Cookbook author, blogger, TV host, actress, and mother, Haylie Duff is no stranger to wearing a seemingly overwhelming number of hats, but an increasingly busy balancing act has yet to keep her from prioritizing her time in the kitchen—perfecting new recipes, bonding with her daughter, cooking for company, and just getting dinner to the table on a Wednesday. We had the opportunity to chat with Duff on how she manages to “do it all,” especially amidst the chaos that comes with the holidays.
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Photo courtesy of Haylie Duff
| Credit: Photo courtesy of Haylie Duff

Haylie Duff has reached the level of multitasking I dream of making look easy someday. The actress and singer turned food personality manages a wildly popular blog, is working on the proposal for her second cookbook, is now in her second series with the Cooking Channel, mothers a toddler, and somehow does all of this while maintaining the kind of down-to-earth, hospitable warmth that makes her instantly feel like a friend. Despite the impressive—and yes, somewhat intimidating—resume, Duff is the type of lady to hop on the phone and immediately (and affectionately) comment on your southern accent (that you didn’t know was all that detectable), then proceed to joke about fake meat products with you and compare her little girl to an elderly Italian man. In other words, she’s my type of lady.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Haylie Duff

A recent chat with Duff, who kindly carved out some time to talk holiday entertaining and favorite recipes with MyRecipes, seamlessly turned into the kind of conversation I love to get caught up in—one centered around mutual passion for food, and feeding it to people. Beyond some pro entertaining tips and a few of her favorite holiday recipes, Duff dished on what’s up in her work, the day-to-day motherhood marathon, how she creates special moments at the table when time and energy are limited, and plenty more.

About her cooking and entertaining style...

MR: A lot of folks know you—actually, I would bet to say most folks know you first—as an actress and singer. Can you tell me a little bit about your transition from the pop the culture world to more of the food pop culture world? It all started with your blog right?

HD: It did, yeah. Which funny enough has gone hand-in-hand. I was working on a movie when I started my blog and, funny enough, life kind of takes you down certain paths that ultimately get you where your meant to be. I really started Real Girl’s Kitchen out of a bit of frustration and pent up creative energy within the acting world. I wasn’t really getting roles that I was feeling challenged by and excited by and so I started it as something I could really pour some creativity into. I never in a million years that thought I would be doing what I’m doing with it now or…

MR: Right… being a complete food personality.

HD: Yeah, I never imagined! It blows my mind all of the time, and especially to be on a 2nd series with the Cooking Channel, I just feel so grateful. I look at this food space that I’m in and you know, I’m not a chef, I’m a self-taught cook through trial and error, and I definitely make mistakes still in the kitchen. And I think a lot of people can relate to that and I guess that’s why people like my blog and like the show, I think people can feel like it’s them in a lot of ways. I certainly have a lot of fun with my work and I think that’s what it’s all about—just enjoying what you’re doing.

MR: Absolutely. The relatable nature of your blog is super approachable and I agree with you, I think people want to hear—“I’ve been there, I’ve made that exact mistake, here’s how you don’t do it again.” As opposed to acting like those things don’t even happen.

HD: We also live in such a world where everything looks so unattainable and we’re surrounded by all these “perfect” lives on Instagram or whatever. And so that’s really what we were really wanting to achieve with this new series, Haylie’s America—lifting back that veil a little bit, and getting more real and more spontaneous about letting the food speak for itself, and just taking away some of the pretense of everything.

MR: Right on. So how would you describe your personal style of cooking? When I look through your work, I see a lot of really fresh flavors, and I also see approachable, yet modern and cool, uptakes on comfort food classics.

HD: I think you kind of nailed it. I’m definitely inspired and heavily influenced by my roots and my family, and for me that’s the South. I love comfort food—I mean, when I was pregnant, all I wanted to eat was macaroni and cheese. Clearly you’re not supposed to do that… but anyway, I’m really inspired by own family history and the story behind food—that serves as the biggest inspiration for me when it comes to cooking. But being in LA now has a big influence me too, with the healthy lifestyles people live by out here. I love a good farmer’s market and I love fresh ingredients, so I guess if I had to describe my style, it would be a blend of naughty food sometimes, but trying to clean it up for the most part. My style is healthy-ish. That’s one of the titles I threw around for this new series, but it’s funny, everyone was scared to use the word “healthy.”

