Meal Guide for Entertaining at the Holidays
The holidays can be a stressful time of year for everyone, from increased shopping efforts with decreased budgets to extra time with family that dredges up a wealth of past hurts. Add to that everyone’s dietary restrictions and opinions about food, organic eats, and trendy weight loss plans, and meals around the holidays are basically a big cluster f*** (excuse my French).
I’m here to say that if you’re hosting any type of meal at Christmas, you don’t have to stress. There are plenty of ways to offer a variety of options with minimal effort. Not to mention it’s also a chance for you to extend a little more grace and bolster your self-esteem a little (it’s your house, your party, and your decision alone what food you serve). So hike up your big-girl panties, pour yourself a glass of wine (or Mosa hard cider from Star Cut, my new favorite), and take a look at these meal suggestions for Christmas brunch, Christmas dinner, and cocktail parties, as well as how to make most of it ahead of time.
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One of the best holiday hacks we’ve discovered is hosting a holiday brunch. This means everyone has to get up a little early, but our young lassies don’t sleep in anyway. Then you get the chaos out of the way when everyone is fresh and at their best. You also get rid of them before everyone gets grumpy late in the day and you get some time to yourself to just be a family before bed time. Here are some ideas for a holiday brunch menu:
Bacon (or other meat: sausage patties, sausage links)
French toast casserole (this recipe from the Barefoot Contessa is delish)
Sausage gravy (can work in the crockpot) and biscuits
Fruit (bowl of whole fruit pieces, or fruit salad, or simply one kind of chopped fruit in a bowl)
Overnight Oatmeal (crockpot)
Ham-and-swiss sliders (here’s a recipe for these melt-in-your-mouth mini sandwiches)
Pastry items like these maple-glazed gingerbread scones I just tried this morning (I recommend adding a little more molasses) are great for brunches because they are snackable. For anyone joining the meal late, they can grab and go. You can also set out pastries early for anyone who wakes up before the crowd and feels peckish. Muffins are great for this, too.
One of the best things about doing a brunch on a holiday is that everyone is too full for a large dinner meal later. You can skip the traditional feast and snack on the brunch leftovers all day. If there isn’t enough left over from brunch, then make something simple to tide everyone over for a late lunch. A big pot of soup to accompany the last brunch bits goes along well with a fancy salad and nice loaf of bread (or a big pot of chili with cornbread).
An alternative to soup and salad would be a pasta dish, something fast and cheap but easy to make it fancy, too. Try my hard cider angel hair chicken dish for something new and delicious this Christmas. Fancy up a pasta dish with add-ins like sun-dried tomato, a handful of spinach, parsley garnish, bacon bits, or a special cheese topping.
Sometimes only a feast will do. For a traditional Christmas dinner, some type of fancy meat dish and several sides is the only option. Here are some fantastic ideas for a Christmas dinner menu.
Rib roast or
Venison roast (for the hunters)
Mashed potatoes or au gratin potatoes
Green bean casserole
Roasted Brussels Sprouts (try my recipe here)
Risotto (Trader Joe's has an excellent frozen package of this you could cheat with)
A fancy salad (I like the SuperFood brand)
Roasted butternut squash
Fruit pie with streusel is a unique twist on a classic dessert
One of the best things you can do is ask people to bring sides. Even if you are the host, getting a little help with the meal is perfectly acceptable. Let a little responsibility go, and if someone asks what they can bring, assign them something from the list. If that’s difficult for you and you really want to do it all, some of the things can be made ahead. More on that at the bottom.
You can also go with something more simple that resembles a regular meal for your family. If you want to dress up the Christmas feast but aren’t sure your family will eat fancy food, use the nice china and decorate the table. Get a more expensive bottle of wine than usual. Use chargers under the plates (available at the dollar store) and cloth napkins. If you need napkin rings, Casey’s Wood Products has them for really cheap. Make place cards and set out extra forks or spoons. You can even include a small favor, like an ornament for everyone, on the plates. Or if you want to be traditional, a Christmas cracker works even better.
