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16 Shortcuts To Make Holiday Dinners Less Stressful

The holidays are always cheerful, but they can also be incredibly stressful. The latter is especially true if you are hosting a holiday party. Holiday parties can be thrown for any group, whether it be work colleagues, family, or your best friends. You can make it into as grand of an affair or as small a shindig as you want. Do you want to set a semi-formal dress code? Base your party theme around a particular color? Have everyone show up in costume? When it's your party, it's truly up to you. 

When it comes to deciding to host a holiday party, you should have comfort in knowing there are some things you can do to make your life much easier. The motto for a simple, yet perfect, holiday party, is to think ahead. We've provided some of our favorite tips for planning the perfect holiday party for novice holiday party planners, but even seasoned party planners may learn a few things, too. 

Do the math first to buy just enough food for your party

Both under- and over-shopping are two of the pitfalls of preparing for a holiday party. While many gracious hosts always want to have ample options for all of their guests, there is a threshold at which you should consider scaling back your holiday celebrations. To calculate a head count, you may need to be persistent. For formality's sake, you can send an RSVP. Or, check in with guests as close to the event as possible to ensure accuracy. 

While no figure can tell exactly how big your guests' appetites are, there are general ballpark figures on how to cook for a dinner party regardless of size. You should allocate between 4 and 6 ounces of meat per guest. If you are serving less than six guests, three sides should provide enough variety to satisfy the majority of palates without getting too complicated. If you are serving over 12 guests, plan to serve five sides at your holiday party. As for the sweet stuff, you should assume each guest will eat about a serving and a half of your desserts.

Take note of dietary restrictions ahead of time

Dietary restrictions — whether they be gluten-free, vegan, or allergens — can be difficult for a host to accommodate. The key to working with dietary restrictions and holiday parties is to have an understanding of what kinds of restrictions you'll need to account for before your guests arrive. This will ensure you have a representation of food to accommodate any restriction that comes your way. 

If you would rather not contend with the numerous restrictions at your table, one simple solution is to ask each of your guests to bring a side dish they enjoy (and can safely eat). Not only does this take the pressure off of you to learn how to prepare a vegan feast in a matter of hours, but you'll have a tremendous weight lifted off your shoulders in not having to prepare yet another dish for your holiday party. 

Save time and purchase pre-cut fruit and veggies

A large part of the time spent in the kitchen during the holidays is spent getting ingredients ready for the meal. One of the easiest ways to cut down on the hours spent prepping ingredients is to purchase pre-cut produce packages from the produce or frozen section of the grocery store. Per the Food and Drug Administration, purchasing pre-cut produce is safe as long as the food appears clean (meaning no signs of molding) and is kept in the fridge.

If you are buying pre-cut produce, you should expect to pay a little bit more than if you were to cut the food yourself. This is why, for the sake of your budget, you should stick to smaller portions and foods that take inordinately long to cut anyways. Chatelaine recommends sticking to pre-cut butternut squash and sweet potatoes because both take considerably longer to cut by hand. Sliced mushrooms and beans are also close to the same price whether you purchase the foods in the full-sized version or not.

Write a timeline leading up to your event

Planning ahead is one of the easiest ways to cut back on stress on the day of your event. A Thanksgiving timeline translates to holiday parties of any type or size. You should include big-picture elements, like making your guest list, sending out formal RSVPs (if you plan to go that route), and planning your menu. Closer to your event, you'll want to make a list for preparing and cooking ingredients. This timeline should be precise and include the time to thaw ingredients, prepare all the ingredients needed for a dish, the actual cooking time, as well as plating and getting your dish ready to be served. To cut down on time, you can allocate and share cooktop and oven space with smaller dishes.

When you set up your timeline, you should use an interval system, such as 30 minutes to an hour, to break down all of the tasks you need to do. Take a few extra seconds to cross off tasks once each is completed. Not only will this ease your peace of mind in knowing that everything is done, but there's also something super satisfying about crossing things off your list.

Focus on recipes you can make ahead of time

Instead of doing everything the day of, you can allocate your time over a period of days (or even weeks) by cooking some foods ahead of time and reheating them as needed. For example, pie crust can be frozen into several small balls before being brought up to temperature and rolled, shaped, and baked. The other alternative is to shape your pie crust in a pie tin and wrap the tin in a freezer bag. The Pioneer Woman notes that mashed potatoes can be made up to a month in advance as long as the potatoes are allowed to cool adequately before being placed in a freezer-safe container. If you freeze the mashed potatoes longer than a month, the water crystals in the mashed potatoes can cause freezer burn.

