1 week until Halloween. Less than 1 month until Thanksgiving. 40 days until Hanukkah. 2 months until Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and a scant week longer until New Years’ Eve. Whether you are playing host or not, it’s time to start thinking about the holidays. I love fall more than most people and I wish the season was longer but to avoid the stress of last-minute dinner planning, gift wrapping and cookie baking, now is the time to get started. I hear all the time about how people love the holiday season but hate it more because it’s so stressful. It doesn’t have to be though! Just because you’re planning for Christmas and Thanksgiving in October doesn’t mean you have to have all the decorations out to celebrate early. It means to start getting lists together and to start getting ideas and timelines in place. By having a plan for the holiday season, you’ll not only enjoy it more but you might even look forward to all the fun festivities up ahead. Don’t panic, plan. To get started, I’ve put together a list of things to think about now so that the last two months of the year go smooth and with the least amount of stress possible. Ready, set, get ready to tackle the 2018 holiday season!
1 - Mark Your Calendar.
Before anything else, sit down with your calendar, your planner or pull up the digital calendar on your computer. Whichever you use regularly. Mark down any dates you know you have a commitment. Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s 3pm sharp, Christmas Eve dinner at Aunt Mary’s 6pm, Christmas Brunch hosted by you 11am. Mark down holiday parties for work, kids’ parties for school, random parties thrown by friends, Friendsgiving. Even mark down work events, appointments, every little thing holiday-related or not. You might be surprised how quick your schedule fills from now through January 2nd. I organized my planner this weekend and discovered I only had two free weekends through the end of the year. I was as surprised as the next person. Without writing these dates down, you don’t realize exactly how busy the season is about to get. And that’s one more reason to start preparing now - time isn't as easy to come by.
2 - Start Making ALL The Lists.
List lovers will be all over this one but if you hate lists, get on board for this time of year. You won’t regret it. Start with gifts. Make a list of everyone you need to shop for throughout the season. Kids, parents, teachers, co-workers, friends, etc. Also include three back-up gifts in case you’re pulled into a Secret Santa or White Elephant. Keep this list in an easy to access space like a Google Doc or OneNote on your computer. Whenever you decide what you’re gifting to someone, list it by their name. Whenever you purchase that gift, cross their name off the list but don't delete them. The paper trail will help avoid losing your mind later when you can't remember which gifts you bought two months ago. Doing this now gives the opportunity to spread the shopping out so it’s not as hard on the bank account, one of the biggest stressors during the holiday season. That alone is a reason to create this list. As a reformed last-minute, Christmas Eve shopper, I understand thinking about gifts right now is hard.
Another vital list important to make in advance is contributing dishes and hostess gifts. Each party you’re attending you should bring at least one of each: a dish to contribute or a hostess gift. Never arrive to a party empty handed. Even if the hostess says they have everything covered, at least bring a bottle of wine. It shows thoughtfulness and that you appreciate being invited and all the work the host has put into entertaining. Find out in advance which events you need to prepare a dish for and which ones you can bring a gift only. Try and make your dishes something that’s easy to make ahead so that you’re not sweating in the kitchen before the party. I love traditional casseroles, or pastas like baked mostaccioli. Desserts are also a safe bet as well as easy appetizers. It should be ready to serve upon arrival. It should not cause the hostess any extra work.
3 - Meal Plan (If You’re Hosting).
If you are hosting a holiday, start planning NOW. Do NOT wait until one or two weeks before the event to start planning. That’s a big mistake and you will feel it hard, especially when you realize the stores are out of turkeys, hams, and other vital ingredients. We are hosting Christmas Eve, Christmas Brunch, and Christmas Day Dinner. I have been thinking about the menus since August. I’m finalizing the menus this weekend. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving, it’s strongly suggested you begin this weekend as well...you’re less than a month out. One of my best friend is hosting an early and late Thanksgiving service and she's also been preparing since August. Because this is a heavy task, I’ve split it into 4 parts to break it up:
Step 1: Develop the menu. Using an estimated number of people that will be attending your event, determine how many you expect to serve. It's always best to over prepare and have leftovers than under prepare and not enough food. Brainstorm what will serve as a main course, how many appetizers you need, side dishes, desserts, etc. If your holiday or event will be potluck-style, decide who will be bringing what and assign it to them. What's leftover is your responsibility.
Step 2: Now that you know what you are responsible for providing (even if it’s the whole shebang), start determining exactly what that will be. Will you serve a traditional turkey dinner for Thanksgiving with all the trimmings? Do you have family traditions you want to keep going for Christmas? Will you have a themed holiday? Last year, I did sliders and heavy appetizers for Christmas Eve. Get the menu carved out (no pun intended) and it’s on to step three.
Step 3: Create a timeline. Once you know what you’ll be cooking for your event, create a schedule working backwards. Start the day of with guest arrival time. You should have a day-of timeline, day before timeline, and even a two-day in advance timeline. For items that can be made ahead, be sure to make time in your calendar to prep them a week, two weeks, or even a month out. This timeline is your holiday bible. Keep it safe, keep it in view because flying by the seat of your pants is not going to make things easy nor will you be satisfied with the end result. Follow this timeline like your life depends upon it.
Step 4: Grocery List(s) and Shopping. Now that you have your timeline, you can get your grocery shopping done. For anything that is non-perishable like baking supplies and canned goods, buy them in advance and store them in a spot specifically designated for holiday cooking and baking. Spread out the rest of your shopping by creating lists for each week of prep. Whichever dishes you'll be focusing on that week can be added to your regular weekly shopping list. Some perishable items don’t give much flexibility for shopping but try and purchase everything you need at least five days in advance of your event.
4. Execution + Enjoy The Holidays!
Now that your planning is complete (the hard part), get started on tackling your to-dos. Get your gift shopping done, wrap the gifts as you buy them so they are out of the way and finished. Begin prepping any make ahead dishes to store them for easy prep the day of events. Decorate the house, the outside, enjoy time with family, and go about your regular life. We fly through summer with barbecues, graduation parties, birthday parties, and holidays almost every weekend without blinking an eye. The holidays can be just as fun and enjoyable, it just takes a little advance planning and thought. Once you get everything sketched out and thought of, you’re set for the season. Turn on the Food Network, Hallmark or Freeform to get in the spirit of the season and enjoy the company of others you might not see very often.
December 26th, I’m so exhausted that I have a “day of rest” where I don’t leave my bed but it’s all worth it when I see friends and family enjoying my food and each other's’ company. It’s all worth it when I realize that I conquered the season and still had an amazing time. It’s worth it when we come out of the season with more memories than we started with. And on December 27th, after I’ve had my Netflix and chill day, I start thinking about what new things I want to try next year.