Messing up is the best way to learn.
When you have the reputation as “the cook” in the family, you are without a doubt the point of contact for all holiday cooking needs. I am always more than happy to cook for my family and friends, and I feel privileged and honored to hold such a prestigious title. This most recent holiday season, my brother asked me to prepare a special New Year’s Eve brunch, my friends sprang another impromptu brunch on me, and I still found the time and strength to cook dinner for myself during the dazed period after Christmas and before New Year’s day. With all of this menu planning and cooking, I made a few mistakes, but also had a lot of revelations about cooking for family and friends. I reflected on a few lessons that I learned and here are four tips that I will definitely keep in mind for all holidays to come.
Do Not Undervalue the Importance of Prep Work
There was a time when I thought I could go grocery shopping, prep, cook, and serve a large party all in one day. I have since gained the wisdom to know that the do-everything-in-one-day strategy is a recipe for disaster. When I prepared brunch for a group of 6 close friends, I went grocery shopping the day before. As I began to prepare for my brother’s party of about 25 people, I shopped 2 days prior to the event and prepped the day before. The prep included tedious, time consuming activities that are fine to do in advance, such as peeling potatoes, cleaning vegetables, and starting dishes that needed to cook overnight. I took advantage of my brother’s slow cooker to set my pork roast the night prior. I also used the slow cooker to soak and cook kidney beans for a baked bean dish.
Do Not Over Extend Yourself
It’s always smart to plan your menu ahead of time. However, in the (often ambitious and excited) planning stage, it’s easy to take on more work than you can realistically handle alone. Even though I prepped the night before, there was still an entire dish that never made it from my planned menu to the table. I usually like to write a list of the prep tasks necessary to cooking the dishes I plan to serve and stick the list on the refrigerator as a way to help me pace myself. I scratch items off of the list at they are completed; and on this occasion, as I started to check off items, I realized there was no way I’d be able to get everything done before guests arrived.
Beyond not dreaming too big from the start, your best bet for success is prioritizing dishes that have multiple steps and take the longest to prepare. Any good self-help book on productivity explains that your first task of the day should be the most urgent and most important task on your to-do list (thanks to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for this nugget of wisdom). You can apply this same principle when it comes to organizing your time in the kitchen.
Not Everyone Eats Pork
There are a few different reasons why people may choose to not eat pork. Whether a guest’s decision is based on religious principles, personal preferences, or allergies, it’s important to be aware of and respectfully acknowledge it (with food that isn’t pork). Many of the dishes I prepared for my brother’s New Year’s party contained some sort of pork element, such as my prosciutto wrapped asparagus and pulled pork sliders topped with arugula. My brother assured me that his friends were pork consumers, however more than a few of the attendees voiced that they did not eat pork. I never want to alienate someone at the table from eating because they have dietary restrictions. In hindsight, I would have planned to have a wider variety of protein options to cover all my bases, and also incorporated more vegetable-based dishes.
The grander overall lesson here is to always be aware of your guests’ dietary restrictions. If possible, ask them ahead of time if there are any types of foods that they do not eat. A platter of raw vegetables and fresh fruit is usually a safe bet for a snack that everyone can munch on in the case that some dishes are off limits.
A Sharp Knife is Hard to Come By
Almost every home that I cooked in this holiday season had incredibly dull knives. Dull knives make the prepping and cooking process a real struggle—not to mention, a dangerous one. When you have to use intense force to get your knife through the food, the likelihood of slipping (and cutting into something you’ll wish you hadn’t) is high. When you have a sharp knife, you have far more control and your cuts are smoother, effortless, and clean. If you have a favorite knife that you are comfortable working with, bring it with you as a courtesy to yourself. Your biceps muscles (and fingertips) will thank you later.