store them. If you can freeze anything (breads, cookies, sauces), do it. Make those 2-3 weeks in advance. Jessica helps you harness the power of freezer cooking during the holidays.
  • Make lists of what bowls and plates you’ll use to serve all your meal components.
  • Make a list of what goes on the stove and in the oven to make sure you’ll have enough space at the right times.
  • Delegate. Ask people to bring some items, or let folks know how they help once they arrive.
  • Don’t forget to feed your family the day before and morning of the event. Planning (simple) meals then can be the difference between a peaceful 24 hours and a catastrophe. These are some of my quick meals and more quick meal ideas for busy evenings and real food convenience foods that aren’t too much of a compromise. Mandi has 35 make-ahead breakfasts that may save your sanity.
  • Some say to set the table a day or more in advance, but I’m not that savvy. Plus, we tend to like to eat the meals I mentioned in the point above, and not one of us is capable of doing it without making crumbs. Winking smile

Try an Online Menu Planner

Plan to Eat, the sponsor of this post, has a 30-day free trial, but many people find the setup time to be prohibitive and give up. Here are three reasons why you should ignore that problem that right now:

  1. When you join the KS group, which happens simply by clicking on that link, you have over 16,000 real food recipes already in your PTE recipe box. Nice.
  2. I just added six recipes, and it took me less than 4 minutes, total. Use the Plan to Eat “Save Recipe” bookmarklet, which sits in your menu bar at the top of your screen and makes it super simple to import recipes that are already on a webpage.
  3. This time of year, you really do need to invest some time making extra lists, working backward, checking your shopping list twice, and knowing where your recipes are. If you do that investment putting in recipes, not only will PTE save you time making your shopping lists, but you’re also a few steps ahead for next year – you’ll be able to see your past menus for the month, remember what worked and what didn’t, and use all the recipes you’ve already imported.

Appetizer Recipes to Share with a Crowd

sweet potato garlic dip smaller

I’m still trying to decide what to bring to a party I’m co-hosting next Saturday, an appetizer recipe swap because I lamented that I couldn’t do cookie exchanges since real food and a gluten sensitivity became part of our lives. Maybe I’ll search the Plan to Eat group for something with quinoa, which my husband dislikes, since men aren’t invited!

How do you keep it together and still nourish your family during hectic holiday times?

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9 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Rebecca says

    The biggest thing for me is to label items to be used for specific things, I often buy items during my grocery shop, and then get inspired and grab that item to use in something else and am left empty handed when it comes time to make the original thing I had purchased said item for.

    My husband knows not to eat anything, like nuts or choc chips or cheese for snacks if they are labled, or untill I say its ok because I have extra left over.

    • Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship says

      Love it! I never thought of that one, but especially as my kids get older, that will be more important. Thanks! :) Katie

  2. nopinkhere says

    I am the queen of rearranging meals because I don’t have enough of something. As long as none of the ingredients go bad, I can usually make it work. But you’re right, it doesn’t work when it’s something with a hard deadline. I’m also a fan of delegating when I host!

  3. Billie via Facebook says

    Thanks! This was really great info from start to finish – just what some of us SHE’s really need! (Sidetracked Home Executives)

  4. KarenL says

    Great post! As long as I’ve been cooking, I found this very thing happening to me, too! Forgetting an important ingredient in some obscure recipe I make only for holidays!

    Need to make a new list!

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