MR: Who are some of your favorite people to cook for?

HD: I love cooking for Ryan—Ryan is my daughter—now because she just eats everything. She really has become my #1 customer in the kitchen. It’s funny, I have so many girlfriends that say one of their biggest complaints about their kids is that they can’t get them to stay in the high chair. They’re like, “What do you do? I don’t understand. My kid’s got like a 2-minute maximum time limit in the high chair and then they’re like screaming to get out…” And Ryan is like an old Italian grandfather who just sits back in her high chair, for course after course. And she wants one course at a time, she doesn’t want one of those plates that has like all the sections—she wants one bowl at a time, one thing at a time, she doesn’t want to be inundated with multiple dishes.

MR: That’s literally amazing.

HD: Oh, she will go, “All done!” and hand off the bowl, or she’ll say “More, more, more!” It’s the funniest thing. And she hasn’t gotten to the point where she doesn’t like anything yet, so I really still enjoy cooking for her. But other than that, I love cooking most for my parents because they can remember when I didn’t know how to cook and so I get probably the biggest reaction from them.They’re the ones to say, “I just can’t believe you can cook like this now.”

MR: Would you say that entertaining, casually or even a little bit more formally, is an important part of your personal life? I mean, I know you are overwhelmingly busy, but do still find those little moments to have folks over?

HD: I do, yeah. I don’t always do such huge dinner parties anymore, although I do love those, but I think as you get busier, the dinner parties tend to get smaller. Like we ended up buying our new house from a girlfriend of mine and we had a dinner with her as we sort of traded houses, so that was a really special little evening together. I think just making an effort for the special people in your life is what counts. It doesn’t have to be some over-the-top, planned-out thing—it can just be a thoughtful meal; sometimes, that is all you need to capture that same great feeling of the dinner party. And hey, sometimes just setting a nice table, even if it’s just your own little family, makes a small moment feel like an occasion.

MR: I love to hear someone who is, well, a professional food personality say, “Yeah, I like to just eat a casual dinner with one or two other folks.” Not everything has to be some big elaborate array of effort.

HD: Another thing, too—this is something, I don’t know, that has sort of been brewing in me the past couple of months or so, but I feel like so much is done just for show, for social media and stuff like that. The dinner parties that I’ve tended to have in the past few months have been smaller in every sense because they have been for the people that we’re feeding… they’re not for everybody else. They’re not so much for show.

About the holidays...

MR: Do you find that now, since you have a cookbook under your belt and you have 2 cooking shows, you’re now generally expected to be either hosting or kind of guiding the menu for family gatherings during the holiday season?

HD: Yes and no. Because my mom, being the southern women she is, still likes to be like the head of the household and she still likes to be the one that makes the turkey and runs the show, so I am always all too happy to bow out to her. But that being said, last year, I actually made our Thanksgiving turkey. And it was a ton of pressure, to be honest, because my mom is an amazing cook and she has done everything from turducken, to wet brines, to dry brines… you name it. This lady has just churned out turkeys like it’s her job. But last year, it was Ryan’s first Thanksgiving, and so I had asked my family, and said I really wanted to be the one to do it. And it was pretty scary, but I have perfected the turkey. I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty epic. The recipe is on my blog and it involves a dry brine with 3 different types of peppercorns and different types of citrus zest. You put it on the roasting pan, but instead of cooking it in the oven, I put it on my gas grill outside. You put the grill on medium heat and you don’t do anything else to it. I did a 14.5-pound bird in 3 hours. It’s the craziest thing, you just leave it in there, shut the lid… maybe I turned it once, I don’t remember, I’ll have to go back to the recipe, but it’s the easiest thing on earth and it frees up your oven for everything else.

MR: Heck yeah. That sounds amazing.

HD: It’s super juicy, and super crispy skinned, and kinda awesome.

MR: That’s pretty legit for your first time.

HD: Well, I’ll be honest with you, I had to make 3 of them to get it right, but… I wasn’t gonna be the one to mess it up on turkey day, so.

MR: So when it comes to holiday planning and entertaining, I would take it you’re more of a strategizer than you are a “OK, let’s just roll with it and see how it goes” kind of person?

