10 Unusual Tips for Sress-Free Holiday Cooking and Entertaining
As I mentioned last week, we've been hosting tons of holiday gatherings this year due to the fact that we finally have family living near us this year! I've shopped, planned, prepped, tested, decorated and cooked round the clock this holiday season, and even though I thought I knew all there was to know about saving time and energy when entertaining, every year I learn something new.
I've given you tons of entertaining advice in the past, and we've covered the basics including very helpful tips such as setting the table the night before, making your shopping list a week ahead of time in case you're in the neighborhood of some of your specialty stores. Planning out your menu so you don't need 6 stove burners when you only have four, and making sure you enlist some help. These are all part of having a stress-free holiday gathering, but today I thought I'd talk to you about some of the more unusual tips that might just make a world of difference. Sometimes it's those teeny tiny tasks that either make or break you, and if you need a seven hour nap after a seven hour cooking marathon, something's gotta give! It's time to change things up so that you can enjoy your holiday gatherings as a host just as much as your guests do.
Are you ready? These are some of my go to's, and of course they work year-round, not only during the holidays:
Tip #1: Clear the place where you set your dishes to dry
You've heard me talk about the importance of clearing your counters before you start cooking. This will provide the perfect relaxing atmosphere for cooking and it will give you the space to put things on. What I haven't mentioned so far, is that one of the main causes of clutter in counters starts near the kitchen sink. Not only with piled up dirty dishes inside the sink, but actually with dishes that you set out to dry and leave there "forever", forgetting about them, believing that area of the kitchen suddenly became a cupboard you use to store dishes and glasses.
The minute you start using this space only for drying and you then put away the dishes leaving it empty again, well, that's the minute your kitchen changes! Suddenly you're washing more dishes as you go because you'll have a place to put them, and soon, the kitchen and the counters feel clear and organized. Do the same for your dishwasher. Empty it out, so that it's ready to receive dirty dishes the second you're done with them, preventing pile-up.
Tip #2: Don't set it down: Mastering clean as you go
Do you remember that game we played as kids where we would put the couch cushions on the floor (or anything else we could find for that matter), and pretend we were island hopping so the sharks in the ocean in between (aka the floor), wouldn't catch us? Time to play again, only this time, if you set a dirty dish or pan down on a counter without cleaning it.... you're shark meat!
Seriously, if there's one new habit I want you to start incorporating today it's the wonderful, super helpful, clean as you go routine. This will not only help you save space if you have a small kitchen, but it will save time later on when you're about to serve and the dishes you need are dirty. It will especially help you with that dreaded "guests are gone, I'm tired but an a-bomb went off in the kitchen so I need to go deal with it" scenario. It's clean up that is the real pain of entertaining and of cooking more at home, and you can get so much help in this department if you master "clean as you go".
How do we do this? We do it by not putting bowls, pots, pans, utensils down while we're cooking, but giving them a quick wash in the sink and setting them down to dry (now that you have space for that thanks to the first tip!). I'm serious! Don't put it down!
If the shark game doesn't do it for you anymore, pretend you're in a cooking show and you need to keep your set and workspace neat and tidy, and don't set it down. Wash it and THEN set it down. If something spills, wipe it down, if you have scraps, toss them all in a bowl you keep near your work space so you don't have to walk to the trash bin that often. When you keep your workspace clean and organized, cooking becomes such a pleasure.
Tip #3: Start implementing the 2 minute fridge re-arrange
Once you get into the habit of doing this one, you'll not only save time while cooking but you'll save money too, since it's also one of the best tips to prevent food waste and help you use what you have. Also, since we do a lot of cooking ahead of time this time of year, we need space in the fridge to store all our goodies properly. The best way to do this is to get into the habit of taking two minutes every night, and by two minutes I mean set a timer for those two minutes and stop when it goes off, open the fridge, and re-arrange anything that has gotten messy, has fallen to the back of the fridge, and place anything you need to use up quickly to the front of the fridge.
It's the refrigerator version of the clear 5 items before you go to sleep organization tip. If you're used to wiping down your kitchen counters at night, clearing up toys or re-arranging the couch pillows, add the two minute fridge re-arrange to your nightly clearing routine. It will make all the difference and it'll keep your fridge organized for longer. Put things back in the door of the fridge if someone jammed them in there, move leftovers to smaller containers if only a little is left, throw out empty cartons, wipe off crumbs, and just give it a quick tidying up. Only two minutes and then leave the rest for tomorrow's two minutes. Remember what I always say, messy attracts messy, so by clearing things up a bit, you'll feel more inspired to cook every time you open the fridge, and entertaining gets so much easier.
