Holiday meals, whether eaten on the fly during the week or consumed in party clothes while seated at a fancy table with multiple forks, can be stressful. It seems as though creating delicious food and sharing it with our loved ones is a never-ending rush from store to store, pulling a menu together at the last minute. Meals over the holidays do not have to be that way. Here are seven tips for simplifying holiday meals, from small family dinners to elegant parties.

1. Utilize your slow cooker

Your slow cooker should be in heavy rotation during the holiday season. From quick weeknight meals to elegant party appetizers, let this workhorse appliance work overtime while you sleep or get other party preparations done. Transfer whatever you’ve made to an elegant serving tray and garnish with fresh herbs or fruit, and no one needs to know that you spent ten minutes (or less) on your dish.

Some quick recipes:

2. Grill extra

The weather outside might be frightful, but nothing beats delicious grilled meat and vegetables.

To save yourself from frostbite, grill large quantities at a time and reheat when needed. Even if you just do a quick grill on each side for grill marks, the flavor imparted by the grill will last through dinner. Give yourself more options by threading the same vegetable onto each skewer. This allows you to cook each vegetable nearly to the end (carrots and squash will not cook at the same rate), combining them in the final dish to finish cooking. Keep seasoning neutral (olive oil, salt, and pepper) so that the meat and vegetables will be even more versatile!

The next time you grill for dinner, plan for your next party by grilling red peppers for a rustic appetizer. Slice peppers into 1/2” strips and grill until they are soft. Store in the ‘fridge until ten minutes before your party, then warm in the oven while you slather toast rounds with fresh goat’s milk chevre. Curl the warm peppers on the toast, sprinkle with some fleur de sel and drizzle with olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar.

The same grilled and chilled red peppers can be part of a traditional antipasto platter, or grill ahead some spicy chicken and reheat in the oven while you whip up a delicious cucumber sauce.

3. Involve the family

Entertaining any time of year should involve the whole family, but the holidays are a special time for families to build traditions and spend extra time together. Every family member should have a say in holiday menus, and they should also be prepared to help out.

Gather together at the beginning of the holiday season, some time between sugar skulls and black-eyed peas and collard greens, to decide on a plan for each holiday gathering. This can be a great way to connect and slow down. Younger children can help with food ideas and table settings, including making place cards and decorations, and older kids can start perfecting a holiday specialty. Food is a great way to bring the family together. Don’t let a stressful holiday schedule prevent you from truly celebrating and enjoying your family. Getting the whole family involved makes each moment more meaningful.

4. Cook ahead of time

As much as possible, prep and cook your menu ahead of time. There are many appetizers, desserts, and entrees that actually benefit from a brief period of rest before serving. Capitalize on this by choosing those foods to incorporate into your menu. Some vegetables commonly used in many holiday dishes can be chopped ahead of time and frozen (onions, carrots, and celery, to name a few), so double amounts when cooking and start stashing extras in the freezer before you need them. For holiday breakfasts, make extra waffles, pancakes, and muffins and freeze in portion sizes so the kids can grab what they want for breakfast, even on a busy weekday morning.

For kids who poo-poo breakfast but get cranky by party time, try breakfast cookies. They’ll never know it’s good for them, and the recipe can be easily doubled or tripled and frozen.

Try this complete menu plan, including shopping list for a 100% make-ahead holiday meal!

5. Make less

Choose quality over quantity. If you celebrate Thanksgiving with a turkey and twelve different side dishes, chances are you can scale back by half and no one will notice. Take that turkey and those six side dishes and make them the most luscious dishes your friends and family have ever tasted. Or if you usually bake ten varieties of cookies, host a cookie swap and let others take some of the baking load off of your shoulders.

6. Have a potluck

Especially if you entertain frequently, a potluck can be a meal simplifying lifesaver! Choose a theme and ask guests to bring a side dish or dessert. The goal here is a diversity of dishes and an easy gathering of family and friends. It doesn’t even matter if everything is actually homemade. Potlucks also give guests with severe food restrictions the opportunity to make sure that they have something to eat! You can supply the main dish that sets the theme, sending out Evites to allow guests to indicate what they will bring.

Some examples of themes include:

  • Favorite family dish
  • Best store-bought dish
  • Best regional dish (great for gatherings of far-flung friends!)
  • Holidays in the ____ (islands, mountains, and so on. Guests bring place-appropriate foods, like jerk chicken or mango salsa for the islands)
  • Movie-centered holiday foods

7. Let someone else cook

Sometimes you need to throw up the white flag and let someone else help. If you have always stressed about a dry turkey, order a fully cooked turkey and provide the sides. Need elegant appetizers but have the brisket down pat? Stop in the local gourmet food store and let the salespeople help you put together a delicious cheese and fruit platter. Worried about dessert? There are so many options these days when it comes to sweets that it is easy to let someone else bake a beautiful cake or a dozen individual tarts. This may not be the most affordable option to take on a regular basis, but if you need a hand, there is nothing wrong with letting the professionals help out.

What’s your best tip for simplifying holiday meals?

Image by D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr

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