How to Make the Big Holiday Dinner

This is Part One of a special series that I’ll be posting all this month and next to help you make your own delicious Big Holiday Dinner with a minimum of stress and anxiety. This was originally published in 2015 as a guide to making Thanksgiving Dinner, but kinda grew, since people don’t necessarily celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas. Others prefer to celebrate our Indigenous Peoples on that fourth Thursday of November. Whatever holidays you celebrate, they still make for big meals with a lot of dishes. We’ll be covering timing, equipment, shopping, how to squeeze everything into the fridge, starting today with Planning and The Menu.

food, how to, how to make the big holiday dinner

Your table does NOT have to look this good

Cue the theme from Jaws. It’s coming. The holiday season. Whatever you celebrate, the winter holidays usually involve at least one Big Holiday Dinner. And you’re the one who’s making it. Perhaps you got a little too tipsy last year and volunteered. Maybe there is simply no one else to do it. Maybe you’ve always wanted to try. Either way, here it comes, and it’s not going to be a simple project, and maybe you’re still a little bit in denial. But trust me, you want to start thinking about this now.

Why? Because it takes planning to get everything made and on the table at the right time. Planning will save your backside several times over, especially when something goes wrong – and it inevitably does. But Don’t Panic. I’m here to walk you through the process so that come whatever holiday you’re celebrating, you’ll still be speaking in complete sentences and everyone will be appropriately stuffed. So pour yourself a nice glass of wine, get out your pen and paper or tablet or sticky notes or however you like to take notes and your calendar. You’ve got this one.

The real complications

A Big Holiday Dinner is not that complicated. Or let me re-phrase that. Many traditional dishes are not that complicated in and of themselves, unless one of those dishes is Grandma’s special seven-layer cake with a different flavor for each layer, or those lighter than air latkes and it’s just not your favorite holiday without it. The sheer quantity of dishes you’re preparing and the need to get a bunch of those dishes on the table at the same time makes the Big Holiday Dinner challenging.

The other challenge is the high expectations we have for such meals. They are laden with tradition and a host of other cultural baggage. There are frequently family complications. And if you’re a younger member of your family group, trying to prove yourself, it can get pretty stressful. But you can minimize the stress.

Planning your Big Holiday Dinner

The first part of planning is figuring out who will be there. Are you planning a blow-out for the 50 or so relatives that show up every year? You and five or six of your friends who have no relatives near? You and your beloved and the kids? Which of those persons is a vegetarian or has other food issues? Who’s the die-hard traditionalist and is it worth ruffling said persons’ feathers?

And speaking of ruffling feathers, there is no law that says you must have the traditional foods, such as turkey on Thanksgiving. I’m using turkey because there’s the whole issue with carving it, and it feeds a lot of people for a reasonable amount of money. But the process of roasting is pretty much the same whether you’re cooking a beef roast or a bird or, to a lesser degree, a ham. No matter what you decide to serve, keep it simple, especially if you’ve never done the whole shebang before.

Once you have your guest list firmly in place, look at your kitchen. Before you decide what to cook and how to cook it, it helps to have a grip on what your resources are. You don’t want to plan three casseroles on top of a bird when you only have one small oven. My personal arsenal includes an average-sized oven, four burners on the stove top, a crockpot, a toaster oven and a microwave. One other quick tip – if possible, make sure your microwave and your toaster oven are not on the same electrical circuit. They are massive power hogs. It’s easy to test. Turn both on at the same time and see if the power goes out. You don’t want to be relying on the nuker to re-heat the gravy while you’re toasting some nuts for the green beans and have the circuit blow.

Looking at the menu

Now, let us proceed to The Menu. The basic elements of our Big Holiday Dinner are a large roast of some sort (to feed all the extra people there), mashed potatoes and gravy, a vegetable and pie. Maybe in your family it includes chitlins, or latkes or goose. I also like to serve hors d’oeuvres, soup and salad and I serve them in courses. Why? You can buy yourself all kinds of stalling time if the turkey, ham, or beef roast decides it’s going to take its sweet time getting done or if Uncle Jimmy is late again (lovely man, no sense of time).

You can also serve the three courses right on top of each other if the meat gets done too soon, or you’re going meatless. Finally, if you serve in courses, it gives your guests a few minutes to relax and re-group before the final onslaught while you do the last second stuff like carve the bird and mash the potatoes. Notice – I did not say make the gravy. You can do it at the last second, but that is fraught with peril. Coming up, we will have the tutorial on gravy – a make ahead gravy.

Hors d’oeuvres can be as simple as chips and dip. Maybe a relish tray and dip. Or cheese and crackers. Or black olives that the little ones can stick on their fingers and suck off. As long as there are just enough munchies to occupy impatient guests without getting them too full for dinner. You can buy some excellent soups and keep them warm in a crockpot. Or you can make a soup the weekend before. Just find something rather light, like veggies in broth, since the rest of the dinner is going to be pretty heavy. The same with the salad – just basic greens. Check out my post on Salad Basics II for some ideas.

As for which vegetable side, and what stuffing to make, that depends on your guests and your own tastes. I, personally, loathe stuffing. It’s just soggy bread. Blech. But for some reason, that’s the first thing to go on my table. People like it, so if you’re roasting a bird, you might want to include it. I don’t recommend stuffing said bird with it because there can be problems with it cooking enough to kill the salmonella that could be present.

Ask for help

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If your little brother throws a hissy if there isn’t any green bean casserole at the Big Holiday Dinner, ask him to bring it. Talk your friend into bringing the latkes or the pecan pie. And use recipes. I know – I usually don’t encourage that, and being able to throw together a soup or a salad without having to refer to one will make your day go more smoothly. But there are traditions to uphold here, and if you need a recipe to make it work, use it.

One last thought – don’t expect it to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be. Something might burn, things will boil over at the worst possible time, things happen. You’ll get through it and all will be well. I promise. If I can survive a clogged drain the night before Thanksgiving (I was buying drain cleaner seconds before the store closed – how did the clerk think I was doing that night?), you can, too. You may even be able to laugh about it. Later. In the meantime, there’s wine, your personal array of lists and time.

Next up, a checklist to help you keep it all together, and then some equipment you might need, shopping and the whole ambiance thing.

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