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Holiday Host Tips | How to Plan and Execute a Holiday Meal On Your Own

Pulling off a holiday meal for extended family takes practice. Thanksgiving this year was my most successful to date. I prepared all the items I planned (with only 1 bomb!), and they were all served at the appropriate temperature! This is no small feat, in my opinion.

I can remember my first holiday in my first house. I had my whole extended family there to help. We were using 2 microwaves, the stove and the oven, and yet somehow, not everything was hot at meal time.

The difference then versus now was a good plan. Back then, I remembering handing a recipe card and ingredients to my sister-in-law and asking her to make it using the microwave in the laundry room. Not ideal instructions nor location for cooking! Poor delegation, Emily!

I’m much more organized and prepared now (although still much to learn!), so I will share my schedule in the hopes of making your holiday meal more successful than some of mine have been.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start (name that tune!)…

Research and select menu

In this post, I discussed my Thanksgiving meal plan. I have dietary restrictions (gluten-free, grain-free, and dairy-free) so finding recipes took some time. I primary use Pinterest to find recipes, and you can find my ideas for my Thanksgiving menu here.

I look for recipes to follow a well rounded meal. Well, actually, I look for recipes that mimic how my mom makes Thanksgiving dinner. Those foods you grow up eating for a holiday always stick out as the best, right?

My menu would look something like this:

  1. Appetizers – I wasn’t looking for anything specific, but 3 easy recipes for hand-held/finger-food.
  2. Dinner
    1. Meat and gravy – Dan was handling this, so I didn’t actually plan anything for this.
    2. Potato – My diet is limited to sweet potatoes so that helped limit my search!
    3. Green Vegetable – Any would do, but I was partial to green bean casserole which did end up winning!
    4. Bread/Roll – Tricky, tricky with the gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free restriction!
    5. Sweet/Fruit – This category is a stretch. I was looking for fruit salad, cranberry sauce, any sort of sweet-fruit-like concoction.
  3. Dessert – Again, not looking for anything specific, and i ended up making 3 of the 5+ recipes I liked.
Grocery List and Shopping

I am a firm believer in menu planning and making a list before heading to the grocery store any time of the year. However, I can’t emphasize enough how much you need to carefully make a list if the entire holiday meal is on your shoulders.

Plan. Plan. Plan. Write. It. Down.

I don’t use a fancy app for my grocery lists. I just use a Google Sheet with a tab for each store. I regularly shop at Aldi, Meijer, and Costco with occasional stops at Harvest Health (local health store). My shopping list Sheet has 4 tabs, one for each store.

Are you ready for my crazy method?

Go through each recipe and type each item needed on the appropriate store’s tab.

Earth shattering, right??

I know it isn’t, but sometimes I just need to hear the simple things. Oh right, that’s how I would make sure I don’t miss any item.

When I need onions, I put “onions” on the list then start a count in the next column. I doubt I will only need 1 onion or even 1 bag on onions. So I keep a running tally of onions as I go through all of my recipes. Then when I get to the store, I know I need at least 14 onions. Then I can decide to buy individually or in bulk. I use this method for any commonly used item (garlic, potatoes, eggs, etc.).

Yes, I needed 14 onions! I was shopping for the entire time family was in town though, not just Thanksgiving. Want some other fun facts? I needed 17 sweet potatoes, 74 eggs, and 9 apples.

preparation the Day before the holiday

The day before the holiday is the “get as much as you can get done DONE” day.

I started with the vegetable dishes and appetizers that would keep well or reheat well the next day. The pumpkin spice dip, maple bacon pecans, and cranberry sauce were very simple to whip up then stored in the fridge (pumpkin spice dip and cranberry) and counter (pecans). I also had the sweet potato mash doing its thing in the slow cooker while I tackled all these recipes. These were done by the end of the night, cooled, covered, then put in the garage.

The cranberry sauce was made early too because I used it in the Cranberry Cookie Crumb Bars. Make sure to think about the order you make things in your prep day! It will be so much easier when cooking if you take a moment to sit down and write a timeline of all you need to make and the ideal order to make each item.

The next items I tackled the day before were the desserts as those keep very well; although, I did hesitate because some gluten-free flours spoil quickly. I ended up making my desserts Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, wrapping tightly in plastic wrap, and storing in the garage (outside was refrigerator temperature here in Michigan!). Every dish was still fresh the next day, and even still fresh 3 days later as we nibbled on leftovers. (I’m eating pumpkin pie as I write this, 4 days after I baked it!)

To tally that up, I made 7 (rather 6.5, the sweet potatoes weren’t all the way finished) of the 13 dishes I had planned. While Wednesday ended very successfully, I didn’t get the paleo cornbread recipe made which I thought might mean it wouldn’t get done on Thursday. I had to let it go. Even if I don’t get to the paleo cornbread stuffing, the meal will still be enjoyed.

The Big Day

It’s the big day! The holiday you’ve planned so much for is here! What should you do first??

First, don’t sleep in. Yes, it’s a holiday, but if you want it to be successful (meaning stress-free for you and therefore your guests), you need to be on your A-game.

Second, make a cup of coffee then make two lists:

  1. The list of dishes still to be made in the most efficient order you can think
  2. The “oven schedule” – This list states the time, temp, and dish that needs to be reheated before the main event. Ideally, everything is finished and hot at the same time!

Third, get to work (with a good attitude!). This is where I have gotten burned in the past. I let the joy of cooking leave my kitchen. I got stressed. So my kids got stressed. Then my husband gets stressed, and before you know it, the whole household is angry and bitter. This is not how to have a good holiday!

I know you know this, but I say this to remind myself, the host sets the tone. If the host is happy and relaxed, so will the rest of the family/guests. On busy days like this, I start my day asking God to multiply my time and efforts that I may accomplish all He wants for me that day. Guess what? He hasn’t failed my request, and I’ve prayed this prayer many times.

I wish I had kept my handwritten timeline of 1) and 2) above. Because it really wasn’t too daunting or long.

List of Things to Make:

  • Green Bean Casserole
  • Paleo Stuffing
  • Coconut Flour Biscuits
  • Topping for the sweet potatoes

Oven Schedule

  • 4:00 – turn slower cooker on low and top sweet potatoes with pecans
  • 4:45 – Bake stuffing for 30-40 at 350°
  • 5:00 – Bake green beans for 20-30 minutes at 350°
  • Meanwhile Dan was carving the turkey and making gravy on the stove-top

I only had 2 casserole dishes in the oven at the same time! Thanks to the slow cooker, big green egg, stove-top, and oven; we had 5 hot dishes ready and piping hot at the same time with no overcooking! Other than our grill, we have a very typical kitchen: no fancy huge range, no double ovens. We cooked this delicious meal in the kitchen you have in your home + a grill (which you just might have!).


As I reread my thoughts, it all boils down to a plan:

  • Research and Select the Menu
  • Grocery List and Shopping
  • Preparation Day
  • The Big Day
    • “Everything Still To Be Made” List
    • The Oven Sdchedule

I did make this entire meal (except the turkey and gravy) by myself. Yes, I did have Dan home to care for the kiddos, and yes, I did spend almost all day in the kitchen. It was a labor of love that was richly rewarded both in good food and good time with family.

Was your most recent holiday meal a success? Did grumpiness take over? It has for me many times, but it can be better, you can be better!

Stress-Free Holiday Meal

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