DESPITE LIMITED (OR NO) EXPERIENCE HOSTING A HOLIDAY MEAL, YOUR DAY—THANKSGIVING, CHRISTMAS, OR ANY OTHER—CAN BE A HUGE SUCCESS, MINUS THE STRESS!
Whether hosting a holiday meal for the first or twentieth time, you’ll likely experience excitement, stress, joy, frustration—you name it. But if you’re new to hosting the holidays, these emotions might be amplified tenfold. You could be feeling a little lost, questioning why you accepted the challenge, and looking for genuine insight to lead you in the right direction.
You’re not alone. I’ve been there.
Mr. E and I hosted Christmas a few years into our marriage, but we served a non-traditional meal of sausage and grilled chicken legs. What can I say? We wanted to start simple. After all, hosting a family of eight for any kind of meal was enough to tackle that first go around.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2018. We found ourselves volunteering to host my family again. This time with a traditional Thanksgiving meal complete with roasted turkey, gravy and stuffing, casserole, mashed potatoes, apple and pumpkin pie—the whole shebang.
Did I mention this was the first time we’ve cooked a turkey?
I’ll admit, preparations were daunting. But I’m thrilled to say the entire event was a complete success, and I can’t wait to share with you my tips and perspective!
Remember, each passing holiday you host better prepares you for the next. Hosting your first holiday is definitely the single most intimidating hurdle to future hostings, but once you make it over, you’ll have a new confidence (plus go-to recipes, techniques, and kitchen tools).
One month prior
Make the commitment
The first step in hosting the holidays is to commit! A simple step, and one you should finalize at least one month in advance to reduce unnecessary (and unwanted) stress leading up to the big day.
As soon as you know you’ll be hosting the holiday meal, contact all family and friends you would like to invite. Sending out invitations in advance allows your guests to coordinate their holiday schedule. Plus, it gives you a headcount early on to plan your menu.
Three weeks prior
Plan the feast
One of the most important aspects of hosting the holidays: the food! To simplify this process, think about traditional holiday food you enjoyed as a child and what foods you’ve cooked before.
To limit the amount of cooking day of, bookmark recipes you can cook the day prior. Popular holiday side dishes that fall under this category include casserole and pie, but read this article by Taste of Home for 75 recipes to make ahead your entire meal.
As far as beverages, consider what your guests will enjoy most. My favorites to have on hand include wine, eggnog, milk, and soda. Coffee is also a great choice to serve with dessert.
For our first traditional holiday meal, we prepared some classic dishes:
- Roasted turkey with herb butter
- Pepperidge Farm Herb Seasoned Stuffing
- Mashed potatoes
- Broccoli, rice, cheese casserole
- Cranberry sauce (the canned stuff—a childhood favorite of mine)
- Bread rolls
- Libby’s pumpkin pie (with Cool Whip) and apple pie
Map out your shopping lists
Create a grocery store shopping list once you decide on the dishes you’ll serve. Organize and categorize your shopping list by type of food (or by location of the grocery store) to help guarantee you’ll be in and out in no time.
Additionally, double check you have all necessary kitchen tools and cooking / serving utensils. Make a new shopping list for these items. To determine what you need, reference your saved recipes and grocery shopping list and think through the entire hosting process, from cooking preparations to serving dessert and after-dinner drinks.
Some essential kitchen tools and utensils for hosting the holidays include:
- Roasting pan
- Meat thermometer
- Basting brush
- Cooking twine
- Gravy boat
- Pie dish
- Serving dishware and utensils
Remember home + holiday decor
With the amount of time and money you may be spending on preparing your (delicious) holiday meal, don’t stress too much about home and holiday decor. However, there are a few steps you can take to create a beautiful experience for your guests.
For starters, a table runner is an inexpensive way to add a pop of color, elegance, and style to your dining table. And in my humble opinion, one dining table centerpiece is all your need! For Thanksgiving, we went with a single pie pumpkin.
Furthermore, candles and flowers are easy ways to promote happy feelings (and good smells!).
I’m especially in love with my vintage milk glass vases. In fact, one bunch of baby’s breath (at a low price of $4) provides me with a generous number of stems that fill more than enough milk glass vases for high traffic areas—the dining room, kitchen, living room, and bathrooms.
Two weeks prior
To avoid last-minute crowds, begin shopping for decor and kitchen essentials (non-perishable items) as least two weeks prior.
One week prior
Tidy up + clean up
List out and prioritize everything you want to clean. When prioritizing, separate the list into two: areas of your home you need to clean soon before guests arrive and areas of your home you can clean in advance.
Break up the cleaning chores and begin early. The purpose of dividing these types of chores over a period of time is to minimize feelings of dread and overwhelm.
One week before the holiday, I dust and clean areas of my home that are less likely to gather grime before guests arrive, like window sills and sofa tables. Two or three days leading up to the holiday, I buckle down to clean areas like bathrooms and floors.
Head to the grocery store
I highly recommend finishing all your shopping five days to one week before the holiday. When it’s your time to visit the grocery store (especially if on the weekend), arrive early. Mr. E and I began our grocery shopping at 8:30am. Plenty early, but we were welcomed with crowds regardless.
To make your grocery store trip as successful as possible, be prepared. This means not only arriving early, but with your shopping list in hand and a positive mindset.
Thaw the bird
Before you get to this point, determine how you’ll be thawing your frozen turkey—and when.
We placed our 20-pound bird in the refrigerator one week prior. Reference this article from The Spruce Eats to learn the best way to thaw a turkey depending on its size.
One to two days prior
Prep + cook what you can
Remember those make-ahead recipes? Now is a great time to start! Prepare and refrigerate these dishes. You can also prep and chop veggies you’ll need the day of to get a head start.
Wake up early
The evening prior, determine what time you’ll need to wake up on the big day and set your alarm (or if you’re like me, two alarms). To reduce stress, give yourself plenty of time to prep the turkey before popping it into the oven.
Make it fun
Give yourself periodic pats on the back—you did it! Planning, organizing, and hosting a holiday meal is something to be proud of. Enjoy the special day, especially those special moments shared with loved ones. Eat to your heart’s content. You deserve it!
Hosting a holiday meal: my key takeaways
- Roasting a turkey was not as difficult as I imaged. For starters, the neck and packaged giblets were a cinch to remove. (Who else imagined scattered giblets all throughout the cavity?)
- You don’t necessary need a roasting pan to cook a turkey, as long as you have a pan large and deep enough. (Read more about what to use in place of a roasting pan here.) Likewise, a roasting rack isn’t completely necessary either. We followed Chef John’s Easy Roast Turkey for Beginners video, which meant resting our turkey directly on a bed of chopped onion, carrot, and celery.
- Prepare your turkey the right way, including tucking the wings and tying the legs. Read how on Real Simple here.
- A 20-pound turkey is a little much for 8 people, and we probably would have been good with a 10- to 15-pound turkey. How much turkey will you need? Find out here.
- My KitchenAid stand mixer was perfect for preparing mashed potatoes. A dream!
- Don’t time each dish to finish cooking at the same time to avoid serving cold food. This only creates a more chaotic scene immediately before the meal. Instead, space it out. Gravy can sit on a warm burner, casseroles and mashed potatoes will stay warm under foil or a lid.
- Remember to thaw the Cool Whip.
Are you new to hosting the holidays? What do you find most intimidating about the process? What foods are you looking forward to serving your friends and family?