So I've started to plan out meals, taking into consideration any dietary restrictions and allergies as well as family traditions. I also started to make ahead a few things so I can whip them out of the freezer and into the oven while entertaining guests without spending hours in the kitchen.
Why plan ahead? It allows me to make sure we're eating healthy, balanced meals even in the midst of the holidays. It keeps me from being on autopilot and serving chicken for four days straight. And it helps to eliminate last minute runs to the grocery for forgotten ingredients for spur of the moment dinners. I even plan how to use the leftovers creatively so it's not just a case of "last night's dinner... warmed up". Best of all, it saves money and time.
- I use spreadsheets. :) The first page has a week's worth of days, broken down into meals (even breakfast) and allowing for afternoon snacks and a dessert. I insert direct links to recipes if I plan on using one specific one. The second page is the grocery list that will be generated from the meal plan.
- I check the pantry, fridge and deep freeze inventory first. If there's anything I already have on hand that I want to use, I populate the spreadsheet accordingly. I don't want to buy anything I already have on hand... especially during the holidays.
- I check my grocery ads to see if there's any specials I want to take into account when selecting recipes.
- I plan on buying once, using twice. If hamburger's on bulk sale, I may make half of the ground meat into tacos one night and save the rest for slow cooker sloppy joes, but brown up all the meat at once and THEN divvying it up into the two batches for separate meals. Leftover roasted chicken can be shredded for a tortilla soup for later in the week, or a quick chicken salad with pita chips... so I tend to roast extra because I already have uses for the leftovers in mind.
- Look for common ingredients in different recipes so you can buy once for multiple dishes.
- I also plan out my hors d'oevres when having people over to be sure I'm not missing anything.
- I pull out my tried and true recipes, but usually add in one or two new ones to keep it interesting for me. Pinterest is a good resource. So is epicurious. If they are available, I always read the reviews to see if there's something to account for it making the recipe (did the majority of the people complain about not enough seasoning? Is the cooking time off?)
- I make ahead casseroles the week or two before, double up the recipe and freeze the extras into smaller portions so that it's a great side to pull out and just stick in the oven. Rice broccoli casserole freezes well. Baked mac and cheese does as well. You can also freeze twice baked potatoes. That way, all I need to do is roast up some meat, toss together a quick salad or steam up a bag of veggies and I'm all set. My prep work has been halved... and so has my cleanup.
- Fresh herbs brighten and refresh frozen dishes you prepared in advance. Frozen lasagna? Chop up fresh basil and parsley to sprinkle onto it before serving.
- My recipes for banana bread and pumpkin breads always seem to make two loaves, so I wrap them up well and freeze them. Same with muffins. I defrost the day before for a quick breakfast- I usually have some yogurt, fresh juice and fruit to complement the breads and they can help themselves to breakfast while I am sleeping in :)
- I cook what I can for Christmas dinner in advance so that the actual work on that day is minimal. I want to be refreshed and focused on family.
- I have quick standbys in case things don't work out. I tend to grill up extra chicken breasts for my own salads so I always have extra on hand. In my case, it's salad with grilled chicken and the always present frozen bags of steamable veggies. I also have homemade soups frozen in smaller batches on hand for a quick meal of salad, soup, and crusty bread.
- I have a homemade pound cake in the freezer, waiting to be defrosted. My menu plan gives me the head's up when to defrost it so that it's thawed for the next day's dessert. Fresh berries and whipped cream are a quick complement.
- Each time I made Christmas cookies, I held back a dozen or so of each recipe to freeze in small balls with cooking instructions Sharpied onto the ziplock bag. I can bake as many or as few as I want- straight out of the freezer and onto the baking pan, and have a variety of fresh cookies made by the time I've made the eggnog or hot cider.
- I also keep vanilla ice cream and a 2 liter of root beer on hand for rootbeer floats (possibly one of the simplest treats out there).