Your Game Plan for Small-Scale, Stress-Free Holiday Meals

Claire Tansey answers your questions about how to make holiday meals special in a year that feels anything but.

First things first. Should I even bother to make a big meal?

Yes. Now, more than ever, we need to celebrate annual rituals. Even if we can’t be together, especially if can’t be together, we need to mark the passing of this terrible year. After all, familiar holiday favourites are the epitome of comfort food, and if there ever was a year when we needed comfort. But that doesn’t mean you need to worry about starting today or buying antacids in bulk — a holiday meal can still feel special without causing stress.

(Related: 14 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays at Home)

How do I begin?

Talk to your immediate family and see this as your chance to make the holiday meal you want. Hate turkey? Always wanted to try an elaborate vegetarian pie, an Italian seven-fish feast or a big brunch instead of an evening meal? This is your year!

Consider which meals say “holiday” to you. I have so many that I plan to stretch them out over a few days. I need to have my mom’s tourtière, roast beef with all the trimmings and plum pudding. Which dishes will make it feel like the holidays for you? Don’t forget to think about your leftover wishes. (A ham or turkey, which a crowd will pick to the bone, may feed you for a week this year. Fish, on the other hand, is more of a one-shot deal.)

Once you’ve settled on a rough menu, fill out the margins. Write down all the snacks, side dishes, sauces and desserts you want to round out the meal. This planning will pay off in the stress department. Looking for guidance on how to make those sides or desserts for the first time? Lean on trusted resources that include recipe reviews or cookbook authors (hi!) whose recipes are tested.

What if, now that I’m not bound by tradition, I feel paralyzed by choice?

Keep it simple and go with a stripped-down version of a basic but awesome holiday meal: a roast plus gravy, potatoes or stuffing (if your roast is a bird), two veg and one dessert. For instance, try turkey, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and peas, plus pumpkin pie. Or choose the brunch version: a broccoli-cheddar quiche with tomato chutney and bean salad, plus an amped-up dessert, like pavlova.

What can I skip, without the guilt?

Now that you’ve figured out what matters to you, take some time to think about the routines or traditions that are done out of habit, not because they actually bring you joy. This year I’ll be skipping our usual homemade appetizer spread (it’s a ton of work), my brother’s favourite tinned peas (which I’ve always hated) and my mom’s eggs Benedict Christmas breakfast (I’ll relax with raisin toast and coffee on the couch instead and skip the hour of work). If creating a spectacular tablescape makes you happy, then have at it. If not, maybe just light a dozen candles (my fail-safe atmosphere creator). If a roast turkey stresses you out, forget it! There are plenty of foolproof oven-ready options available in the grocery store for mains and sides (and for the record, this is not cheating in any way — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise).

(Related: 10 Ways to Stay Calm Amid the Holiday Chaos)

How do I adjust my menu for a much smaller group?

If turkey is your jam, order the smallest one possible (usually about 11 pounds). Or ask a butcher for half a turkey, and they’ll cut it down the backbone so you get one leg, thigh, wing and breast. A five-pound ham will feed six with lots of leftovers. At our house, I budget for two potatoes per person because we love them, and the same goes for all green vegetables (I can never get enough). If you want to live off the leftovers for a week, increase the quantities accordingly.

If any of your favourite recipes are designed to feed a much bigger crowd, and it feels risky to halve or quarter them, just make the whole thing and freeze the extras. My great-grandmother’s plum pudding recipe makes two big puddings and doesn’t halve well, so I’m going to pop one in the freezer for my birthday in March.

I’m still worried about getting it all done without losing my mind.

Here’s a simple if deadly boring trick that always works wonders for reducing our family’s overall stress: Write up a work-back schedule. That magical slip of paper that tells me to put the potatoes in the oven at 3:30 p.m. and to start the gravy at 4:45 p.m. pours a soothing balm over my entire day. Get as specific as possible (what time do you need to preheat the oven?), and don’t forget that big roasts like turkey, beef and ham can and should rest for at least 30 (and as much as 90) minutes before carving.

Also figure out what you can get done one and two days beforehand, like dessert, sauce or salad dressing and some veggie sides, plus the table decor. (Who says the kids can’t have a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast at a beautifully set table?)

(Related: 3 Ways Mindfulness Can Help You Get Through the Holiday Season)

What about dinner on allll the other days?

My advice, which I intend to take, is to bask in simplicity this year. Leftovers, takeout and easy 15-minute suppers are all wonderful options. I’m thinking about pushing our traditional Christmas Eve feast back a day and taking December 24 “off” to have a movie and charcuterie night. To make a great family charcuterie board, start with three cheeses (something simple, like cheddar or havarti; a creamy option, like brie or Boursin; and a funky one, like Stilton or Grey Owl) and three cured meats (such as salami, mortadella and prosciutto). Add grapes, toasted nuts, some jarred fig jam and a ton of plain crackers.

It feels like I’m forgetting something.

Do a “pre-mortem” and think of yourself on January 2. What kind of holiday will you have wished for? A little forethought will make everything more special and less stressful.

Keep a few tricks up your sleeve and in your pantry for nights when you need an easy pick-me-up. Prosecco (or sparkling grape juice), frozen mini quiches and a box of chocolates to eat all at once makes a quiet Tuesday dinner weird, fun and unforgettable (your kids will want to make it an annual tradition!).

Take advantage of some of that found time to connect with the people who can’t be beside you at the table. Watch a movie “together” in separate locations, set up an online carolling party or share a recipe for mulled wine and host a virtual family cocktail party. And don’t forget about all the other ways to get into the holiday spirit: Donate to the local food bank, give blood or shovel someone’s walk. Because ultimately, the holidays should pack some serious happiness. In my opinion, obligation and stress get way too much airtime — and if there’s anything we need this year, it’s more joy.

Next: The Importance of Making Memories During Pandemic Life

Originally Published in Best Health Canada