HD: For sides and stuff like that, I’m definitely a “roll with it” person. But for something like a turkey, when it is the main event of the day, I am all about—if you’ve never made it before, do a trial run a few days prior. And nobody’s gonna complain about eating turkey twice, so just go for it. One of my favorite things to do with leftover turkey is make turkey pie.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Haylie Duff

MR: Ohhhh yeah. Like a turkey pot pie?

HD: OH yeah. That’s my jam. So I have a recipe for that on my site too, but it’s the easiest way to use up all of your holiday leftovers. I put literally everything in it. I put the mashed potatoes, I put the stuffing… you name it, it all goes in the pie. So, if you end up making 2 turkeys, over like a week’s time, who cares? Know that on the big day, you’re going to be doing it perfectly. Nobody wants a dried out turkey, and everyone will remember if you mess up the turkey at a holiday feast—but they probably won’t really remember if you mess up the sides.

MR: I hear ya. That said, what would you name as your absolute top tips for casual holiday entertaining?

HD: Our holidays are usually pretty casual, we’re a pretty casual family, I mean, I tend to be barefoot most of the day. But I would say, I always lay out all of my dishes a day or two prior, especially all of the serving dishes, and I put Post-It notes inside of them to designate what’s going to be served in what. And I get all of the table setting done in advance. Any prep that I can do a day or two ahead of time, I get all done so that the only thing I’m doing day-of or night-before is the stuff that has to be done at the last minute. Any of the linens that need to be put out and/or steamed, all that kind of stuff, I try to get done days in advance. I also try to always have appetizers and cocktails, out and ready, like early early early, because people always show up early. So as long as you can booze them up and feed them something, they don’t care if you’re still cooking. If they have something to snack on and drink, then they’re fine. I also tend to think that it’s a good idea to get up early and take your shower, put your make up on, and get yourself looking however it is you want to look for the day, so that you’re not leaving halfway through your cooking time to go take a shower and get ready. Because you are never going to end up getting the time to do that. You have time to go change clothes, but you never end up with spare time to go do makeup and hair and all that. So get up, get a shower, put some makeup on, dry your hair, and even if you put sweatpants back on to go do all the cooking, at least you’ve got yourself basically ready for the day.

MR: I am tragically bad at that…

HD: Yeah, I am telling you, you have to get ready first.

MR: You’ve mentioned your awesome grilled turkey and, of course, the turkey pie, but are there any other recipes that you especially love to lean on during the holiday season?

HD: Yes, one of the things I’ve always really loved is bread pudding. I love it as dessert, but I also make a savory bread pudding. And it’s kind of awesome. It’s sort of similar to stuffing, but it’s a little different from your traditional dressing. And it’s really beautiful and super rustic looking, I love a bread pudding like that around this time of year.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Haylie Duff

About balance and family life...

MR: When you kind of look at all of those days between the big holidays and the festive gatherings, just the typical manic Mondays and Tuesdays, I’m curious to hear about how you manage to juggle your work life and your home life, and if there’s any specific strategies you lean on for getting dinner on the table on a normal day.

HD: I wish I had a really fabulous answer for you, but… It’s like everyone says, “the struggle is real,” but when you become a mother, it’s like the juggle is real. You just kind of do it. I don’t really know how to explain it, it just kind of happens. It’s a mystery still honestly, I never knew I could get so much done in one day until I became the mother of a toddler. But also, I have help too. I have Claudia that helps me, and she’s amazing with Ryan. I’m not doing it by myself. My mom likes to come over and help, and my sister, so it’s a team effort on everybody’s part. You figure it out, ya know?

MR: I think that’s an important message to communicate, especially to newer moms. It does not make you a lesser person or a lesser mother to tap your resources and have people help you out.

HD: Absolutely. And one of my closest girlfriends, Ashley, she loves to come over and spend time with Ryan. And I don’t know if she loves to spend time with her as much as she knows it really helps me sometimes too. I find it super thoughtful. Also, I have a Tupperware drawer that I can open up and Ryan can dig in and play in… so when all else fails, that tends to be my go-to: “Get in the cabinet and pull everything out, and put it back!”

