10 Menu Planning Tips for the Holidays
For avid home cooks, December is one of the most exciting times of the year. The holiday season is the perfect excuse to show off your culinary prowess and make impressive dishes. Feel like serving a huge batch of clams casino at your cocktail party? Want to splurge on a crown roast of pork? Are you investing in a trifle dish so you can finally make that white-chocolate brandied cherry trifle you’ve been wanting to make for years? You can do all of these things because it’s the holidays!
It’s also a time where we use the kitchen to reflect and give thanks. Maybe you always make your grandmother’s gingerbread cookie recipe as a way of honoring her memory. Maybe you’re filling jars with homemade pickles so you can give them to all the people who have helped you over the past year. Whatever you’re cooking, chances are that you’re going to have to do some menu planning. To ensure that you don’t stress and actually enjoy spending time in the kitchen—and that your New Year’s dinner is a spectacular success—I’ve put together this helpful guide. Here are 10 menu planning tips that will make this holiday season the best ever.
If you’re feeding a big crowd, make dishes that are meant to feed a lot of people. Don’t decide to serve individual filet mignons or made-to-order omelets. Instead, make a whole beef tenderloin or cheesy strata. Large cuts of meat—like leg of lamb, brisket, ham, and prime rib—will feed a lot of people. Whole fish, such as a side of salmon or branzino, are also good options. If you’re a vegetarian, serve lasagna, a savory tart, or hearty vegetable stew over quinoa. Other ideas for dishes that can be made in advance and serve six or more people: macaroni and cheese, beef bourguignon, roast pork loin, and enchiladas. Now is the time to use your casserole dish!
If you don’t have time to finely mince a bunch of mushrooms and make dough from scratch to assemble the most amazing beef Wellington ever, don’t serve it! Keep things simple. Buy the best piece of beef you can afford, and then rub it with a mixture of garlic, rosemary, salt, and pepper. Simple doesn’t mean boring or bland. A perfectly roasted chicken with mixed greens in a tangy mustard vinaigrette and a heaping portion of cheesy potato gratin is basic, but it’s also sophisticated and scrumptious. Make tried-and-true recipes for dishes that you love and have mastered. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself when the homemade gnocchi tastes like a pasty mess. Simply throw some fusilli in the boiling water and serve that with your decadent Gorgonzola cream sauce instead.
You don’t want to be slaving away in the kitchen peeling and deveining shrimp when your entire extended family is sipping Champagne and singing Christmas carols by the tree. Make as much as you can in advance! Choose dishes that have to be made in advance, like a breakfast casserole for Christmas brunch or slow-cooked short ribs for Christmas Eve dinner. Then prep everything before your party, so you’ll actually be able to enjoy it.
A week ago, I decided on a whim to have an impromptu holiday dinner party with six of my favorite people. I didn’t have much time to cook, and instead of panicking about what to make, I opened my freezer. Months ago, I turned leftover porchetta into a tasty sugo for pasta. There was just enough to serve seven, and it was a delicious triumph! If you make dishes and freeze them throughout the year, use the holiday season as a time to empty out your freezer. That chicken carcass you’ve been saving? Turn it into a broth to make the most delectable minestrone soup ever. That pie dough you threw in there when you didn’t get around to making peach pie in August? Turn it into a free-form mushroom galette.
If you own a slow cooker, break that baby out! The holidays are meant for slow-cooked meals, and when you use your slow cooker, you’re forced to make the dish in advance: win-win. Throw all the ingredients for pot roast, beef ragu, or black-bean chili into the slow cooker in the morning. Spend the rest of your day watching Christmas movies and wrapping presents; when your guests show up, the house will smell divine, and you will be refreshed and ready to host a fabulous dinner.
During the holiday season, I do a lot more impromptu entertaining. You never know when an old friend might be driving through town on their way to see their parents for the holidays, so always be party-ready. This means stocking your pantry and fridge with the ingredients you need to throw together a savory spread of snacks at the drop of a hat. Always have a good cheese in the fridge and a bag of nuts in the pantry. Keep a bottle of Champagne chilled.
Just as you’re thinking big for the food, think big for the drinks, too. You don’t want to spend the whole night shaking martinis, so batch a cocktail instead. Make a big bowl of punch, or do the math and figure out how much rye and vermouth is needed to make 12 Manhattans. Batch the ingredients beforehand, and keep them chilled in the fridge. All you have to do is pour and serve over ice.
If your brother is bringing his new vegan girlfriend to dinner, you have to make some vegan options for her. Don’t overlook dietary needs. If someone is gluten-free or lactose intolerant, make a few dishes they can enjoy. It’s the holidays, and everyone should feel warm and welcomed.
When putting together your menu for New Year’s Eve, think about the different textures and ingredients. If you’re serving fondue to start, don’t serve macaroni and cheese for the main course. It’s melted cheese overload! Likewise, if you’re making a bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin for the entrée, don’t serve bacon-wrapped shrimp as appetizers. Serve a variety of ingredients, and think about the texture of a dish. A balanced menu has items that are creamy and crunchy.
Six-layer chocolate cake with caramel filling and ganache frosting. Baked Alaska. Tiramisu. Chocolate cream pie. The holiday season calls for a ridiculously over-the-top dessert. If you’re wearing sequins, fur, and red lipstick, you can definitely make a gingerbread trifle with cognac custard, poached pears, and meringue crunch. Go all-out and serve the most spectacular dessert around.
Shop pieces to make your holiday table beautiful below.
Williams-Sonoma Somerset Double Old-Fashioned Glasses, Set of 4, Gold ($64)
What's on your menu this holiday season? Let us know in the comments below.