What to cook when you’re hosting family for the holidays
Article by Erik J. Martin, CTW Features
You’ve decided to take one for the team and summon the entire clan over for dinner and festivities on Thanksgiving or Christmas. The invite was the easy part. Now you’ve got to figure out what will be on the menu — not an easy task, you deduce, considering your kin’s different palates and preferences.
But prepping, cooking and serving the holiday meal doesn’t have to be a dreaded or frustrating endeavor. With the right food planning and ample lead time, you can ace this banquet, sidestep the stress, and conquer the kitchen with culinary cleverness. This positive process starts with the right mindset.
“This is a chance to be creative, to brainstorm, to really think about what you want the experience of a holiday meal to be. This is a chance to make a memorable gathering for your friends and family, to create a day worth reminiscing about,” says Quelcy Kogel, Pittsburgh-based author of “The Gluten-Free Grains Cookbook” and a freelance food stylist.
Jamie McFadden, executive chef for Cuisiniers Catered Cuisine & Events in Winter Park, Florida, agrees.
“All too often, we find ourselves in a panic because we procrastinate on projects that can alleviate entertaining stress and kitchen nightmares,” he says.
“Advanced meal planning, recipe research, prepping items that can be frozen or refrigerated a few weeks prior to an event, as well as utilizing detailed shopping lists that can be delegated are just a few examples of proper planning techniques that will reduce stress and anxiety.”
Allison Stowell, a Bethel, Connecticut-based registered dietitian for the Guiding Stars Licensing Co., suggests that the key to holiday meal success — and taste bud and gastrointestinal congruence — is to start planning at least a few weeks ahead of time and communicate with guests about the foods you plan to serve.
“No one wants to visit a host who seems overwhelmed. You also want to ensure your menu allows for adequate cooking time and that your kitchen can support your menu,” notes Stowell.
“Planning menus that have something for everyone is crucial for keeping harmony. When hosting others, it’s nice to take traditional foods into consideration, as well as any food-related concerns such as allergies or certain eating styles.”
Once you’ve ruled out any ingredients that could disagree with guests, it’s time to narrow down the dishes. Kogel recommends a menu filled with classic cuisine choices as well as a few unique flavors. Her ideal holiday meal starts with an appetizer cheese board with savory parmesan-herb granola. The latter “pairs best with a soft cheese like burrata, and the granola can also be used as salad topper instead of croutons. Be sure to include vegetarian options on the board such as nuts, olives, and artichoke hearts.”
Next up is a fall harvest soup with quinoa and crispy sage, which is “easy to make — it’s creamy and comforting with fall spices, so it’s especially amenable to feeding a crowd,” adds Kogel.
For her main course, Kogel opts for roasted turkey, surrounded by a perimeter of root vegetables like golden beets, turnips, carrots, rutabaga, and sweet potatoes. Side dishes on Kogel’s table also includes a roasted squash and grape salad with bacon and burnt honey vinaigrette; mashed potatoes; garlic green beans; stuffing; cranberry sauce; and roasted carrot cheesecake with a ginger oat crust for dessert.
McFadden’s menu, meanwhile, forgoes the gobble in exchange for a main course of beef tenderloin with horseradish sauce. He would preface that with roasted butternut squash soup with cinnamon churros and escarole Caesar salad with gingerbread croutons, and fill out the sides with green bean casserole, twice baked potatoes, and a palate-pleasing chocolate Kahlua cake.
Kitty Broihier, a South Portland, Maine-based registered dietitian and adjunct faculty member of Southern Maine Community College’s Nutrition Department, recommends spotlighting fall colors and healthy food choices on your holiday table. She suggests kicking off the eating event with a grand salad loaded with baby arugula, sliced fennel, grapefruit or orange segments, and thinly sliced red onion—served with a citrus-based dressing on the side. Broihier’s prime entrée is either beef rib roast or ham, complemented by a vegetable lasagna; sautéed garlicky green beans or sliced Brussels sprouts with slivered almonds and dried cranberries; oven-roasted beets tossed in olive oil and garnished with chopped pistachios and goat cheese; and a pumpkin cake roll for dessert.
To make your big day run more smoothly, don’t be afraid to cut a few corners. Try these suggestions:
- Prep and freeze a few dishes well ahead of time.
- You don’t have to start from scratch, but you can make it look like you did. “Start with some prepackaged foods, like a can of cranberry sauce that you top with a bit of orange zest and a sprig of rosemary,” says food stylist Quelcy Kogel.
- Ask family for help. Get volunteers to make some of the side dishes and bring a bottle of wine.
- When in doubt, trust a pro. Get a quote from a local caterer, “because it’s often more affordable than you’d think,” Kogel adds.
- Set the table the day prior to avoid feeling rushed.
- Keep your guests out of the kitchen before the meal. “Give them something to do, like grab a lite bite at an appetizer station or indulge in a drink while you put the last dish in the oven,” says Kogel.