Do-Ahead Tips to Make Holidays a Snap

It's so easy to become harried during the holidays. All that food to make and gifts to buy and wrap, never mind the calendar full of parties, dinners and school functions.

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TANYA BRICKING LEACH (For The Associated Press)

It's so easy to become harried during the holidays. All that food to make and gifts to buy and wrap, never mind the calendar full of parties, dinners and school functions.

Surviving is all a matter of planning, especially when it comes to food. That means start preparing early, take advantage of select packaged and prepared foods, and focus your energies.

Here are tips from the experts for busting the holiday stress cycle.

- Do the cutting, chopping, slicing, dicing and other food prep drudgery a day ahead of time, says Michael Chiarello, host of Food Network's "Easy Entertaining." Assembling a recipe is easier when your ingredients are prepped.

"Think of it like you're a Food Network host," says Chiarello, who organizes ingredients for each dish on trays in his refrigerator along with the recipe so he can have everything ready. "I tend to map everything out."

- If you're really strapped for time, buy vegetables pre-cut and garlic already minced, says Falan Taylor, an Austin, Texas, personal chef who focuses on entertaining. These ingredients cost more, but reduce prep time to opening a bag.

- Focus your energy. Marguerite Marceau Henderson, author of "Small Plates: Appetizers as Meals," says people are more likely to be impressed by one fabulous course than four mediocre ones.

- Don't assume everything has to be from scratch, says Heidi Tyline King, an author of craft and cooking books.

"One of the best things to do is to embellish something store-bought," she says. She buys cookies for her children to decorate. And for an easy appetizer, she dresses cream cheese with homemade jam and serves it with fancy crackers.

- Create "food kits" from which a recipe can be constructed later, says Jennifer Armentrout, senior food editor and test kitchen manager at Fine Cooking magazine. One good way is to separate wet and dry ingredients.

For example, a kit for a side dish of broccoli topped with boiled eggs and lemon-Parmesan breadcrumbs, would include prepared eggs in one bag and breadcrumbs and seasonings in another. Baked goods can be similarly prepared.

- Stuffings and dressings can be made in advance and refrigerated up to three days, says Robin Miller, host of Food Network's "Quick Fix Meals." Just don't stuff a bird too far ahead of roasting time or you'll risk bacterial contamination.

- Look for recipes that can be assembled early, then frozen. Lasagna is wonderful for this.

And if you plan to serve roasted vegetables, wash and prep them early, then toss them in a zip-close plastic bag with oil and seasonings, and freeze. Thaw them in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours before you plan to cook them.

- Not that organized? Kate Merker, associate food editor at Real Simple magazine, suggests blanching green beans two days ahead of time, then just before serving give them a quick saute with pine nuts until the beans are heated through.

- If you have a holiday breakfast or brunch planned, French toast can be made the night before. Let the bread soak in the egg mixture overnight in the refrigerator, Miller says. Pancake batter can be mixed the night before, too.

- Maximize your stove space. Merker says that if you have a four-burner stove, you may be able to use the space in the middle to warm up cranberry sauce.

- Adjust your menu to the time and energy available. Don't include last-minute side dishes that require a lot of oven time, says Rebecca Hays, managing editor at America's Test Kitchen.

Instead, choose recipes than can be made ahead of time and reheated in the microwave or on the stovetop.

Dessert can always be made well in advance, she says. Cheesecake feeds a crowd and can be made several days in advance. Flourless chocolate cake is another good make-ahead dessert choice.

- "Always start a party with a clean dishwasher and a clean trash can," says Diane Phillips, author of the "Diva of Do-ahead" series of cookbooks.

Better yet, she says, run your wine glasses and other party ware through the dishwasher two days before the party, then set the table and cover it with a sheet to protect it from dust.

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