Big Picture Planning

A nourishing holiday is all about balance. Big meals and light ones, lots of effort and minimal effort. Below, I'll walk you step-by-step through the process I used for planning low-stress holiday get togethers. Then print out your own meal planning grid and customize it to your timing, tastes, and audience.

1st: Brainstorm

With pen and paper in hand (and, OK, a glass of wine too), jot down recipes that have caught your eye. Then add a general list of holiday commitments, from the office potluck to the neighborhood cookie exchange to the big family dinner. Let yourself get creative during this stage; part of its purpose is to get you excited about cooking rather than dreading what’s ahead.

Here are few tips on planning breakfasts, lunches and dinners for a crowd.

Breakfast for Company

There are three strategies when it comes to making breakfast for company: have components already made ahead (like these oats or compote), have the whole dish assembled ahead and ready to bake (like these strata), or make the meal part of the entertainment (like these huevos). You pick your speed.

Lunch for a Crowd

The two keys when making lunch for a crowd over the holidays are

  1. Do as little as possible at the last moment and
  2. Use up as many leftovers as you can. Big pots of soup and pasta are perfect, as are easy one-dish bakes and sandwiches.

Dinner Made Easy

To me, dinners during the holidays are a mix of eating what I’ve already made (either a make-ahead meal or a freezer meal), using up leftovers in creative ways, or deliberately creating new leftovers to use as components in other dishes … often for lunch. It’s a great blend that leaves me freed up to enjoy time with family

2nd: Fit the Pieces Together

Now print out the Meal Planning Grid and fill in the days surrounding your big gathering on the top. Then fill in the big meals and work backwards, fitting in dishes like pieces of a puzzle.

The idea is to strike a balance–-of filling and light, fancy and casual, complex and super-quick–-so your meals complement the dynamics of the days rather than becoming stressful to-dos. Be thinking, too, of what can be frozen ahead, made ahead and prepped ahead, and mark those accordingly on your chart.

Check out my Meal Planning Grid to see what I mean, then print out the grid on the next page to fill out yourself



It’s all fine and dandy to talk about healthful eating, but when you’ve been cooking all day and still have a house full of hungry people, good intentions can often be nudged out by convenience. Which is why it’s important to stack the deck in favor of fresh. Here are 3 simple suggestions that take 10 minutes or less to give you a head-start on dinner before the rush so your
fridge is stocked full of fresh options. 

If you can carve out bits of time here and there, you can bust through a lot of prep work, leaving you with a load of healthy choices to have on hand.

Once you learn how to dice an onion, it doesn’t take but a few seconds. Dicing one or two ahead of time to keep on hand in the fridge makes things even easier … and might just tip the scales when it’s “should I cook or call for takeout?”


Peel (with your Y peeler!) and chop squash, trim some green beans, cut up some cauliflower. You’ll be amazed by how many more vegetables you eat when you have a few containers prepped in the fridge.  

My time saving technique for making vinaigrette is to use a jar. No bowl, no whisk, no having to transfer containers. Just mince a clove of garlic or a tablespoon of shallot, pour in some oil and vinegar, screw the lid on and give it a shake.

On the big day

Now that you've got your “in-between” meals organized, the bulk of your holiday cooking should be a piece of cake (or should I say cookie? ;)). Now let's tackle the big feasts… because, yes, those can be stress-free too! Here's how:

1. Chunk Down the List

Once you have your menus set, your recipes ready and your shopping done, sit down and chunk out every task that needs to be done. And I mean every task. So instead of “make the salad,” it would be “mince
shallots, clean lettuce, seed pomegranates, etc.” Next, estimate how long it will take to do each. Then roughly assign those tasks along a timeline for the day.

This is an awesome technique for three reasons:

  1. it gives you a chance to make sure you have time to get everything done,
  2. you can be confident you will get everything done,
  3. it makes it easy to assign specific tasks to guests as needed. Read on for why that’s a good plan too …

2. Give People Something To Do

For whatever reason, I often feel like I have to do everything myself when guests gather—plan, cook, serve, clean (alright, I admit, Christopher does that). But the truth is, involving others in the meal makes them feel more welcome, more at home. Here are five strategies for putting people to work during the holidays in a way that will bring cheer to all.

Throw out a theme (our New Year’s meal this year will be entirely white) or a challenge (Iron Chef anyone?) and let guests develop a dish to bring.

There are two well-proven truths about cooking for company:

  1. everyone congregates in the kitchen and
  2. many hands make light work. Take a cue and put those hands to work on labor-intensive dishes like rolling or stuffing pasta for a smart spin on an old-school potluck.

Some of my most successful dinner parties have included a “todo” list for each of the guests. It frees me up from the “what’s next?” bombardment and lets people contribute to dinner prep at their own pace

Some meals just lend themselves to interaction. Homemade pizzas, where guests shape or top their own, and dishes that require individual assembly like tacos or lettuce wraps are great choices.

Don’t underestimate the bonding power of doing dishes together. For centuries and centuries throughout cultures the world over, people—especially women—have hashed out the complexities of life over a basin of dirty dishes.

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