The lazy cook’s guide to pre-making holiday dinners

I dislike the “busy” feeling that a lot of Americans associate with the holidays. I would much rather enjoy a laid-back meal and do other things, besides spend all day cooking and preparing, then cleaning up tons of dishes afterwards. Frankly, I don’t know many women who do enjoy it! 

So, when I moved away from most of our family and we were hosting our own holidays, we decided to keep things as low-key as possible. Even when we’ve had family over for holidays, we try to keep things as simply as possible and not fuss too much over the small details. Anyone who really cares if they have their special german potato salad made with great-grandma’s recipe, or the special coleslaw is welcome to make it and bring it, but we don’t do lots of fussy dishes at our house, because I would rather focus on being with family, not cooking for the family!

I’ve made this pre-made mean plan as a sort of American Thanksgiving-style meal plan, but really, it’s all about helping you getting your creative juices flowing. If you can simplify the holidays, then why not make it easier on everyone, especially the cook? If there are things in here that you don’t eat, then don’t feel pressured to cook them just because I do! 

How to precook a turkey or chicken

I’m not here to tell you have to have turkey or chicken during the holidays, but if that’s one of your family traditions, then here’s the easy way to pre-make all of your own. 

  • Cook a turkey just as you would normally, then let it cool and carve it as you normally would. If you want to make reheating and cleanup extra easy, freeze your turkey slices and pieces in a throw-away casserole container. 
  • Grab your bird from the freezer the day before. Reheat in a covered dish on 350º for 35 minutes or until warmed through.

Pro tip: save some of the drippings from the pan in a freezer bag, to drizzle over your turkey when you reheat it. This will help you keep it extra moist as you reheat! 


How to make ahead mashed potatoes

One of the things I’ve read a lot is that you can’t make mashed potatoes ahead of time, because they don’t freeze well. It’s true that if you just freeze your potatoes cooked without adding anything in, the texture won’t turn out right. The key to freezing and reheating mashed potatoes is to add enough fat to them to stabilize them! 

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes

  • Skin and heat your potatoes, then mash or blend with plenty of cream and butter. Add salt, pepper and another seasonings your family loves. 
  • Label your freezer bag, add your mashed potatoes once they are cooled, and freeze! 
  • For the easiest reheating, pull your potatoes out of the day before and let them thaw in the fridge. On serving day, you can reheat in the following ways:
    • On the stovetop: dump the thawed potatoes into a saucepan, heating over low to medium heat – don’t forget to stir frequently. Add milk or cream as needed to help your potatoes stay moist. 
    • In the oven: throw the potatoes in a covered oven-safe dish, then heat them on 350º for 30 minutes, or until warm all the way through.
    • In  the microwave: heat on half-power for 5 minutes, then continue to add 1 minute intervals until thoroughly heated. 

Handling other dishes

Okay, so now that we’ve gotten two of the big things out of the way, it’s time to look at things you can purchase ahead of time already frozen, or purchase them and freeze them:

  • Pumpkin pie (see these tips from the Kitchn for a how-to) is great to make ahead and freeze!
  • Corn, green beans, and many other veggies can be purchase pre-frozen, so all you have to do is heat and eat them on serving day! 
    I know a lot of people are afraid of canning, but I love to can, I learned the basics from my friend Jenny over at The Domestic Wildflower. Her Start Canning course changed my life! Now, whenever there’s a holiday meal coming up, we never have to worry about what veggies we’re having on the side, we can just grab something from the pantry, then heat and eat! 
  • Breads and rolls are amazing frozen, whether they’re homemade or store bought. To thaw, simply grab them from the freezer and let them thaw on the counter overnight. A few minutes in the oven will have them warm and toasty! 
  • When it comes to cranberry sauce, I personally prefer the store-bought variety that resembles the can it comes out of, however, for those of you who are more into the homemade variety, cranberry sauce is SO easy to make ahead of time. You can can it, or leave this recipe in the fridge for up to 10 days

Smart planning makes easy holidays

This is one of the times of year when I really encourage you to go as simple as possible, but still make it fun! I love holiday food, but I also don’t love to be exhausted, and don’t love having to slave for hours and hours over a meal we’ll be finished with in an hour or two. 

Some final tips for planning a make-ahead holiday meal

  • have a plan for leftovers, so they don’t go to waste in the fridge
  • plan reasonable portions – having too much means lots of waste
  • limit things that have to be done on cooking day
  • it’s okay to reject “tradition” in favor of a good substitute when it saves the cook time and energy. It’s a holiday for the cook too! 

I hope you enjoyed this guide, it’s something I have used a lot, not only during the holidays, but when I know we’re having family over and the kitchen is going to be full of people. The simpler I can make things in the moment, the less stress there is, and the more everyone can enjoy it! 

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