Tip #4: After the big holiday grocery haul, arrange ingredients by dish
This year I came back from the store after one of my holiday party shopping trips, and then took the time to put everything away as I normally do, only to have to take everything back out again when I was cooking for the party the next day. Save time by placing your ingredients in little bundles, groups, bags or sections of the kitchen for each dish you'll be making. That way, when it's time to make the pecan pie, the maple syrup will be right next to the flour and nuts as opposed to somewhere out of sight or with the gravy ingredients. It's a big time saver.
Tip #5: Get the boring drive yourself crazy stuff out of the way: coat space, seating, dusty glasses
I find it's the boring, small tasks that make you go crazy when you have to check on something in the oven but your guests are arriving and you suddenly realize you have to get extra chairs from the basement. Take care of all these silly things ahead of time so you can focus on the food and on enjoying time with friends. These are also simple tasks you can ask someone else to help you with, for me these include getting extra seating or folding chairs if needed, wrapping any last minute presents, clearing space in your coat rack, and especially (and this is the thing that always makes me so angry I didn't do it before), rinsing your wine glasses or any serving dishes that might have gathered dust.
Tip #6: Buy it at the store!: Leave your cooking expertise for the good stuff
You've heard me talk about this before, always make your menu so it includes some store-bought items as well as the goodies you'll be making. Sometimes we love to get overly ambitious and make our own dinner rolls when the bakery around the corner makes the best ones! Leave your culinary expertise for the good stuff, the main dishes, sides, or dessert if you're a wonderful baker, and leave the simple stuff to the store. At one of my Christmas gatherings this year I thawed some pizza dough I had in the freezer (I always make double the pizza dough when I make pizza and freeze it precisely for these occasions), and went to a wonderful fruit and vegetable shop that sells lots of artisanal dips and patés, I bought a few, baked my focaccia and cut up a store-bought baguette, served a few of the dips, opened up a jar of olives and it was a HUGE hit! You can do this with many different parts of your meal, leaving your energy for those dishes that will really make people swoon.
Tip #7: Arrange a self service drink station
Carlos is in charge of serving drinks at our house because I absolutely hate to do this! I really really do! It always makes me crazy when I have to serve ice, get different glasses, remember what each person wanted, not to mention having to open up bottles when my kitchen is full of serving dishes and trays of food ready to be warmed through. Instead of serving individual drinks, and having to re-fill people's glasses when they're running low, organize a self-service station, put some ice in a an ice-bucket or bowl, grab a little cooler with ice for the beers, place drinks, bottles, glasses and anything else people might need, and have each person make and serve what they love!
Tip#8: Re-heating/oven space blueprint, aka make a list of what's going in when
In the past we've discussed the importance of planning your menu early on based on the equipment you have and so that you can make your shopping list early. This year though, I got a big lesson in the importance of planning out how and where you're going to warm up dishes or roast them in the oven. This part is key so you don't go crazy right before serving, and so all the food arrives warm to the table. Make a little list of the order you'll be re-heating or roasting items in, based on their cooking times and the oven space you have. If there's anything you can warm up on the stove, set a pot for that, since many holiday dishes involve roasting and need the oven. Always remember that by leaving your oven on, you can quickly re-heat lots of dishes you've roasted previously.
Tip #9: Hey! There's a line! If you have the space, serve buffet style
We've all been there, that awkward moment in which the food is served, you're praying it isn't getting too cold too fast, and guests are shy about piling on the goodies even after you've rung the figurative "help yourselves" bell. You then end up offering to serve everyone's plate and people are often too shy to say if the portion you've served is too little or too much for them! I find that my best parties are always self-serve style, you place all your food on a separate table or area nearby, buffet-style, and people line up to grab and serve as they like, plus they can get up for seconds whenever they like! My mother-in-law has been entertaining this way for years, and after trying it this year I'm never going back! People love it and this is precisely the moment in which you get to apply my last tip below.
Tip #10: Switch off entertaining mode and take it all in
The minute the food is set out and people are lining up to fill their plates, is precisely the time you're going to bring a lot of awareness to this moment and say to yourself " host/hostess mode off". Yes, you can be the host or hostess and turn it off even before dessert rolls in! In fact, this is the key if you want to start entertaining more, you need to have fun, enjoy it, take in the wonderful moments with friends and family. The minute you're up there next to the food waiting for the tongs to be freed up so you can grab your green beans, take a second to say to yourself (in your inner voice of course), I'm a guest now too, time to enjoy my food, my friends, conversation, slow down and take it all in.
I hope these slightly less common tips help inspire you to entertain and plan some holiday parties of your own this year! There's no reason why you should feel overwhelmed, and there's no need to make it all perfect, you'll enjoy it much more, and so will your guests, if the atmosphere is relaxed and everyone is having fun around the table, especially the one that made it all happen... and that's you!
If you'd like some more ideas for entertaining year round, you might also love this post!
I can't believe the year is almost coming to an end, and something really special is coming to the blog and podcast in the first few weeks of the new year, you'll hear more about what's to come, and how we'll be starting off the new year together, in our next episode and post so stay tuned!