Years ago, if you forgot to buy some important ingredient for your holiday meal, you were out of luck. Grocery stores were not open on holidays, and they usually closed early the night before too. Moreover, if go back far enough, there were no convenience stores either. There was absolutely nothing open on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day. If you ran out of eggs you needed a chicken, because there was no other way to get one aside from imposing on a neighbor to borrow one. Today you have the option of buying groceries pretty much around the clock, 365 days a year—holidays and all. However, who wants to be in the middle of all that preparation only to discover that it’s necessary to dash to the store to get something? I’ve done it plenty of times, but I like to avoid it. Here are a few ideas that might save you the hassle.
1. Buy your vegetables ahead of time. For everyday meals I like to buy my vegetables the day I’m going to eat them whenever possible. The fresher the better—that’s my motto. But let’s be realistic here. If you’re going to prepare an elaborate meal for your family and extended family, it’s going to be tough to do all that preparation and still make an extra trip to the store the day of the feast to get the freshest produce. Even worse, you might go to the store and find that it’s completely out of what you went there for. That means you have to go store-hopping until you can find the item somewhere else, just what you don’t want to have to do when you’re already swamped. Here’s my trick. I buy the vegetables I’ll need two or three days ahead of time and then take them home and store them unwashed in Debbie Meyer green bags in the refrigerator. You can find these at Kroger’s and other grocery stores. For short periods of time like this, these bags will keep your vegetables as fresh as if you bought them the same day, I promise. That saves you the last-minute trip to the store to get romaine or some other produce staple at the peak of perfection.
2. Make a checklist a week before. Okay, I know some of you are groaning inside at this. You want to make a meal, not do paperwork. Actually, though, it only takes a few minutes to do it on the computer, and you can print out a few copies and use one every holiday if you traditionally make the same dishes each year. Here’s how you do it. You get out every recipe that you’ll be making for your feast and list the ingredients on your page with a space to check them off when you buy them. Then you can just take your checklist to the grocery store and toss each item on the list into your cart, checking them off as you go. Be sure to include non-recipe items you’ll be needing too, such as ice, beverages, etc.
3. Make a preparation plan. This is easy, and I always try to do at least a brief version of this if I’m making a complicated meal. It’s basically just a schedule showing when you’ll be making each dish and the order you’ll do things in. Here’s an example for a hypothetical holiday meal:
8:30 a.m. Clean and prepare turkey for roasting
9:00 a.m. Put turkey in oven
9:05 a.m. Cut up vegetables for soup
9:30 a.m. Put cooked soup on to simmer; put raw soup in the refrigerator, covered
9:35 a.m. Check on/baste turkey
10:00 a.m. Peel potatoes (or leave peels on) and keep in pot, covered with water
10:40 a.m. Check/baste turkey
10:45 a.m. Wash romaine for Pomegranate Orange Salad, scoop seeds out of pomegranate, cut orange into small chunks, prepare dressing
…and so on. You get the idea. You can use a time-block approach instead if that’s easier for you:
8:30 a.m.-11:00 a.m.
Clean, prepare, roast turkey, basting every hour
Make Pomegranate Orange Salad
Put pie in oven
Set out butter and other condiments
Check turkey temperature; if done, remove from oven; cool slightly
Make mashed potatoes or raw faux potatoes
Make any gravies or sauces
Just before serving
Put food in serving dishes
Serve food and beverages
If you make a preparation plan, you will not forget something important in the middle of your preparations, you will not feel frantic, and you’ll have more fun because you’ll have everything under control and will be able to enjoy the preparation process, just going step by step according to your plan. Never again will you discover after everyone has gone home that you forgot to serve something you prepared (yep—been there, done that). You can also orchestrate the preparation to make sure everything is done and ready to serve at the same time. I know people that have never accomplished that even one time. Even if you’re one of those people who can bring all this together in your head without doing a plan, it still pays to jot a brief one down just to make sure you’re not going to have any dehydrator or oven overlap with two different dishes needing two different temperatures at the same time.
4. Set your table the night before. This is one of those things it’s a pain to do at the last minute while you’re trying to prepare food too, so just get it done ahead of time. Then throw a clean sheet or tablecloth over your already-set table, minus the glasses since they could fall over and break. The next day, you can carefully remove the covering just before you’re ready to bring the food to the table. You’ll feel like little elves got there ahead of you and did that chore for you.
5. Do some damage control. If the unexpected does happen and you forget something anyway, or if you run out of an ingredient or find out at the last minute that Aunt Millie is bringing her four cousins from Philadelphia, it would be nice if you could somehow avoid running to the store on short notice. My advice is to have ingredients available for an extra dish or two that you can make if you need to. If you run out of an ingredient that can be substituted, make the substitution as long as it won’t ruin your dish.
If I forget to buy basil because I stopped to chat with a friend at the grocery store, I can usually substitute another herb I like, such as Greek oregano. Here’s a great herb substitution chart you can use if you’re all in a muddle over the decision of which herb to substitute. If the ingredient does not make a significant difference in the flavor, texture, or structure of the food, just leave it out. If, however, you must have it for one of those three reasons, then you may still be able to make an informed substitution. Here’s an ingredient substitution chart that might help you out.. If all else fails and you must go to the store, double-check to make sure there are not other ingredients you’re missing first. I know this has never happened to you, but I have gone to the store for something and then realized after getting back home that I also needed something else.
I know what it’s like to be stressed out over preparing a big meal, and believe me, it’s a lot more fun when you can actually sit down and enjoy your family and guests instead of frantically trying to pull everything together while you miss all the fun. Imagine yourself chatting with your favorite people, laughing, and relaxing while everything cooks to perfection. That’s how it can be. Here’s to your holiday meal—may it be the stuff happy memories are made of!