Although there are many foods you can make ahead of time, there are also some holiday foods you can't make in advance. Fried or breaded chicken won't taste the same on day two while reheating any sort of fish or seafood gives it a rubbery texture.

If you can buy pre-made food, do it

The holidays can have a heavy emphasis on homemade food, but not all schedules are built for that kind of dedication. If you're able to purchase pre-made foods from your local grocery store or bakery instead of making them yourself, you'll find the holidays can be a much less stressful experience. If you want to take the stress off yourself and have other folks make your holiday pie or crusty loaf, you should plan to order in advance. Depending on the bakery, this can be as little as a week and as up to as far as a month away. 

Pre-made appetizers can be an enormous time saver when it comes to cooking. Frozen meatballs can be reheated in a CrockPot in less than an hour with store-bought sauce. A quick peruse in the freezer aisle may yield delicious samosas that are easy to serve for your finger-food-loving guests.

Stick to tried-and-true foods rather than new recipes

While you may feel excited to try new recipes in an effort to impress all of your guests, working with novel ingredients and recipes will only lead to unanticipated anxiety. If you have the opportunity to run through a few recipes prior to the party itself, you will find that you feel both more comfortable with the recipe and feel more relaxed when you have to prepare it under pressure. 

The classic tried-and-true recipes don't have to be boring, either. You can add mayonnaise for creamier mashed potatoes or add a bit of complexity with the addition of chopped roasted garlic. If you're a stickler for holiday ham, consider upgrading the flavors with a bourbon brown sugar glaze infused with Dijon mustard, orange juice, and molasses. And if you're looking for a creamier addition to your apple pie, try marinating your apples in melted ice cream before adding the apples to your crust. 

Stick to canapés instead of starters

Canapés is a blanket term for the fancy finger food served at cocktail parties. Unlike hors d'oeuvres, canapés tend to resemble bite-sized finger sandwiches. and unlike an appetizer — which is an entire course served before the entree — the canapés are often free-floating throughout the time before dinner.

According to Arabella Reeve Catering, canapés are made with four ingredients — a sturdy base (like bread or puff pastry), spread (such as butter or cheese), topping (which can include meat, seafood, or vegetables), and a garnish (like herbs, caviar, or truffles). Canapés are ideal for serving on holidays because the food usually doesn't require any sort of cutlery (meaning fewer dishes). Plus, a well-constructed canapé can be eaten in one bite. This gives you more flexibility for eating and mingling with your guests. If you are thinking about preparing these savory bites for your holiday party without serving a full meal afterward, you should expect to go through about 10 canapés per guest

Host a potluck style event instead

The hardest thing about cooking on the holidays is, well, cooking. So why not have your guests cook for you instead? 

Potlucks are one of the easiest ways to prevent unnecessary stress in the kitchen on the day of your party. Every guest can bring a food they love to make (and hopefully make well) to ensure an abundance of flavors on your holiday table. If you are the kind of person who likes to plan everything to a T rather than a casual "bring whatever you'd like," you can set a theme or a list of foods you want to prepare. If you want to deviate from the traditional holiday party meal, you can ask each of your guests to bring a dessert or just stick to a party full of different types of dips. Alternatively, you can ask guests to bring a dish from their culture or one of their family's holiday favorites.

Know there's nothing wrong with disposable flatware and plates

One of the most arduous tasks for a host is cleaning dishes. Opting to purchase disposable flatware instead of using regular tableware means that you won't have to worry about buying an entire party setup that just seems to pile up in your cabinets and take a ton more time to clean.

Not all disposable flatware looks cheap and tacky, either. Greener Earth's Compostable Tableware set serves 50 guests for $31.99 at the time of publication. Since the entire set is made out of sugar cane, it is both biodegradable and can withstand a hefty amount of weight without breaking. If you want to add a bit of bling to your holiday table, you can purchase a white and gold disposable plastic tableware set. This set (priced at $44.64 at the time of publication) serves up to 20 guests and includes tableware, dinner plates, salad plates, cups, and napkins.

