How to Plan for a Big Holiday Meal

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Holiday meals can cause even confident cooks a great deal of performance anxiety. Here are a few Le Cordon Bleu-style tips for making the whole thing go easier:

  1. Get your chef’s knife sharpened. If you’ve got a good chef’s knife, take it in to get it sharpened ahead of the big meal. Some options: Most Sur La Table outlets, cutlery shops, good local hardware stores and even restaurant supply outlets. Don’t have a decent chef’s knife? Maybe it’s time for an early holiday gift for yourself. This is a good time to sharpen your knife skills.
  2. Mise en place. In French, this loosely translates to “everything in place,” and it’s a common chef’s strategy for kitchen efficiency. Basically, it means get as much prepped as possible before cooking. In my house, I do most of the peeling, chopping and measuring of ingredients a night or two prior to cooking; simply put chopped stuff into storage bins or bags and mark them as needed. (Above photo.) You can even measure out ingredients for each recipe ahead of time, right down to spices. (Tip: Use little Dixie cups.) Put them all together with a photocopy or printout of the recipe. The next day, it’s not only a simple assembly job, it’s also a great place to steer that relative who arrives midday and says, “Can I help?” Now they can, without bothering you every couple of minutes to ask where you keep various items. Note: The one exception I make are potatoes for mashing. While you can store peeled potatoes in water overnight, they keep their color and taste better when freshly peeled.
  3. Butter trick. Take sticks of butter and cut them into one tablespoon squares and set inside your fridge in a bowl. All the pros do this.
  4. Hold food over steam, not just in the oven. One of the hardest thing for home cooks putting on a big meal is getting everything hot to the table at once. Most people hold things to keep them hot in the oven, but then that space becomes a premium if it’s still being employed, can overcook food. So, instead, think about those long steam tables at buffets and fill a few pans with water, heat it up, then place your serving bowl or pan in the hot water, cover it with a lid, foil or heat-resistant plastic wrap. Have more food than burners? I keep a couple of trivets near the stove and rotate the foods around as more food finishes as mealtime approaches.
  5. If temperature friendly outside, use your grill. It can act as an extra burner.
  6. Set your table the night (or even two) days before. Restaurants make sure all their tables are set for the next service. This includes making sure water pitchers are ready for filling, corkscrews are nearby for wine, water glasses are in place and so on. If you’re going to serve coffee, make sure you’ve got the coffee cups and set up the coffee ahead of dinner to be ready at dessert.
  7. Inventory your service wear. Set out your serving bowls and serving utensils two days ahead of time. This is particularly important if you’re new to entertaining. Write out your menu, then pull down the dish you plan to serve it in from the turkey platter to whatever you’re serving butter for the rolls on, plus every single utensil you need. Put a post-it note on each item and leave them out if you can. In most cases, “missing” items can easily be borrowed. It’s better to know ahead of time than freaking at the last-minute that you didn’t think about a ladle for the gravy. Also, I can’t stress how valuable little tongs  and pie servers are when hosting a big dinner.
  8. Out of counter space? Go vertical. Professional kitchens employ vertical racks known as “speed racks.” Depending on your kitchen, consider clearing out a cupboard hoarding cereals and pantry items and set it into a box in a bedroom so that you can use that area for extra space to set finished dishes, pies or collect all your mise en place while you’re cooking. (While you’re putting it back, go through the box and see what you’ve not used in the past six months and consider donating it to a food bank.)
  9. Be safe. Ask everyone in your kitchen to wear shoes with closed toes while cooking; in the unusual activity and chaos that can occur in a kitchen, hot gravy or even a knife can fall unexpectedly and cause injury. Be sure you’ve got good oven mitts or invest in some cloth diapers and keep them handy and dry as anything even moist can transmit heat and cause burns. Keep handwash and paper towels near the sink and be sure everyone washes hands frequently, not just after touching the turkey. Keep counters clear of debris and avoid stacking anything perilously on counters.
  10. Have a plan for the dishes. If you’re using separate dishes for dessert, stack them near the table. Count silverware to assure you’ve got enough, or set up a bowl with hot soapy water for a quick cleaning between courses. For years, I’ve employed a laundry basket or recycling bin as a bus tub. As dishes are gathered, they’re stacked in the tub along with non-fragile glassware (such as wine glasses), and set aside until ready for cleaning; the tub can even be set in another room or on the floor. They’re safe, out of the way and it eliminates the “immediacy” of having to race to immediately clean up.
  11. Be realistic in your expectations, and forgive yourself if something doesn’t work out. Remember, Julia Child suggested that you avoid apologizing for anything you felt went wrong in the kitchen. So you cooked the green beans too long, or your pie doesn’t look like the picture. So what? No one is going to tell you to pack your knives go home. It’s Thanksgiving, and all you should do is give thanks for the good stuff in your life, and pack up the rest with the rest be leftovers.

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.


  1. A great Thanksgiving prep list for even the most experienced of home cooks – thanks and loved your new book. Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Very helpful – thanks! I especially liked the butter tip. Never thought of that! And now I have a use for the cloth diapers I bought but never used!

  3. Great advice, as usual! Happy Thanksgiving to you and Mike. XXOO

  4. Happy Thanksgiving, Kat 🙂 xoxo I hope your dinner goes off without a hitch. I’m actually doing a local turkey hotline this year. I don’t expect too many calls (emails, tweets or texts), but I got the idea last year & we’ll see how it goes. I’ll be hanging around anyway… I might as well do something constructive, right?

  5. Kathleen Flinn says:

    Thanks! I had another suggestion that I forgot to mention. I’m a big fan of Rick Rodgers books, “Thanksgiving 101.” I think it’s available in Kindle. He also has “Christmas 101.” They’re both terrific primers that answer all kinds of basic (and not so basic) questions about entertaining on those specific holidays.

  6. These are SUCH great ideas!! Thanks! Took your advice and spent a few hours prepping today–chopping and putting everything away separately. It’s definitely going to make things go faster and easier tomorrow! Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. An extra little tip for keeping things warm: use the microwave!

    Nuke a mug of water for five minutes, and leave it there. Then as things are ready, cover the bowls and pop them in the microwave which by now is full of steam. Try to open and close it as little as possible. Since it’s a sealed environment its keeping all that heat inside, but since it’s not a dry heat, things don’t dry out.

    The same technique can also turn a home microwave into a home proofing box for bread dough, no-knead or otherwise.

    (Err, by the way I just kinda turned up here after reviewing your book at: )

  8. Andrea White says:

    Against my better judgement, I am hosting a bridal luncheon at my house for a friend who is getting married. It’s now next weekend and I am totally freaked out. Thanks for all the great advice – it’s useful for any big gathering and gives me some hope it will work out! (That cupboard trick is pure genius, by the way.)


  1. […] began my preparations on Monday, following the advice and experienced wisdom of food experts like Kathleen Flinn and David Lebovitz. By Wednesday, I was feeling pretty self-righteous, having selected and prepared […]

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