Maybe you’re already as sophisticated as the rest of us strive to be and this is a standard event at your house over the holidays. For the rest of you who have always wanted to have a grown-up party like this but haven’t known what to serve, your problem is solved. Now you can plan that swanky adults-only holiday open house you’ve dreamed of, without any meal planning woes. Here are some ideas for what to serve:
Mac and cheese
Pioneer Woman’s burgundy mushrooms
Cranberry Brie puffs
I love the trend of charcuterie boards because they’re basically dressed-up cheese and crackers. It gives you hostess points for your table looking like a magazine, and it gives you a little time to put your feet up and relax because they take barely any effort. Also, I picked the garnish off the trees in my backyard (so easy). Here are some ideas for what to put on a charcuterie board.
Jerky (there are turkey alternatives, or you can showcase the game you hunted this way)
This year my mom brought chocolate mint dessert sticks. Bark Thins are also good (the snacking chocolate)--they have a gingerbread flavor for the holidays this year. If your board is small you can put crackers on the table beside it, especially if you’re going farmhouse chic and decorating with brown paper. For kids who are coming this is an easy way to keep them occupied if you offer crayons to color with while they wait.
You can offer holiday cookies as an additional snacking option. They work even better if you make them small, bite-size cookies.
Casseroles can be put together the day or night before like the fresh toast casserole and the hashbrown casserole.
Bacon can be cooked in the oven (15-25 minutes at 375) to reduce time you spend over a stove and keep space on the burners for other dishes. I recommend lining a pan with foil and assembling the bacon slices on it the night before. Cover with plastic wrap so all you have to do in the morning is remove the plastic and place in the oven.
Biscuits, scones, or other breakfast pastry items can be made the day before and stored at room temperature, or weeks before and frozen.
Prepare a basket or large serving dish the night before with a nice towel or napkin.
Set out the knives for butter, jam, and spreads, and any toppings like this that don’t require refrigerating.
Set out dishes for people to eat off of.
Include the pre-baked pastries in their respective Ziplock bags or storage containers.
If you do all this, then all you have to do in the morning is take them out of the bags and put them in the nice serving dish you prepared. You may even be able to go back to bed for a half hour, or drink your coffee in peace in your office while you mentally prepare for the chaos of the day.
Holiday cookies can also be made ahead and frozen, up to a month ahead for best freshness.
Charcuterie boards require no cooking, and they can simply be assembled just before the party. It's easy to buy items ahead. Make sure to label them or stash them away so that no one eats them before the party.
For the brussels sprouts dish, chop veggies ahead of time and keep in the fridge until it’s time to spread them on the pan and put them in the oven.
Soup for snacking after brunch can be made ahead and frozen (I use mason jars). The loaf of bread to go with soup can be purchased ahead and frozen. Take it out about 2 hours before to thaw.
If you’re making a pasta dish instead, you can again chop all the veggies and ingredients ahead of time so that all you have to do is dump them in while you’re cooking. Taking the prep time out of a recipe really cuts down your time investment.
For cranberry brie puffs, use a mini muffin tin and put a square of puff pastry in each muffin cup, followed by a spoonful of cranberry sauce, a sprinkle of pupitas, and a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary. You can bake these ahead and simply warm them before traveling to a gathering, or warm them before a party. Also, they are just as good cold, so you wouldn't even have to warm them at all.
Mac and cheese is easy to cheat on. Buy the Kraft box of thick and creamy, and make a batch of several boxes. Then throw the finished product in a crock pot to stay warm and stir in 2-3 cups of shredded cheese.
Deviled eggs can also be made a day or two ahead.
One note about making things ahead: you may want to take a day off to prep for the upcoming gathering(s). While it does help to make things ahead of time, then you get swamped with a prep day of cooking that you’re trying to squeeze into a regular work day. If you want to maximize the zen level, plan ahead for time to prepare everything, even if it’s the day before.
Mouth-Watering Menus with No Stress
My mouth is watering just writing about all this food. Never (or maybe always?) meal plan when you’re hungry. Hopefully these tips will get you on the way to a stress-free gathering (or several) and give you the courage to be confident in your hostess abilities, your beautiful home, and who you are (despite your family’s occasional insensitive remarks--or is that just my family?). Then you can focus on what you’ll wear instead of what people will think. Happy holidays, adventurous one!
For more help with the holidays, check out these other posts: