Cooking and Planning for a Holiday Party

by sockii

Cooking for a big holiday party or dinner can be a daunting task. But if you plan well in advance you can save money and prepare lots of tasty food for your guests.

Hosting a holiday or Christmas party in your home? If so, there are numerous aspects of the party which require advance planning: cleaning the house, decorating, figuring out background music or other entertainment, coming up with fun cocktails or a tasty punch... and of course, the food!

While the easy solution is to simply buy pre-made holiday trays, frozen appetizers and sweets (or perhaps even hiring a caterer for the night) cooking your own food for your party can save you a lot of money - and make your event that much more memorable for your guests. I've been hosting a holiday party in my home for four years now and people are always telling me how much they look forward to my home-cooked food and fun menus.

That said, cooking for a group of 10, 20 or even 40 to 50 people can be a real challenge, if not seemingly overwhelming. However, you can do it with a little advance planning and choosing a number of dishes to make that can be prepared well ahead of time. Your objective as well should be not having to spend your entire Christmas party slaving away in the kitchen, but to be able to relax and enjoy your food with your guests.

I hope some of my advice and tips below will help you plan your next holiday party, and that you'll receive raves about your wonderful food!

Image above: A selection of crostini, cured meats, and salads as part of a holiday party buffet. All photos on this page are by the author, sockii, unless otherwise indicated.

Frittata, meatballs, dips, breads, salads and more at one year's party spread in my home.
Frittata, meatballs, dips, breads, salads and more at one year's party spread in my home.

How often do you host a holiday party in your home?

The First Step Is To Plan and Shop Ahead

You should start planning your menu for the party well in advance - that way you'll be able to work up a list of all of the supplies and food stuffs you'll need, and develop a plan and strategy for cooking and baking that will work.

Look for appetizers, dips, salads and other dishes which can be prepared ahead of time and either served cold, room temperature or just reheated as needed. Avoid planning on dishes which are too labor-intensive at the finishing stages, so that you won't be stuck in the kitchen while your guests are enjoying the party. I'll discuss more good options for dishes later on.

Stocking upOnce you've roughed out your menu selections, start shopping for your party food supplies as early as you can - say around Thanksgiving, when many supermarkets are running big sales on kitchen and entertaining staples such as baking supplies, cooking stock, dried pasta, canned goods, crackers, nuts, soda pop and of course those big frozen turkeys! A turkey - or perhaps a ham or other roast - can be a great centerpiece for a holiday party buffet.

By stocking up on non-perishables when you can get the best prices, you'll save quite a bit of money on your party food. You'll also save yourself having to be in a last minute rush to buy food items for your party, beyond perishable items such as fruit, vegetables, cold cuts and cheeses.

Shopping TIp

Many supermarkets run giveaways for a free turkey, turkey breast, ham or veggie lasagna around Thanksgiving if you spend enough money. Don't miss that chance to stock up on a free bird or other large item for a holiday party!

Turkey - not just for Thanksgiving!

Menu planning and why it's important

Sarde en saorI mentioned above planning your menu in advance. This is important for a few reasons. Not only do you want to make sure you have all the ingredients on hand that you need, but you can also make sure that you've got options planned to cover any common dietary issues that may come up, especially with a large group.

I like to make sure, personally, that I have good options offered for vegetarian and vegan guests, and also nut-free options as that is such a common allergy these days. If I know a fried has other specific issues (like gluten intolerance), I'll try to plan some options for them as well. Of course you can't cover every possibility that may arise, unless all guests inform you of their dietary restrictions in advance. But it's nice to have something to offer vegetarians besides raw carrot sticks or plain salad.

I also want to plan dishes that will work well together, perhaps along a certain theme. One year, for instance, I did a menu based on the idea of Venetian cicchetti. You could also do something based on the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes for a Christmas party, or Spanish tapas, or maybe retro comfort food. 

Planning ahead will also give you time to prepare dishes that may need longer marinating or extended preparation time, too - like Alton Brown's Free Range Fruitcake which needs 2 to 3 weeks to soak in all the delicious flavor it can. Or as pictured here, sarde in saor, a dish I made for my Venetian party which required several days of marinating before it would be ready to serve. So spend some time with your favorite cookbooks, or browsing recipes on Pinterest boards or elsewhere, and come up with that menu plan for success.

The Week Before Your Holiday Party

Bake and Cook in Advance, If Possible

Baked rollsUp to a week or so before your holiday party, you can start preparing items which can be frozen or otherwise put aside until the last minute. For instance, I like to make fresh yeast rolls and breads, however waiting for dough to rise can be time consuming, as well as making all those braids, knots and spirals. But bread dough freezes very easily, and you can prepare rolls up to the baking stage, freeze them on baking trays to keep their shape, and then just take them out to defrost and bake right before your party.

Want to serve fresh-from-the-oven pizza at your party? Again, you can make your dough, let it rise, shape it out and cover with toppings - and then freeze on pizza baking pans! Keep your oven going during the party and just pop in a frozen pizza or two as you go. They'll be far tastier than the preservative-laden supermarket varieties of frozen pizza and you can truly customize the pies with your own favorite toppings and sauces. I personally enjoy making individual-sized "Pizza in a Bite" appetizers. They freeze well and can go straight into the oven to bake. You can fill them in different ways (cheese, pepperoni, vegetables) and just serve up with some marinara sauce on the side.

Meatballs make for great party food, and can also be prepared in advance, frozen, and then warmed up in the oven on the day of your party. You can also make and freeze marinara sauce to serve with them. I like to offer a variety of different meatballs every year, both meat and vegetable-based (eggplant meatballs are tasty and a great option for vegetarians.)

Vegetable lasagnaMany soups and casserole dishes freeze exceptionally well, and make good choices for advance preparation. Again, with a casserole you can prepare it ahead of time, freeze it, and then just pop it in the oven at party time to either finish cooking or to reheat. (Lasagna is perfect for something like this - like my vegetarian lasagna shown here.) The same can be done with many hearty soups and stews. Just keep in mind a few tips: don't freeze mixtures containing hard-cooked egg whites, raw vegetables, mayonnaise or sour cream - they won't reheat or cook well. Starchy ingredients such as beans, potatoes, rice and noodles can become mushy, so undercook them slightly before freezing. And leave off toppings such as breadcrumbs or pastry until the final cooking stage for the best results.

On the sweet side, Christmas cookies are always a popular delight and can again be made several days to a week before your party and just stored in airtight containers on in the freezer until the last minute.

Not big on baking or making sweets?

Guests will often ask if they can bring something to a party, so suggest they can bring a dessert of their choice if they wish. Cookies, pies and brownies are always popular.

The Day Before Your Holiday Party

Last Minute Preparations and Cooking

Roast turkeyThe day before your party is likely to be your busiest cooking day. If preparing a turkey, your bird should be fully defrosted by now and ready to roast in the oven. I don't prepare it with bread stuffing but simply fill the cavity with a mixture of sliced apples, oranges, lemons, onions, celery and fresh herbs. This will keep the meat extra juicy and slightly fruit-infused, perfect for serving sliced at the party for sandwiches. Cooking the bird the day before lefts you not have to tie up your oven right before or during the party, nor worried if it doesn't turn out right.

While the turkey is in the oven, work on other dishes for the party that will be best if they've had a day to marinate and chill in your refrigerator. These dishes will either be served chilled or brought back to room temperature before serving at the party. Here are some of my suggestions, from which you can mix-and-match based on your taste preferences, and what you think your guests will enjoy:

* SalsasFresh fruit salsas. In my experience people love unique, homemade salsas at parties, and they're super-easy to make - just requiring some preparation and chopping time. A salsa can be made from almost any kind of fruit - mango, papaya, apples, nectarines, and of course tomatoes - combined with citrus juice, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, cilantro or parsley, and hot or sweet peppers to your taste. I like to prepare three different colorful salsas for a party, say red tomato, yellow mango, and blueberry, to make a colorful display for the buffet. And salsas typically are best once they've had a day in the fridge to chill and marinate, making them a perfect plan-ahead party dish.

* Dairy, bean or tofu-based dips. It's nice to have some creamy dips available for your guests, along with or instead of the salsas. Sour cream or cream cheese-based dips are easy to make at home with some fresh herbs, seasonings and additions of your choice. A pureed bean dip is often well-appreciated - making your own hummus is quite easy and great in all different varieties, including garlic, jalapeno, olive or lemon. And soft tofu can make for great high-protein dips as well! Dips are just always popular at parties for light snacking, served with chips, crackers, raw vegetables or small slices of bread.

