Holiday Cooking Tips for Modern Lifestyles
As often described in articles about holiday entertaining, it can be challenging because emotional expectations are often so high—both your own and your guests. You may be trying to create a picture-perfect event that is a dream come true for your family. When entertaining friends, you may hope to out-do your last kitchen performance. Expectations aside, holiday preparation is particularly daunting for people who work forty-plus hours a week. Double that for working parents. And of course, entertaining is the most stressful for perfectionists, who want their house to be impeccable, their food to be amazing, and who want to look stress-free and gorgeous, even when they’re totally frazzled.
There’s also a new kind of challenge in this millennium, as increasing numbers of people are adhering to special diets, some by choice and some because of a health problem that is clearly triggered by certain foods. Guests who are following Whole-30, Keto, or Paleo (among other plans) may eagerly fall off the wagon to enjoy a holiday meal. However, most vegetarians, vegans, or gluten-free guests will not be willing to stray from their commitment to health for an evening of enjoyment. For them the price is too high.
As a host, it is enormously gracious of you to inquire about your guests’ food needs in advance. When you do this, you let people know beforehand that they will be taken care of. And you avoid a situation—difficult for you both—where your guests leave your table hungry or frustrated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve attended parties hosted by close friends who know my husband and I are vegetarian, diary-free, and gluten-free—and think that the tossed salad is going to be enough for our meal! It isn’t satisfying, I can tell you! One easy solution is to make your holiday meals a potluck. Just let all the cooks know in advance about food concerns, and plan for at least a few of the dishes to be made accordingly. Most side dishes and soups will be just as delicious if they are vegan and gluten-free as they would be otherwise.
Here are some other tips for making the holiday meals joyful occasions for the cook—and guests:
- Keep it simple. Plan a menu with a few simple dishes to off-set anything complicated or rich that’s being served. For example, if you’re making baked sweet potatoes topped with a pound and half of chopped pecans (glistening with ghee, cinnamon, and coconut sugar—yum!) then also serve a simple fresh green bean dish or Brussels sprouts. Simple side dishes may not evoke the same chorus of uummms and ahhs, but they are easy to make perfectly and will be enjoyed for their added balance.
- Keep it casual. Rather than insisting that everyone dress to impress—including the cook and your kitchen helpers—invite guests to come hang out in the kitchen in comfortable clothes, grab a knife and an apron, and join in the cooking. Then cooking the holiday meal becomes a party in itself, a prelude stoked with wine, hot cider that’s been steeping with a cinnamon stick, or a cup of hot chai with a mélange of spices. Everyone loves a satisfying and delicious meal, but modern guests are also looking for warm, fun-filled, and uplifting conversation.
- Plan ahead. I typically prefer to serve food that’s been cooked that day to dinner-party guests, but for big holiday meals, I’ve learned to start cooking two or three days in advance. I bake a fresh pumpkin on Monday or Tuesday for Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pies. I’ll bake a dozen sweet potatoes wrapped in parchment paper and foil on Wednesday night, and let them cool in the oven so the skins just slip of the next morning before I mash them and top them with glazed pecans.
- Keep it fresh. Avoid the temptation to use canned or frozen vegetables. Fresh food from your garden, grocery store, or farmer’s market is much more delicious and so much healthier—because it has deeper flavor and higher prana. “Prana” is Sanskrit for “life force,” and according to Ayurveda, India’s ancient medical and wellness system, it’s the life force in food that makes it most nourishing.
- Splurge on fresh herbs. Using fresh food applies, most especially, to the herbs you cook with. Use fresh herbs out of your garden or, if need be, buy them. It’s more expensive but worth it. The flavors of fresh rosemary, basil, thyme, and sage—those quintessential holiday flavors that make a cornbread or home-baked bread dressing so flavorful—are infinitely more intense and delicious than dried spices.
Happy holiday planning everyone!