MR: Based on what you’ve shared today, I foresee your daughter becoming a kitchen queen, with a super sophisticated palate, and an amazing knack for organization. That Tupperware drawer is training her for something.

HD: You know, you might not be totally wrong. My mom got her a little mini kitchen a couple months ago and she pretends to cook in it and actually stirs and pours… she mixes her little fake food and adds different flavors and stuff. I looked over and she had “the trinity” in a pot the other day and I was just like, “Oh this is happening, she is really paying attention now.”

MR: You could have a mother-daughter duo! In like, 10 years.

HD: Ha! I can imagine that’s going to be her worst nightmare as a teenager.

MR: Nooo she’ll love it. So what foods have you been craving lately? What are you cooking up this week?

HD: We had a couple of really cold days recently and I tend to always make chili when that happens. Also, I’ve been on a sweet potato kick. So I made a really delicious sweet potato and bison chili that has cinnamon, nutmeg, and some other warming flavors in it. So it was good, just kind of a little twist on a classic, recognizable chili. And what else have I been making? I tend to do kind of easy one-skillet dishes during the week because I’m working and running Ryan around, so anything I can do with just a couple of chicken breasts, some lemon wedges, shallots, chicken broth, and maybe just a splash of wine or something like that, tends to be my simple go-to. That’s actually a dinner that I make a lot, and every time Matt comes home from work, he’s like “Oh my God, this smells amazing, how did you do this?” And I always laugh to myself thinking, “Oh my gosh, he thinks it’s so hard to make this…” And really it’s just one of the easiest dishes. But I just say, “Ya know, I’ve been working really hard at this, thank you.”

MR: Seriously, take the credit. So is your husband much of a cook or is he more of an eater?

HD: He’s honestly not really either, which is crazy. He loves Italian food and… milkshakes. That’s basically the extent of what he likes to eat. It is really kind of insane.

MR: I mean, those are good choices…

HD: When we first met, he wouldn’t eat a vegetable. My mother-in-law, to this day, cannot believe that he eats vegetables now. But he has been forced to eat them because Ryan looks at him during dinner and I’m like, “See, Daddy eats broccoli,” and so he kind of has to force himself to take a bite now—which is kind of funny for me to watch. But yeah, he’s more on the simple food side, which makes my life very easy, but also, I just can’t believe that he is not a total foodie.

MR: Yeah, it may take him a while, but I feel like you’re probably helping him evolve, little by little.

HD: Maybe, we’ll see.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Haylie Duff

About the future...

MR: So, so you have anything big on the horizon that you’re working on, looking forward to?

HD: I do, yes. It’s a little too early to talk about one of them quite yet. But I’m waiting to see if we get to make more episodes of Haylie’s America, and I’ve got a movie that I’m hopefully going to start on soon, and yeah, I’m just sort of in that holding pattern where we’re waiting to see if and when we get to go back on the road again, film more episodes, and all that good stuff. And I’m working at the tail end of a book proposal for my second cookbook, which is crazy. It’s a little scary to be starting a second one, but I’m really excited about it. It’s taken me a while to build up enough life lessons to feel ready to write another one, but I feel really excited and ready to do it now.

About the past (Read: About Napoleon Dynamite)...

MR: Awesome. Well, we’ll be looking forward to it. So those are all of my major serious questions, but if you don’t mind, I have a not-so-serious question that I will ask on behalf of our staff, who was very excited when I happened to mention that I was talking to you this morning.

HD: Oh sure, that’s fine.

MR: OK, so, what is Napoleon Dynamite, A.K.A. Jon Heder, like in real life? And more importantly, does he actually like tater-tots?

HD: Well, he does like tater-tots. And I only know that because at the 10-year anniversary party at FOX, I saw him eat one with my own eyes. So I know for a fact, he likes them. And Jon is amazing. He is a sweet, awesome dad, and he’s got terrific kids. He’s funny and he’s just great. We have a very wonderful cast from that movie, and I cannot believe it’s been 10 years now since we made it.

For more tips, advice, recipes, and general fun from Duff, be sure to check out her blog, Real Girl's Kitchen, and catch her on the Cooking Channel with Haylie's America and The Real Girl's Kitchen.

By Darcy Lenz and Darcy Lenz