The Stress-Free Guide to Planning a Holiday Meal

Holiday menu

Salt & Wind

Planning for the holidays requires a lot of flexibility and juggling—and even more patience. This is especially true when it comes to the dinner party element of the holiday, which is essentially the main act we've been waiting for all season long. To help you plan a holiday menu that will make everyone happy, read on for tips from event planner Brooke Sheldon of Lilybrooke Events, plus delicious holiday recipes from our favorite food bloggers. 

Meet the Expert

Brooke Sheldon is founder of Lilybrooke Events, a boutique event planning firm specializing in events in New York City, metro Washington, DC, and Kennebunkport, Maine.

Choose Your Mood

Pink lemonade punch
Hello Glow

First and foremost, think about what kind of vibe you want to create for your friends and family when they come to your home. Do you want to honor the special occasion by making it a formal affair, or would you rather keep things feeling chill and relaxed? If the former, opt for place cards, a dress code, and on-point decorations. If the latter, keep things casual with big-batch cocktails, unassigned seating, and a buffet. From there, you can then map out a holiday menu that reflects the mood and level of formality you're trying to accomplish.

This would also be the right time to get your guest list together, so you know how many you'll be cooking for and if any of the guests have dietary restrictions to consider. 

Stock Your Kitchen

If your pantry is running low on the basics (vegetable stock, garlic powder, olive oil, for example), stock it ahead of time so you're not scrambling the day of. One key thing to make sure you have plenty of: herbs and spices. You'd be surprised just how many are in your favorite holiday meals! Think thyme, oregano, red chili flakes, and cinnamon.

Additionally, "Consider your kitchen, stove, refrigerator access the days before when you are storing everything and the day of when you are cooking. You can only have so many items that can be served hot at the same time," Sheldon says. Also, be mindful of the meals you make in the days leading up to the event, as you may end up using up all the ingredients you just shopped for in advance. Plus, sticking to simple, less time-consuming recipes beforehand means you won't burn out from too much kitchen time. 

Research Menu Items

Spoon Fork Bacon

Next, make a list of the traditional recipes you know you'll serve, and consider researching new recipes you want to try to switch things up a little. Mixing in both familiar and new dishes will strike a balance between exciting and comforting. When it comes to new recipes, however, try to give it a test run before the main event. "If you do have a few new recipes you’d like to serve, then make them in advance for your family or different friends so you have the experience and know how it will turn out," Sheldon says.

Once you've got a good set of options, start narrowing it down by recipes that feature a mix of textures, flavors, and colors to beautify your spread.

"No one wants an all brown, tan, white or all green meal, no matter how pretty it looks or how good it is. Serve a variety of foods in various colors. We eat with our eyes!" Sheldon advises.

Set Reminders

As the holiday nears, you may run up against a time crunch. And when we're spread too thin, things tend to slip through the cracks. Stick to the menu plan you mapped out earlier by setting reminders for yourself–whether it be a hand-written sticky note, or a digital reminder–to remember the details, like when to call the butcher, when to go to the local farmers' market, and which ingredients you'll probably run out of. 

On a similar note, Sheldon suggests creating a timeline of the day to map all of your courses out. "Make a timeline for the day of with the item, how long it takes to cook. Start backwards with what time you want to be finished, give yourself a good buffer, and then you can figure out what time you need to get started," Sheldon recommends. "This will also help you double check that you don’t have too many things planned for the oven at the same time."

Prep Ingredients In Advance

Just-cooked potatoes drain in a colander, in a sink.
Half Baked Harvest

Along with researching and planning for your holiday menu, prepping some of the recipes where possible will help ease your to-do list the day of the event. We're talking about all the chopping, peeling, simmering, and roasting that will free up more of your time when the day actually arrives. Most sauces and other condiments can also be made a day ahead. If you're making a big dinner, consider making breakfast the night before.

Finalize the Menu

Now that you've considered all the holiday meal prep tips, start planning out the actual meal with these delicious, seasonal recipes below. When it comes to table presentation, Sheldon recommends experimenting with non-traditional plates and platters. "Look at your vases, bowls, platters and cutting boards. I love serving food on cutting boards. I also love setting dishes on cake stands or serving food directly on cake stands. This helps save room on the table and adds dimension to the look," Sheldon says.

Holiday Cocktail Recipes
The Modern Proper

Cocktails: May we suggest a holiday-themed sangria punch from The Modern Proper? The gorgeous crimson color alone is enough to make us want to whip up a glass or two of this delicious sipper.

How to Plan a Holiday Menu
Wu Haus

Easy Starter: You really can't go wrong with a veggie snack board featuring a carrot harissa dip à la Wu Haus. There's so much happening on this board that every guest is bound to find something they love.

mushroom toast
Salt & Wind

Fancy Starter: Try a mixed mushroom toast with parsley salad courtesy of Salt & Wind. They're small but bursting with flavor. 

mashed potatoes
Half Baked Harvest

Hearty Side: Half Baked Harvest's Crock-Pot three-cheese mashed potatoes is a crowd-pleaser you can't beat.  

winter beet and pomegranate salad
Half Baked Harvest

Healthy Side: Another favorite from Half Baked Harvest, this winter beet and pomegranate salad with maple candied pecans and balsamic citrus dressing is colorful, nutrient-packed, and zesty.

Persimmon, fried sage, and goat cheese bites
Salt & Wind

Fancy Side: Persimmon, fried sage, and goat cheese bites from Salt & Wind are simple and delicious.

Roasted eggplant, crisp garlic, and basil spaghetti
Salt & Wind

Vegetarian Main Course: Roasted eggplant, crisp garlic, and basil spaghetti from Salt & Wind is just as hearty as a classic roasted turkey. Your non-meat-eating guests will definitely be grateful.

Roasted beef tenderloin
Half Baked Harvest

Classic Main Course: Roasted beef tenderloin with mushrooms and white wine cream sauce from Half Baked Harvest is bursting with flavor.

Italian walnut shortbread cookies
Salt & Wind

Simple Dessert: Guests will want to nosh on a few of these delicious Italian walnut shortbread cookies from Salt & Wind.

pie roundup
The Modern Proper

Decadent Dessert: One of the most traditional fall desserts is pecan pie, but if you are torn between a few classics, try this one from The Modern Proper, which essentially mixes everything you love about chocolate cream pie, caramel apple pie, and pumpkin pie.

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