I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent many a holiday cooking in the kitchen and not doing much visiting. So many people are going through some kind of dietary change that trying to pull together a feast everyone can enjoy seems a bit more complicated. Top that with a house full of visitors for a week or more, and the stress-o-meter starts to tick up into the red.
Meals can be a real challenge when it comes to food sensitivities. When traditional fare like eggs, meat, gluten, and dairy are off the menu, trying to find something to eat can seem impossible. Check with your guests’ needs before they arrive.
Thankfully, there is a lot of help out there. Regardless of the diet or the size of the crowd, there are a few time-saving tips that can lower your stress, keep your budget and time in check, and everyone well-fed and happy.
1. Design your menu.
If money is tight, you can save by knowing what you’re going to cook in advance. It’s just as easy to purchase way too much food as it is not to buy enough. Be conscious of food waste. Buy a few extra containers to send food home with your guests.
2. Stagger your shopping.
I don’t care much for financial surprises. Planning helps me eliminate a lot of the worry about having enough. When I plan for meals, I stagger my shopping trips separating the food list into three categories.
- Dried goods, and frozen items. This is the first trip that can be done 1 to 2 weeks in advance.
- Fresh produce. This trip is on a day or two before everyone arrives.
- Miscellaneous items that we might run low on, like coffee creamer, or cereal. This trip can be done any time we run out of something like milk or bread.
3. Set up a beverage station.
This step is a real lifesaver. It keeps people directly out of your work space in the kitchen and allows them to help themselves. I live in a small house with a small kitchen. The beverage area can be set up with two TV trays, or card table if you don’t have the counter space. Put a table cloth over them to give it a nice look.
I found a small tray at Target for $5. This holds most of the coffee and tea accouterments like honey, agave, cinnamon, and hot chocolate mix. I have a cordless tea kettle that boils water quickly, and a small French coffee press. If your coffee pot isn’t too big, this arrangement could work out just fine.
If there are a lot of people moving through, a small cooler nearby can be very helpful. Fill it with ice and keep a variety of milks and cream on hand for morning coffee, tea, and cereal.
4. Portable snacks.
Save time by setting out small snacks that people can help themselves. Keep a few bowls around with seedless oranges, and apples or pears. I keep a bowl with whole nuts and a cracker in it. People tend to talk more, and eat less when they have to work at it. Slow eating is a good thing. If there are lots of kids running in and out, put out a basket with an assortment of healthy granola bars, or veggie chips in it. They can grab snacks on the way outside or to have on hand when sightseeing.
5. Make-ahead meals.
Another huge time-saver for me is to make some of the meals ahead of time. Get some suggestions from the family with dietary restrictions.
Breakfast. While Costco muffins seem like an easy way to feed a lot of people on the go, bread items can tend to leave you hungry a few hours later. Try making some breakfast sandwiches or burritos in advance. They can be frozen and reheated in the microwave.
If you have the counter space, set up a self-serve cereal and toast area. If you’re feeling energetic, make some granola a few weeks before the guests arrive.
Some grocery stores now carry individual portions of frozen fruit that quickly blends into a smoothie. There are some tasty brands of gluten-free muffins and breakfast cereals as well.
Dips and Spreads. Make or buy a few grown-up dips and spreads the day before people arrive. Several will keep in the fridge for a week, if they last that long. These are great for that late afternoon snack before getting together for dinner. Homemade onion dip, roasted red pepper hummus, and black bean dip, are a nice variety that go great with crunchy fresh vegetables, crackers, or toasted French bread.
Lunch. Save yourself some time and put the crockpot or soup pot out. Batches of chili and soup are great for self-serve. One big hit in my family is to make homemade pizzas. The dough can be made in advance or bought at the store in the deli sections. Have the toppings ready so people can choose what they want. Gluten-free crusts are available and there are alternative ‘cheese’ toppings that get brown and bubbly, and stretch, just like mozzarella.
Pre-holiday Dinners. We pretty much eat leftovers after the holiday meal, but what to feed a houseful before the big day? Let’s keep it simple. This is a time when a pre-made casserole works really well. Mac-n-Cheese, lasagna, or enchiladas, served with a big salad can fill many a tummy.
If pasta and cheese aren’t working for you, other possibilities are warm salads, made with roasted veg, meat, or seafood, if you like, or with a grain. Try quinoa, farro, barley, or couscous.
There are lots of options if all the items are separated and people can help themselves. Precook a bowl of rice, baked potatoes, or pasta. Have different veggies available, and separate dishes with meats or beans in them. All of these items can be prepared ahead of time and mixed together for great meals.
If prepping food is a tall feat for just one person, write up a list of what needs to get done and ask visitors to pitch in. Another option is to take turns cooking meals so you don’t have to be tied to the stove.
I finally took my own advice this year and had one of the most restful and memorable Thanksgiving holidays that I can remember. I do believe that future holidays with visitors will be just as nice.