10 Tips for a Stress-free Christmas Dinner
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yet most of us are in a flap. There are presents to be bought, cakes to be baked and a sense of impending dread at the thought of having to cook a fabulous Christmas dinner. TV chefs are wooing us with mini tartlets and smoked salmon blini that can be prepared “in minutes” and add “a touch of sophistication” to your festive cooking. Every supermarket has their own glossy magazine full of cooking and decorating ideas and can provide mini tartlets and blini pre-prepared (but with a hefty price tag) that you only need to “pop in the oven”. The options are endless and dizzying. Somewhere along the way, the concept of a tasty home cooked meal shared with the people you love gets lost and is replaced by panic and over-complication. If this all sounds familiar, then maybe my 10 Tips for a Stress-free Christmas Dinner can help get you back on track.
- Make nothing individual.
Absolutely nothing. No mini tartlets, no smoked salmon blini, no individual trifles in glasses, no prawn cocktails in glasses, no mini chocolate puddings. Instead, serve everything from communal bowls and platters. This approach has many advantages:
- It’s much quicker and easier to prepare one platter or bowl than several individual portions.
- It allows for more items to be prepared in advance as storing one big platter or bowl is easier than storing individual items.
- It enables you to get food to the table hotter – hot vegetables or sauces can be left in the saucepan until the last minute and then just thrown into a warm dish for serving.
- Individual guests are not left waiting for food as you bring it to the table. If serving individual items, those who have received theirs might be forced to let it go cold as they wait for others to be served (or they may make others jealous by beginning before everyone is served!) If you’re serving centrally, all guests can start helping themselves to each dish as it is presented and everyone can start once they have something on their plate.
- It facilitates the faddy eater. If people don’t like Brussels sprouts, they don’t have to take them onto their plate.
- It’s convivial – sharing plates gets people talking and helps prevent the meal from feeling overly formal.
My one and only exception to this rule is mince pies. These are such an integral feature of an Irish Christmas that I can’t imagine leaving them out. Luckily, it is easy to buy high quality ready-made mince pies or use pre-made vol-au-vent cases to quickly and easily make your own.
- Serve a maximum of two hot courses.
Assuming the main course will be hot, serve either a cold starter or a cold desert. Trying to get items to the table while they are still hot requires a high degree of co-ordination and timing. I would recommend a cold starter – that way you can have the table laid in advance. Room temperature items can be left on the table up to an hour in advance, and chilled items can be taken from the fridge and popped on the table at the last minute when guests are about to be seated. Guests are usually quite full after their main course, so having to wait a few minutes for a hot desert is not an issue. Serving both a cold starter and cold desert is perfectly acceptable – too hot courses is the maximum, not the minimum!
- Serve one cold side dish or meat with the main course.
Most of us only have one oven and four cooker rings. Trying to pull together hot turkey, hot ham, two kinds of potatoes, roasted vegetables, boiled veg, hot stuffing, hot gravy and all the other trimmings with limited cooker space is next to impossible. I recommend baking the ham the night before and serving it at room temperature. I also suggest a crunchy & zingy salad as a side to contrast with the rich meats and comforting roast vegetables. Brussels sprouts are a contentious vegetable in many homes, particularly in Ireland where we are teased for our habit of overcooking them. There is no doubt that cooking Brussels sprouts smells up the house. Brussels sprouts overcook quite easily and generally need some extra help, usually in the form of fried bacon, to give them a flavour that people will actually enjoy. I say skip cooking the Brussels sprouts altogether and instead serve them thinly sliced as a salad.
- Use your fridge space wisely.
Fridge space is usually at a premium around Christmas. Free up space by not keeping unnecessary items in the fridge. Most fruit & vegetables (excluding salad leaves) should be stored in a cool pantry or even in an outside garage or shed rather than in the fridge. Items such as potatoes, onions, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips, melons and pineapples actually keep better out of the fridge. As a guide I would say if you bought it from the refrigerator section in your supermarket then keep it in the fridge – otherwise you’re just unnecessarily using up precious space. Note that in most European countries (including Ireland and Lithuania) it is not necessary – and in fact is not recommended – to keep eggs in the fridge. So it you’ve bought lots of extra eggs for meringues or special breakfasts, move them all to a cool cupboard or pantry. Beer & white wine can also be kept in a garage or shed (assuming you don’t live somewhere with subzero temperatures). It will probably be cold enough for drinking as is, but if needs be you can chill further in small batches as required.
- Keep your table setting simple.
