Here are a few of my best tips:
The freezer is a good way to save last minute time for the things that really need to be last minute. Desserts and baked goods are two categories that freeze well. Make your holiday cookies one weekend and put in the freezer to pull out when needed.
You can freeze baked cakes and layers. Just thaw and frost. You can make your pie crusts 2 months ahead and freeze (use a recipe that has a high fat content). Unbaked crusts should be baked from the frozen state, not thawed. Rolls, breads, quick breads and muffins will freeze well.
My mom spends a day in November making 3-4 different kinds of quick breads -- pumpkin, zucchini, cranberry, banana -- to put in the freezer for the holidays. She will thaw a loaf for breakfast or take a tray for refreshments at Sunday School. Cornbread can be made and frozen for the stuffing or tear and freeze the light bread for northern stuffing.
Another way to use your freezer is to brown up sausage so it's ready to use in breakfast casseroles, stuffings and pasta dishes. Cook up chicken, shred and freeze to use in quick dinners -- or make the whole casserole and freeze.
Lasagna is a good Christmas Eve dinner but takes a lot of time, so make it ahead and freeze.
One of the most stressful things you can do is to plan a menu that totally relies on oven space. You're waiting for one thing to come out and it's taking longer than you thought but other things have to go in next.
We have found in preparing meals for meetings that the easiest menus rely on a roasted meat. Pork loin, beef tenderloin, turkey, pork tenderloin -- all just need to be sprinkled with herbs and spices or thrown into a marinade for great flavor and then they simply bake while you do other things on the stovetop or in the slow cooker.
Slow cookers are making a comeback and are a huge helper during the busy holiday season. Not only do they make easy weeknight dinners but they also can work to help free up precious oven space for turkeys or hams or roasts. You can make your stuffing, vegetables and sides in your slow cooker. There are many books and recipes on-line for slow cookers.
Getting ready for the big day can be broken down into a few steps each day for several days ahead. Cook and mash your sweet potatoes a day or two ahead and refrigerate. Sauté onions and celery for the stuffing the day before and refrigerate.
Make the pies a day or two ahead of time. Do any chopping or toasting of nuts or browning of ground meats a few days ahead so all you have to do is combine items. Premeasuring and combining ingredients such as herbs and spices or streusel toppings for sweet potatoes will make things easier at the last minute as well.
Cooking the turkey neck and gizzards for broth for the stuffing a day ahead works well too. We recommend baking your stuffing in a casserole, but if you do stuff your turkey be sure to do this just before it goes in the oven (this is not a do ahead).
Quick family meals during the holidays call for stocking up on items that can be pulled together in a hurry. Canned chicken, cream soups, chicken broth, pasta noodles, jarred marinara sauce, cheeses, onions, carrots and celery are ingredients that can make a quick casserole, soup or pasta dish when time is low.
Keep crackers, cream cheese and pepper jelly on hand for a last minute appetizer when guests show up unexpectedly or the family is hungry and dinner's not quite ready.
By using these tips and planning ahead, holiday meals can be stress free and quick to prepare. Take a few minutes to plan your meals and your timeline and you'll be set for a wonderful season of sharing with friends and family.
Here are a few recipes to get you started for delivering a fabulous holiday dinner.
(Photo by Whitney Danhof)
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 pork tenderloins
In a small bowl, combine paprika, salt, oregano, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and black pepper. Rub over outside of tenderloins. Place in a large re-sealable plastic bag; seal and refrigerate overnight. Place tenderloin on a rack in a foil-lined shallow roasting pan. Bake, uncovered, at 425 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads 145 degrees. Let stand for 5 minutes before slicing.
(Photo by Whitney Danhof)
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
3/4 cup orange juice
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 pinches ground cloves
1/4 cup butter, melted
Place sweet potatoes in slow cooker. Combine orange juice, chicken broth, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Pour over sweet potatoes. Pour melted butter over the top, cover and cook on high for about 3 -3 1/2 hours or until potatoes are tender.