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5 Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday Meal

Melissa Roja Lawlor
Nov. 18, 2011

Leanne Ely of SavingDinner.com shares tips for how to save yourself from holiday stress as part of the Care.com Interview Series

If you've prepared a big holiday meal before, you may know this scenario all too well. The plates and silverware are shining brightly, the potatoes are mashed, the stuffing is stuffed -- then, ever so slightly, the doubt creeps in. Did I forget to put the pies in the oven? What if the turkey is inedible? Which dish is Aunt Helen bringing again? Did I make enough gravy? Where are the cranberries?

The holidays are filled with emotions -- sometimes joy, sometimes panic, and more often than not, stress. With big meals to plan, family members to coordinate, decorations to hang, and gifts to wrap, there seems to be so much to do in so little time. We asked Leanne Ely, who runs SavingDinner.com, a website that empowers families to get dinner on the table night after night, what you can do to get that big holiday meal on the table stress-free. Here are her tips:

1. Get the staples now.
Around early fall each year, things like stuffing, cans of pumpkin and fresh cranberries go on sale. (A tip from Ely: the cranberries freeze great in the bag you bought them in!) Get all your holiday grocery shopping done now (except the stuff that won't keep); it'll save you from last-minute shopping when it's crunch time.

2. Make a timeline and include helpers. Planning out a schedule is critical to getting a meal of this magnitude on the table. First, figure out what time you want to serve appetizers and dinner. Then add the item that takes the longest to marinate, prep or cook at the top of the list (note: this might mean your timeline starts a day or so before dinner). The rest of the prep can be filled in between. Make sure you note which family members can help mash potatoes or candy the yams -- a little help will go a long way.

3. Make extra gravy. To ensure you have enough gravy, Ely suggests adding an envelope of gravy mix or a jar or two of turkey gravy to your  homemade gravy. "You will never taste the difference and it will extend your gravy by bucketfuls. This is critical if there is a gravy hog at the table!" Ely notes.

4. Get a head start. When it comes to preparing big family meals, Ely has a few time-saving tricks up her sleeve. If you don't have enough stovetop, she suggests making your mashed potatoes earlier in the day and putting them in a crockpot on low to keep warm. Or you can set your table the night before and cover it with a sheet to keep it dust free. "This will force you to have your linens washed and pressed way ahead of the game," she adds.

5. ID your dishes. Ely suggests pulling out all the serving dishes you're going to use and slipping a 3 x 5 card in them labeled with the food that will go in it (ie: mashed potatoes), then stacking them up and out of the way until you need them. "At the end when you're trying to get everything out at one time, your cards do the talking for you!" she says.

For more time-saving and stress-relieving tricks, read our full interview below. You can also find Leanne and Saving Dinner on Twitter and Facebook.

What are the holidays like at your house?

Busy, fun and hard to keep up with! But because I trained my children to cook as little kids, they help with all the holiday meals now, from grocery shopping, to food prep to helping to set the table.

What are some strategies you use or helpful tips for getting a holiday meal on the table on time?

Get it ALL on paper, make a timeline, and for heaven's sake, ask for help!

What's your go-to or "signature" dish for holiday meals?

ALL of Thanksgiving. I consider it my holiday and do things a certain way. I do my mom's dressing, my homemade cranberries, a no baste turkey that is incredible and vats full of gravy.

How do you handle the pressure, if you feel any, of having a completely homemade meal during the holidays? Are there any shortcuts that you swear by?


I have some secrets, but the biggest shortcut is enlisting people to help. While my son mashes the potatoes, my daughter is putting the food on the buffet and my husband is carving the turkey. I merely orchestrate the whole thing.

Could you share with us your three best time-saving tips for the holiday season?

1) Pull out all the serving dishes you're going to use, slip a 3 x 5 card in there with what will go in it (ie: mashed potatoes), then stack them up and out of the way till you need them. At the end when you're trying to get everything out at one time, your cards do the talking for you.

2) To extend your gravy, go ahead and make your own homemade, then add either an envelope of gravy mix (follow the directions; add whatever water or liquid you need) or a jar or two of turkey gravy. You will never taste the difference and it will extend your gravy out by bucketfuls. This is critical if there is a gravy hog at the table!

3) Set your table the night before or even sooner if you want. Cover with a sheet to keep it dust free. This will force you to have your linens washed and pressed way ahead of the game.

What are some rookie mistakes people make when planning for holiday meals?

Trying a new recipe without first test-driving it.

Do you have special craft or even cooking activities to do with the kids?

When my kids were little, I used to have them go outside and find stuff to decorate the middle of the table with (fall-ish stuff). It worked out pretty well except they sometimes brought bugs in with the "nature" they brought in! My suggestion is you have them decorate the coffee table instead!

What are some foolproof ways to deal with the stress that accompanies the holiday season?

Employ your good sense of humor. No one wants to be around a perfectionist trying to make Martha Stewart look like an amateur. What's the point of that? Enjoy the holidays by laughing at your mistakes. The holidays are for everyone, including the cook!

Do you have a holiday disaster story you could share with us? How did you learn from those mistakes?

I tried the overnight method of cooking my turkey and it was almost raw and inedible. Even if it had been cooked enough, I wouldn't have eaten it when I think about it now. How unsafe!

What is the most important piece of advice anyone has given you about preparing for the holidays?

If you don't have enough stovetop, make your mashed potatoes earlier in the day and place in a crockpot on low to keep warm. Works like a charm! But again, try it first. Not all crockpots warm at the same temperature. It'd be a bummer to burn them on the actual day!

Leanne Ely is a New York Times bestselling author and an expert on family cooking. The busy working mom of two writes a nationally-syndicated newspaper column called "The Dinner Diva" in addition to running her original menu-planning website, Saving Dinner.
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