Expert Tips for Planning the Big Meal

BHG Cookbook editor Jessica Saari helps you make the most of your time during the holiday countdown. Starting early can save you plenty of time at the end!

Planning Tips

1. One Month Ahead of Time

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  • Prepare and bake freezable cakes, pies, cookies, and/or rolls. Tightly wrap all unfrosted baked goods in plastic wrap and freezer bags, then store in the freezer. Not only will you have most of your holiday desserts prepared in advance, but you'll also have some goodies available to pull out for guests who drop by unexpectedly or to give as last-minute gifts.

2. Two Weeks Ahead of Time

  • Get the finalized count for the number of guests who will be attending your holiday dinner.
  • Finish planning your menu, including beverages, appetizers, starter courses, the main meal, desserts, and any after-dinner drinks. Select dishes that are cooked in a variety of ways, so everything doesn't go in the oven at once. (For example, plan some side dishes that can be cooked on the stovetop or microwave, and a dessert in the slow cooker.)
  • If any of your guests offer to bring a dish, give them specific ideas or suggestions now so they have plenty of time to prepare. Adjust your menus accordingly.

3. One Week Ahead of Time

  • Chutneys and cranberry relish can last for a week or more, so if it's on the menu, go ahead and prepare it now.
  • If you're planning to prepare any large pieces of frozen meat, such as turkey or game hens, you can purchase them now and store them in the freezer.

4. Three Days Ahead of Time

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  • Remove large pieces of meat (such as turkey) from the freezer and begin thawing them in the refrigerator (read the package directions so you know how long it will take for specific cuts of meat to thaw).
  • Make a complete list and do all of your grocery shopping at once.
  • Clean out the refrigerator so there is plenty of room for all the groceries and all dishes you will need to store on the big day.

5. Two Days Ahead of Time

  • Check your menu and see if there is anything you can prepare now and store for two days (such as some appetizers or side dishes).
  • Start gathering all the equipment you will need for the big day, such as silverware, plates, glasses, utensils, bowls, platters, and serving pieces.

Planning Tips

6. The Day Before

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  • Remove from the freezer and thaw all the baked goods that you plan to use. Finish them off with any necessary garnishes or frosting.
  • Prepare any baked goods you couldn't make ahead. Also, some dishes, such as lasagna and other casseroles, can be assembled now, refrigerated, and baked the following day.
  • Other prep work can be done now. For example, some vegetables can be peeled and chopped, punches can be prepared, and the table can be set.
  • Make your game plan for the following day. What are you going to start with in the morning? What is the last item that needs to be cooked? What time do you want to eat?

7. The Day Of

  • If the meat or turkey requires a long baking time, make sure it is in the oven with plenty of time to spare. Consider the time the meat will take to rest once removed from the oven, as well as time to carve and plate.
  • Do as much prep work as possible on side dishes, such as assembling salads and relish trays, before guests begin arriving. Many dishes, such as mashed potatoes, can be completed a little early and kept warm until you're ready to serve dinner.

8. An Hour Before

  • Begin setting up beverages and appetizers, placing items on platters or in bowls as needed.
  • Set out non-perishable appetizers, such as nuts or vegetables. Leave perishable appetizers, such as meat or egg dishes, in the refrigerator until about 10 minutes before guests are due to arrive.

9. Countdown to Dinner

  • Just before guests begin to arrive -- when all the appetizers are out, dinner is either in the oven or ready to go in, and everything is in its place -- sit down and have a glass of wine or sparkling water. Take a deep breath and get ready to have fun!

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