Planning, tips can take stress out of holidays

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Wow, can it really be that we are here, now, facing the holidays? If you are like me, you are totally excited.

I love the holiday season and all its grandeur. The thought of spending time with loved ones, eating delicious foods to our hearts content and most of all, feeling the Christ-mas spirit, is enough to make any time special.

All of that being said, the holidays do tend to come with more than their share of stress. Gifts to buy, traveling in potentially bad weather and working schedules around days off are certainly on the list of things some people don’t like to see no matter when it is.

Another stress for many people is the food. How to get everything ready, what to buy, reheating and presentation of the food can all lead to unnecessary stress. I want to give you some of my tips and tactics that will help alleviate some of the stress and allow you to have a more relaxed holiday season.

First and foremost, people need to take a breath. You can take that literally or figuratively but however you do, it’s the truth.

People tend to get in too much of a hurry when it comes to food. Stop, take a few moments, exhale and plan. It’s the first step to having a great meal in any situation but especially at the holiday season. With your momentary pause out of the way, it’s now time to get down to the nitty gritty.

I’ll start with what typically takes the longest to cook, the turkey. If you buy a frozen turkey, the first thing to note is how long it will take to thaw. An average size turkey can take three to four days to thaw in the refrigerator. It’s important that your turkey be fully thawed or the cooking time will not be correct and it either ends up overcooked or worse yet, undercooked.

No matter if you fry, bake or smoke your turkey, it should be fully thawed prior to cooking.

I also like to set mine out and let it come to room temperature before I cook it. I’ve never had a dry turkey when doing this. Usually I will take the turkey out of the fridge an hour or so before I cook it so that it can warm.

As with most every meat, let it rest for 20 minutes or so prior to carving. Meat looses lots of moisture when it’s cut too soon.

Brining is another thing that seems to be all the rage. I do brine my turkeys occasionally and it’s easy to do. I place mine in a cooler, like those that you see at sporting events, the tall slim ones. Add two gallons of water, a cup of sugar and a cup of kosher salt. Usually the turkey will want to float. Place a heavy plate on it to hold it down. Allow it to sit in the cooler for several hours to overnight, then take it and rinse it well before cooking.

I’ve not noticed a ton of difference in the end result but if it helps even a little bit, it’s worth doing.

Moving on to the sides, now it’s real planning time.

One of the most common questions I get is how to make everything come out ready at the same time. I wish I could say there’s a crystal ball that will tell you how to do this, but really, there’s not.

The one thing that really helps me is to make a list the week before. Sit down and plan what you are making and write down roughly how long each recipe takes. Once this is done, you can begin laying out the order of how you will prepare them. Do anything that you can ahead of time. For instance, I will cook my potatoes a couple of hours before I mash them. Once I have them ready, they can stay in the pot until I’m ready and then I mash them right in the same pot. Instead of making tons of extra dishes, I cook them, mash them and even serve them in the same pot.

That brings me to my next tip. Do the dishes as you go and don’t be afraid to serve items right out of the pan. One of the worst feelings at any party is sitting around, worrying about the giant stack of dishes in the sink.

If you keep up with them as you go, you won’t have that dread looming over your party.

In the end, the holidays are about family and spending time with those we love. They shouldn’t, nor do I think they will, judge you for serving foods from the pot. Although it’s nice to have a beautiful setup on your table, anyone who has ever hosted a party knows what it’s like to clean the mess up afterwards.

We tend to get lost in what I call “the fancy,” when in reality we are making it harder on ourselves at a difficult enough time. To take it a step farther, especially if you recycle, look for paper plates and table ware that is disposable. If the food tastes good, the plate it’s sitting on doesn’t matter.

Keep in mind that most desserts can be made ahead of time as well. Some pies and cakes can be made days ahead of time, lessening the stress you are under on the day of the dinner. Also, when it comes to desserts, keep in mind that most people tend to over-do the sweets.

After a huge meal of stick to your rib foods, the thought of piling on a dessert is not one that many people enjoy. Keep the desserts simple, a pie or two, some candy or a brownie and everyone will be happy. You don’t have to find a place for tons of desserts in your fridge after no one ate them.

One thing I like to do is have a flavor or two of coffee creamers in place of a dessert. A nice cup of decaf with a creamy flavoring is often times just the thing after a big meal.

Lastly, I will finish with one of the tips I talk about in a lot of my classes and articles. If you want a little extra flavor, something that will make things just a bit different without a ton of extra work, consider adding fresh herbs.

When I’m boiling my potatoes for mashing, I wrap a sprig or two of rosemary in a coffee filter and drop it in with the potatoes. The coffee filter keeps the leaves from falling off into the pot while still allowing the flavor to permeate the potatoes. When they are cooked, remove the filter and rosemary and mash them as you normally would. It adds a fantastic woodsy touch to the mashed potatoes.

Fresh sage chopped up and added to stuffing gives it a wonderful pop. Keep some fresh mint on hand for adding to tea or, if you are so inclined, a whiskey over ice with a bit of sugar.

Thyme is another herb that can be found locally in the groceries that goes great in gravy and sauces. All it takes is a minute to add the herbs and the flavor will really wow your crowd.

As always my friends, I hope you enjoy these tips and remember, the holidays are about family and enjoyment.

Don’t get stressed over the food. Plan things out, make as much as you can ahead of time, use the shortcuts of serving from the pots and doing the dishes as you go and make this the most enjoyable Christmas you can.

Merry Christmas to all and have a safe and happy holiday season!


Shawn Keeton is author of the cookbook, “Keeton in the Kitchen, A Celebration of Family, Friends and Food.” He resides in Carrollton, Ky.