The autumn and winter holidays can be nuts. Here’s one hyper-organized home cook’s guide to keeping your cool.
Obsessive list people might not be the most fun on a whirlwind last-minute road trip, but we downright shine during the busy holiday season. So let me guide you into the calming, freeing land of calendar reminders, spreadsheets, lists, and backup plans. It’s a gorgeous place to live when everything else seems to be falling apart.
Two months to six weeks out:
Invite and organize your guests.
Don’t wait till three weeks out to invite folks; people book travel months in advance. Send out invites for Thanksgiving or winter parties as early as you can. And go the extra mile and get them ruminating about what they could bring! A little, “Would you guys be the sweetest and bring a fruit pie and a cheap bottle of wine?” goes a long way towards managing costs. (Or you could go the extra etiquette mile and wait till they ask.) Add whatever the dish is to the master prep list you keep on your phone or laptop. I like Google Docs and the Notes app to stay organized.
Can you space out credit card charges?
If you don’t want sticker shock come January and like to keep an eye on your credit card balance month to month, start buying shelf-stable pantry items, decorative knickknacks, and boxed wine now. Same goes for big bags of flour, sugar, salt, and anything you know you’ll need that will still be good in January. (Keep an eye peeled for sales!) Even boxes of butter can be tossed in the freezer.
One Month Out:
Can it be frozen?
Speaking of that freezer, what can you put in there now that will still be good come Hanukkah or Christmas night? Dinner rolls? Biscuits for Christmas day brunch? Chicken stock that you’ll need for your special risotto? Vegetarian lasagna in case your daughter brings her non-meat-eating partner? Make it all now, freeze it—wrapped tightly, with the air squeezed out—and label everything with a large Sharpie. Store it neatly, and toss whatever’s taking up room that’s about to go bad.
Stock up on booze.
Half the battle this time of year is minimizing trips—to the grocery, to the liquor store, to the toy store—and heavy items. Wine, beer and spirits are smart things to stash around the house in cool places. (See, too: keeping a lower credit card balance month to month!) Bank on a bottle per person, just in case, and let generous guests help refill what you drink your way through.
Clean the stove.
Buy cheap to-go containers.
I like to have small bread loaf-sized foil containers on hand at all times. I pack my béchamel mac and cheese in them for sick friends and new parents, as they’re the right size for freezers, but they also come in handy at food-centric holidays. Nothing’s better for sending folks home with turkey and stuffing. Buy matching lids or simply use aluminum foil. (Pro tip: Check your local dollar store! I can usually find a dozen of these for a couple of bucks.)
One week out:
Make playlists, figure out table settings—should your florist friend bring a centerpiece?—and polish silver. Start cleaning, too; breaking it up into pieces will make it feel more manageable.
Two days out:
Start prepping, brining, and doing anything else that can be done in advance. Look at your lists, and try to do any last-minute grocery runs you have to do now. Soon you won’t be able to get very far from your oven for long.
One day out:
How’s your big roast, if you have one? Does it need brining? Defrosting? Salting? Buying? Hop to it! And remember that most pie doughs can be made a day in advance, then stashed in the fridge overnight; do as much as you can today. Tomorrow’s going to fly by.
The big day:
You’ve cleaned, prepped, and your home looks great. You have plenty of booze, backup grub in your freezer, and food in the oven. You’ve got this! Enjoy the compliments, and try to enjoy yourself. You deserve it.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.