How to Build a Holiday Dinner Menu

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Table tip: Go white, and then add color (or not) with collected leaves, small squash, acorns and natural elements for an inexpensive, yet elegant effect.

Ah, that annual stressful event known as holiday dinner planning. If you’re a novice cook, it can seem deeply conflicted.

But then, remember the math. Most classic holiday dinner menus include a main dish,  gravy or sauce, potatoes, two to three vegetables, some bread, plus dessert. If you’re opting for a roast turkey – a favorite for both Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S. and Christmas in other countries – then you can focus on the turkey, gravy and stuffing and then delegate all or half the side dishes and at least a couple of pies (or buy them), you’ve wildly cut down on the tasks at hand. This is the same advice that Rick Rodgers, the author of Christmas 101, offers novice cooks in his excellent primer for novice cooks on Epicurious.

Food writer Jess Thomson has this advice: “I try to reduce the number of dishes I feel have to be piping hot. I think there’s a huge misconception that all the food has to be ready at exactly the same time.” With that in mind, she includes dishes that are more flexible – roasted carrots, for instance – and dishes that are better after they sit for 15 to 20 minutes, such as a potato gratin.

I also can’t get over this awesome infographic on the subject from SavvyEats.

Main Course

Here are my go-to recipes for classic main courses.

Braised Lamb Shanks: Great comfort food. After initial browning, shanks cook themselves.

Old-fashioned turkey with gravy:  It’s hard to beat Rodgers’ detailed step-by-step guide. Spend an extra $10 or so and buy a fresh kosher bird, which is salted and rinsed as part of the kosher process so it requires no brine.

Ham: Easily feeds a crowd, most come pre-cooked. I’m a fan of this in-depth guide from

Vegetarian: I served Kim O’Donnel’s terrific Shepard’s Pie a couple of times. I made two – one with meat, one with the wine braised-lentils and chard called for in her version. Everyone preferred the vegetarian option. So, there you go. I’ve also served this vegetarian wellington from omgyummy.


The good news is that all the prep for stuffing can be done a couple of days ahead and tossed into a baking dish – just don’t add the liquid or eggs until just before you’re ready to bake it along. This year, I’m once again making this fabulous stuffing with apples, bacon and caramelized onions by Diane Morgan. Want something else? I’m a big fan of this interactive build-your-own-stuffing guide from Fine Cooking. One of my tricks: baste the stuffing with a bit of the turkey juices toward the end of cooking.


For mashed potatoes, you can prep them in the afternoon and then keep them warm by putting into a bowl covered with plastic wrap and settling it into a simmering bath on the back of the stove.  My friend Chef John has a great video on making mashed potatoes, although I prefer Yukon Gold potatoes over russets, but it’s a minor point. Don’t have a potato masher? Fear not. You can always use a large fork.

Potato GratinMy husband is partial to scalloped potatoes, and I’ve become a fan of them for big meals because once baked, they can hang out lightly covered for a half hour or so until everything’s ready. I’ve tried a dozen recipes, and my favorite by a long shot is Thomson’s potato gratin with chevre and pancetta.

Side dishes

Don’t go too crazy. With stuffing and potatoes, three vegetable side dishes are enough for groups up to about 12. After that, add another side dish for each additional three people. Don’t forget colors, and go with a variety: green beans, carrots, corn, etc. Here’s what I am making for my side dishes this year: Roasted carrots with mustard, glazed brussel sprouts and apples in brown butter and cream and roasted cauliflower with gremolata bread crumbs. Some other great sides: SpoonandSaucer’s How to Make Cranberry Sauce (with video!) and Northwest Rice Pilaf, TheSpicedLife’s Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup and Food Goes Healthy’s Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad with Dates

Here are three troves of reliable side dish recipes: The New York Times, Food52 and Southern Living.

Something sweet

Cranberries are a die-hard staple, and ever-so-good on leftover sandwiches. Making a dish from scratch isn’t much more difficult than opening the can and slicing them. Here’s my family recipe for cranberries with port and ginger.


If you’re not a baker, find a good bakery near you. I’ve become partial to a more flavorful bread, though. Last year, I made this terrific rosemary focaccia by Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes.



Pie is traditional, obviously, but it doesn’t mean you have to slave making a huge coterie of them. If you’re hosting dinner, ask other diners to bring pie and ice cream. Or, order some pies from a local bakery. If you want to try something with a twist, try my recipe for Light Pumpkin Cheesecake. Also, don’t overlook cheese as an option for dessert. “It seems like people forget the option for Thanksgiving,” says Judith Finlayson, the author of a dozen cookbooks, most recently 750 Best Appetizers. “My husband goes crazy on buying cheeses for a final course…served with port.”

Beverages & the Holiday Pantry

Be sure to stock up on wine, non-alcoholic beverages and the like as part of your shopping. Not enough food writers focus on pantries. Here’s a good take on a holiday pantry from I’m also a fan of this cranberry cocktail recipe from CreativeCulinary and this slow cooker apple Chai from FarmFreshFeasts.

[Updated November 2015]

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. Thanks for the shout out! Great post!


  1. […] down your menu Check out the CookFearless guide to Thanksgiving menu planning.  Don’t overlook cheese as an option for dessert. “It seems like people forget the […]

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