* Pasta saladPasta salad. It's hard to go wrong with a pasta salad, and of course the possibilities are endless. You can continue a Mexican theme from the salsas and make a pasta salad with corn, black beans, tomatoes, roasted peppers and ranch or a chili-lime dressing. Or make an Italian-style pasta salad with olives, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic in a nice Italian dressing. One of my favorite pasta salads is very simple: I saute canned chick peas in olive oil seasoned with fresh garlic, rosemary and chili pepper flakes, then toss with cooked pasta and fresh parsley. This dish is great hot or cold, and so simple - even people who swear they don't like chickpeas love this dish! What's great about a pasta salad is you can have a nice and filling vegetarian option for your guests - or add some quality canned tuna fish and have both vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions available.

* Cheese Ball. I know, it sounds so very 1950s, but cheese balls can be really delicious and a nice change of pace from a simple sliced cheese tray or baked brie. Try my cheeseball recipe, which you can dress up with any number of toppings such as fresh chopped parsley, walnuts, or paprika.

* Home-Roasted Mixed Nuts. Oven still hot after baking your turkey? Toss in a tray of raw mixed walnut halves, cashews, almonds, pecans and/or peanuts mixed with salt, rosemary, sugar, coarse pepper, olive oil and a little maple syrup. Roast them for 10 minutes or so, until the syrup is bubbly and the nuts toasty. Take out and cool on wax paper. Your guests will love these flavorful, salty/sweet (and homemade!) nut snacks.

Some sample dishes I like to make ahead for holiday parties

Calamari salad.
Calamari salad.
Wild rice salad with roasted vegetables.
Wild rice salad with roasted vegetables.
Fried eggplant meatballs.
Fried eggplant meatballs.
Chestnut cake
Chestnut cake
Useful service items for buffets and entertaining in home
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The Day of Your Holiday Party

Last Minute Preparations and Cooking

Despite all of your preparations, the hours leading up to your party are sure to be hectic. Keep a checklist of tasks on hand so you don't forget anything important, including:

  1. Stock up on ice. Get your party ice the morning of the party, and keep it stashed in your freezer, or coolers, until needed. However much ice you think you need, get two bags more. It won't go to waste.
  2. Slice vegetables, cheeses and any cured meats to be served. Keep in airtight containers in your refrigerator until serving time - and only put out one modest plate or tray's worth when the party begins, restocking as needed. Nothing is worse than sweaty or dried out cheese that's been sitting on a buffet for too many hours.
  3. Get any crockpot dishes started. Start these ahead of time enough so that they'll be ready by the time your guests start arriving. This might be for the meatballs you previously cooked and now need to warm up, or perhaps a soup or stew dish. Have the crockpot in a place either in your kitchen - if that's where guests will be enjoying the food buffet - or wherever else it will be convenient for them to serve themselves.
  4. Arrange your buffet table. Make sure all of your serving plates and platters are clean and arranged on the table as you'd like. It can take a while to play around with the organization that will work best for what you are serving, so give yourself time to do so.
  5. Slice the turkey. If you roasted a turkey the day before, get it ready for serving. What I like doing is preparing it two ways: cold for sandwiches and snacking, and warmed up in turkey broth or a light gravy. Slice the best of the white breast meat for the sandwiches, and then put the rest of the meat in a crockpot with turkey broth, some sliced mushrooms, sliced onions, salt, pepper and a little soy sauce. Let that warm up slowly as you're getting ready for the party, and during it guests can "serve themselves" from the pot, just like with the meatballs.
  6. Prepare a chilled tray for creamy dips, any cocktail shrimp, or other chilled seafood appetizers. Put these out only at the very last minute, as guests are beginning or about to arrive. Remember food safety is important!
  7. Preheat oven for any in-party warm-up dishes. Have your oven ready to go to pop in a prepared pizza, lasagna, toasty appetizers, crostini, or other dishes which needs last minute finishing time or cooking.
Dishes arranged and ready for the party...
Arranged platters
...soon they'll be loaded up with food as the guests arrive
Loaded plates of food
And a good time was had by all...
holiday party people
...even the busy host!
sockii at the holiday party
Updated: 05/20/2015, sockii
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