Set the table ahead of time

The motto of your holiday party needs to be "if you can do it ahead of time, do it." Small "finishing" touches like setting the table, crafting creative napkin designs, and designing an ornate centerpiece can be done the day or night before, if you have the space and time. Ten minutes before your guests are about to arrive at your holiday party is not the time to learn how to set up your holiday tablescape.

If you've never set up a holiday tablescape before, you'll need to first set your design theme. This can be a color (around the holiday season, this mostly manifests in shades of red, green, and metallics) or a print (like Christmas plaid). According to Triangle Nursery, purchasing some flowers two to three days ahead of time will ensure that they can be the most well-conditioned and look their fullest on your table. 

Prioritize having snacks around in case your meal runs late

If the ham takes a little longer than you originally planned or your dinner rolls aren't as brown as you'd like, your guests will be left hungry, lingering, and waiting as you finish up what you need to do in the kitchen. Although it's reasonable to assume that unexpected things will happen in the kitchen and extend your expected meal time, you can help soothe hungry guests by offering some quick bites. Fill festive mugs or ramekins with your favorite sweet and salty snack foods and place them strategically around your space. 

Offering a range of snacks to suit different preferences is ideal. We love sticking to simple air-popped popcorn for a healthy go-to snack that is full of fiber and contains only one ingredient. You might also consider small bowls of roasted nuts or steamed edamame pods for a savory and filling option.

Keep your plates warm

Having warmed plates makes a world of difference when it comes to serving at a holiday party. According to Cookist, warm food is often perceived as being more satisfying to the human sensory system because we can often smell them better than cold foods. Restaurants commonly heat plates prior to serving as a way to make the food more appealing, as well as prevent the sad result of the warmth dissipating from the food as soon as it hits the plate. 

Before putting anything into your oven, be sure to first check and make sure that your plates are microwave or oven safe. If your plates are oven safe, simply pop the plates into the oven at 200 degrees F for about five minutes before serving. When you're ready to serve, be sure to have an oven mitt handy so you can handle the plates without getting burned. For more delicate dishes, Nigella Lawson recommends soaking the plates in hot water for five minutes before drying and serving your food.

Be flexible with your mealtime

If it's your first party, you should expect to run a little bit behind schedule. So if you tell your guests dinner is at 6 p.m., that may turn into 6:10 p.m., 6:30 p.m., or potentially later. While it may seem like a simple idea to not tell everyone exactly what the meal time is, this might upset guests that absolutely need to know if they should plan on eating before their arrival at your party. To avoid disgruntled guests, you can note that your meal-time is "about 5:30 p.m." rather than ensuring that plates will hit the table at that time. 

Setting a start time for your party is another question entirely. The Event Book notes that dinner parties last an average of three hours in total. The website recommends starting your dinner party earlier than 8:00 p.m. because by the time the entrees are served, your guests are bound to be starving. Serving a dinner a bit earlier may be ideal for guests with children, as well as folks who appreciate getting to bed early.

Keep entertainment tools on the table to fill time

As the host, you should be mingling and interacting with your guests as much as possible. But the nature of cooking, prepping, greeting, and doing a ton of other things at once is not always the most conducive to entertaining your guests. Table games are an essential entertaining tool that takes the pressure off you to constantly be present and interacting with guests. 

There are several options for entertainment tools, most of which can be used for mixers, parties, or even date nights. Prompta offers a 400-pack of conversation starters for $26.99 at the time of publication. Store these paper cards in the box (less than 3 inches in size) and take them out whenever the mood strikes. The Hygge Game is another popular option focused on helping guests learn more about one another without pushing any boundaries. This set comes in a cute, 300-question package for $20 at the time of publication. 

Don't feel obligated to maintain family traditions

The scale of some holiday celebrations can be anxiety-inducing — especially if baking 20 kinds of Christmas cookies is on the docket. What's great about your holiday party is that you get to decide what kinds of holiday traditions you'd like to follow, as well as what new ones you'd like to set. For example, if making all of your grandmother's favorite recipes isn't feasible, stick to making one or two old favorites and add a new (and easier) one to the rotation.  

You'll want to start small — especially if this is your first holiday hosting experience. Thinking on the smaller end of things can mean starting with a smaller guest list and a smaller menu. The next year, you'll just have the opportunity to look forward to a bigger and better party. So sit back, grab your glass of bubbly, and toast to the craziness of yet another great holiday party hosting season.