If you’re serving food centrally you’ll need to keep lots of space free on the table, so keep your centrepieces and decorations small and simple. Candles, perhaps in a lantern or hurricane vase for safety, add warmth and cosiness, while red berries or tree baubles add a nice splash of colour. Using colourful paper napkins also brings colour, plus it helps with the clearing up. Pinterest is great for simple ideas – I’ve included a few suggestions below to get you started. Keep individual place settings simple, too. Don’t tie cutlery together with ribbon or string – leave that stuff for fancy weddings. Keep cutlery to a minimum – do you need a starter knife, a main course knife plus a butter knife on a side plate? Do you need a side plate at all – are you serving something that requires one? I recommend stacking the plates or bowls that will be needed for the starter and main course (perhaps on a colourful charger plate, if you have them) and bringing out plates or bowls for dessert once the main course has been cleared. Unless you’re hosting a very formal dinner or have a very acrimonious group of guests you do not need name tags on place settings. If it’s just your own family for dinner everyone will know where to sit. If you have extra guests either tell them where to sit or let them sit where they like. Make sure to leave a few wooden boards or metal racks on the table for very hot items so you don’t damage your table.
- Prepare as much as you can in advance.
Vegetables for roasting can be peeled and chopped well in advance and frozen in ziplock bags until needed. (Use this trick with a straw to “vac-pac” your vegetables so they take up less space in the freezer. Skip to 2:40 on the video.) Stuffing for the turkey can also be frozen – just ensure it is fully defrosted before stuffing the bird or it will impact your cooking time. Soup is another great candidate for freezing – freeze in lidded plastic boxes, allowing a little space in each box for the soup to expand as it freezes. Once frozen, free up the boxes by pressing the frozen blocks out of the boxes and storing in ziplock bags. If you plan on making gravy from scratch this can be done weeks in advance and frozen. Ask your butcher for turkey giblets if you don’t see them on display. If they don’t have any, try using chicken giblets instead – your gravy will still be delicious and I would be surprise if anyone noticed the difference. Cold platters can be prepared the day before or even a few days in advance and stored either in the serving dish or in stackable plastic boxes in the fridge.
- Make a few items from your regular repertoire.
There’s no real way to avoid a little experimentation at Christmas. Most of us only roast a turkey once a year. The same goes for baked ham and the aforementioned Brussels sprouts. Some roast potatoes and root vegetables all year round, others do not. The likelihood is that you will be cooking several items you’re not used to cooking and you may even be trying a particular recipe for the first time. Including a number of dishes that you cook on a regular basis in your Christmas meal will take away some of the guess-work and keep things in the kitchen a little less frantic. If you make a mean mashed potato, include that in your menu. If you usually boil your carrots, just do that – you don’t have to roast them just because some chef on the TV likes theirs roasted. If you like your potatoes roasted in sunflower oil, stick with that. Yes, goose fat is fantastic, but if you try every single good idea you will wear yourself out and the day will go by in a blur. It’s your Christmas too, so make sure you leave yourself space to enjoy it.
Sometimes this is easier said than done, but you really can’t do it all by yourself. If you’re having guests for dinner, perhaps ask them to bring a side dish or some nibbles. Get family members involved by giving them jobs they might actually enjoy, such as keeping beer and wine in the fridge or ensuring everyone’s glass is topped up as needed. Give people plenty of notice of what you need them to do so they can plan their time. It used to drive me crazy when my mam would ask me to do some big job when I was just about to watch a movie that had been advertised for weeks!
- Make a list.
Santa does it, so why shouldn’t you? The earlier you do this, the better for your stress levels. Make a list of the food & drinks you plan to serve, including nibbles, starters, mains, sides, desserts, cheese boards, wines, beers, spirits, juices & sodas (for kids and designated drivers) and anything else you can think of. Now cross off about 10% of the items on the list – you’ve most likely overdone it! When you’ve finalised your menu, list all the ingredients and sundry items (such as tinfoil, baking paper, cling film, stock cubes, etc) that you need to prepare each item on the menu. Tick off items you already have and shop for the remainder. Tick off items as they are prepared. If freezing items, note when you need to take them out of the freezer to allow sufficient time for the item to defrost. If delegating items, mark the name of the delegatee beside the item and make sure you tell the person when you need it by so they can plan their own time.
- Try to enjoy it!
Remind yourself what’s important about your Christmas and what people are likely to remember. Is it more important that you serve a stunning meal worthy of a Michelin starred restaurant while tearing your hair out and screaming at anyone that comes near the kitchen, or that you serve a simple but tasty meal that you are relaxed enough to enjoy with your family. So what if you set the tablecloth on fire with the brandy off the pudding – everyone will get a good laugh and people will still be telling stories about it in years to come.
CHRISTMAS DINNER SUGGESTIONS
I have created two new Pinterest boards to accompany this post. I have included a number of samples below but I will be continually adding to the boards over the coming weeks, so be sure to follow the boards on Pinterest.
If you have any other suggestions or tips for a stress-free Christmas, please do share them in the comments below – we could all use the help!