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?
The Eat Well, Spend Less theme this month is, appropriately, holiday foods.
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:
- Make a list of events you need to attend.
- Make a list of all the food you’ll take to those events.
- 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…)
- Gather the recipes.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Schedule the appropriate shopping days, before you need the ingredients.
- Check sale flyers to figure out the best store(s) to hit.
- 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?
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.
Try a Meal Planning Software
Real Plans is an incredibly intuitive meal planning software created by our friends Emily and Antony. I love how practical and user-friendly it is. The ingredients stay on the screen as you scroll through each instruction, which is really nice. It allows me to input my own recipes OR alter any of the 100+ slow cooker recipes already loaded into the system so they would work with the Instant Pot. Real Plans can also learn your preferences and just plan meals for you, which is amazing for those who feel like they always #fail at meal planning or grocery lists…you gotta check it out. We also have the NomNom Paleo upgrade, so we can instantly adapt Michelle’s great Instant Pot recipes and Whole30 approved stuff!
Recipes to Share with a Crowd
These Roasted Winter Vegetables would be my first recommendation, for a couple reasons:
- It should be easy to cut the veggies in advance and store in the fridge.
- Roasting means hands-off – no need to attend to your side dish when you’ve got a bunch of other balls in the air for a big meal.
- The oven can keep the veggies warm without completely overdoing them so you can get everything on the table at once.
- This dish is also very pretty and very festive.
However, sometimes the oven is already way too full. In that case, as long as you’ve got open-minded guests, serve them these Tasty Brussels Sprouts, provided you can time things well. You don’t want to overdo the sprouts!
If you’re going to a potluck style meal, neither of these side dishes would be perfectly appropriate for a buffet table, although the roasted winter veggies would make a decent showing. I think something simple like a Whole Foods Chicken Rice-a-Roni would not only be a big hit with all ages, but should stay warm nicely in a slow cooker or some such apparatus (be sure to add a little water at the bottom to prevent scorching).
As long as someone else is bringing some vegetables, feel happy feeding your loved ones nourishing homemade chicken stock (that they won’t even know is there) and soaked brown rice with complementary high-protein, low-fat beans. Then go heavy on the butter to get the healthy fats in! 😉
Try These Other Holiday Party Side Dishes
- Simple Blender Hummus
- Spicy cheesy chicken dip
- Sweet Potato Garlic Dip
- Holiday Greek Salad (shown above)
- This Tuscan Beef and Bean Stew is crockpot friendly.
- Whether you use regular pasta, gluten free pasta, or a cold grain like whole spelt or quinoa, a cold salad is a great dish to pass that can make a lot of food. Here are my favorite flavors for pasta salad for a crowd.
- A fancy cabbage salad is simple, quick, and very inexpensive.
- These munchy crunchy dehydrated green bean chips would be a great healthy snack to serve, too.
- Savory Greek Sausage Stuffed Autumn Squash
- Probiotic Avocado Dip
- Here’s a big list of cheap and easy party foods that are great for any time of year.
- And a full menu plan for a real food Thanksgiving.
Real Food Desserts For The Holidays
- Gluten Free Soft Pumpkin Cookies
- Chocolate Gingerbread Truffles (Dairy-free, Gluten-free)
- Gluten Free Chocolate Peppermint Twist Cookie
- Cardamom Cranberry Christmas Cake (Grain-free!)
How to Prepare Fresh Bread In Advance for a Party
- Make the bread product in advance: you’ll be doing so many tasks the day of your gathering, it will be a real blessing to have the bread taken care of.
- Almost any yeast bread recipe can be frozen after the first rise. If you’re making rolls, form them and then freeze on a cookie sheet to keep them separate. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then allow an extra 15-30 minutes for their rise on the pans. Plan the timing right and you can serve piping hot rolls to your guests, and they’ll return with ooohs and aaahs that will make it all worth it! (You can usually also refrigerate bread dough overnight and proceed with the second rise in the same way.)
- Make your own brown-n-serve rolls. The day before, underbake the rolls or biscuits by about 1/3 the time, then store at room temp until the following day. You may want to practice this with your recipe just to make sure you get the timing down. Again, piping hot rolls with very little effort during your actual meal preparation.
- Bake early and freeze. If you really need simple prep for your holiday gathering, or perhaps if you’re taking the bread to another location, most recipes freeze great and hold their quality with a gentle warming the day you serve. I don’t recommend the microwave to warm your food, but an oven on a low temp or a quick stint in a 350F oven wrapped in foil or contained under a lid to prevent browning will bring your bread right back to oven-fresh.
- Soak it! One benefit of soaking grains is that the work is mainly done the night before. Soaking my homemade corn bread recipe ensures that you just add salt and baking powder, pour into a pan and bake, for very little work the day of the party.
- Use the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day method to have bread dough at your fingertips to bake on demand. Here’s my soaked attempt.
- Keep bread warm at the table.
- Wrap your bread in a thick, slightly moist towel that you’ve warmed a bit in the oven.
- Use a heating pad underneath the towel inside your bread basket (I have one that you can microwave to make it hot), or sneak a few hot baked potatoes in under the rolls to keep them warm.
- Keep your oven or toaster oven at 200F to give your side bread a place to stay toasty warm for those who want seconds.
My Favorite Side Bread Recipes
- Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
- Homemade Biscuits
- Whole Grain Cornbread
- Soaked Whole Wheat Bread (for breadmaker)
- I use this recipe for homemade whole wheat rolls when I serve rolls…you’ll notice added gluten, which after Friday’s post will make you wonder what I’m thinking. I’ve always been glad it’s only a teaspoon for the whole batch and have been wondering when I’ll get brave enough to cut it in half or leave it out entirely! (This is the recipe in the Family Camping Handbook for hamburger/hot dog buns, adapted for soaking.)
My side breads aren’t very creative or out of the ordinary, but you could experiment more with adding herbs. Or cheese! Cheese always makes thing yummier. 😉
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links See my full disclosure statement here.