9 Holiday Entertaining Tips For a Stress-Free Kitchen

Emily Lycopolus, author of Syria: Recipes for Olive Oil and Vinegar Lovers offers up these entertaining tips to help you keep your kitchen stress-free during the holidays.

I’m not sure about your homes, but during the holiday season, my kitchen is the centre of attention: a whirlwind of action, with everyone standing around, trying to look helpful—or in other words, the worst combination of factors when trying to make a meal for 20, or create platters to feed 45+ during a “simple” cocktail party. Oh, t’is the season of eating! Luckily, I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve for achieving a stress-free kitchen this holiday. From planning menus ahead, to making an efficient shopping list, to delegating tasks, read on for my essential tips for holiday entertaining.

1. Make a Plan

Planning meals ahead of time always takes me back to my university days, in a lovely nostalgic way, and lays the foundation for the perfect event. As soon you know guests will be coming (or even before the holidays in general) I recommend grabbing a cup of tea, sitting down, and thinking about what recipes you’d like to cook, as well as how many guests will come, and their specific allergies or other food preferences. At times, I’ll go so far as to print every recipe and tape them to our cupboards before the big day—seriously! Once you have selected your menu, check what meals you can make ahead, find out how long each dish will take to cook, and put recipes in order of most complicated to simplest, aiming to tackle the simpler dishes first.

2. Make Meals Personal and Creative

When choosing your recipes, I recommend selecting dishes that you truly want to make—such as recipes you haven’t made in a long time, a favourite family tradition, or a dish from a new cookbook you’ve been meaning to crack open. A menu that includes meals you look forward to creating is the key to smiling during every part of the process—and keeping that kitchen stress-free.

3. Create a Detailed Shopping List

Now that you’ve chosen your menu, it’s time to make your shopping list. If I’m using an online recipe, I’ll copy and paste ingredients lists into a Word document, then consolidate everything into groups: produce, pantry, dairy, meat, speciality ingredients, etc. Make sure to add up all the volumes of ingredients: for example, if you require 2 cups of milk for the spinach dip; 1 cup for the scalloped potatoes; and ¾ cup for the cake, then you’ll need almost 1 liter of milk (or 2L to be safe).

4. Make Use of Your Cupboards

With your shopping list in hand, survey your cupboards, marking off ingredients you already have at home. If you find an ingredient that’s not used in your everyday cooking regime, set it on the counter, so it doesn’t get lost or forgotten prior to your event. And be sure not to mark off ingredients you are likely to use up before guests arrive—such as when someone uses the last of the milk for their cereal, just the morning you’re going bake a cake!

5. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

You’ve made a plan and collected your ingredients—now it’s time to delegate.
I recommend making a list of easy tasks that your loved ones can help with: from your kids to your family members. Examples of tasks include taking extra chairs out of the garage, setting the table, and pulling the serving platters down from the cupboard. Handing them a list—ideally with a timeline—will empower them to feel helpful and productive, and will put your mind at ease.

6. Find some Calm Before the Storm

It’s almost time to start cooking. Before the hullabaloo starts, take a minute to read over and refresh your memory on your meal plan and recipes, so when the kitchen is filled with people, you can focus on what needs to happen first. I also recommend pulling out any dishes or special equipment that may be hard to reach, so they are ready to go when you need them.

7. Make a Snack

I recommend making a snack for your helpers and yourself to nibble on while you are preparing. Why? Cooking when you’re hungry is *literally* the worst, and so is the age-old excuse of “oh, we’re eating a big dinner, so I shouldn’t have much for lunch”—just don’t do it. Entertaining takes energy. A complex starch will wake up your brain, while protein helps you stay and feel full, giving you stamina and energy—that’s why crackers and cheese is my go-to-snack. Meanwhile, setting out a snack for your helpers will keep the question of “is it ready yet?” at bay. I recommend a veggie tray, cheese and crackers, or seasonal popcorn. You can even buy a snack that’s pre-made at the grocery store, when you’re putting together that great shopping list. By curbing the appetite of those around you, you can focus on cooking, and not answering “5 more minutes,” every 5 seconds.

8. Prep your Dishwashing Station

The last steps before I dive into my recipes are always to fill the sink with hot, soapy water, and to empty the dishwasher. A pile of dirty dishes in a busy kitchen is, by far, the most stressful event for me; it clutters my workspace, and I start to feel like I can’t find anything. Firing a dirty bowl into the dishwasher, or being able to quickly locate a spoon, knife, or spatula cuts down on dishes at the end of the meal, and makes life so much easier. Bonus: while you’re eating with guests, have your dishwasher run all the bowls and utensils used during prep; these can be put away before all the dirty plates start piling up after the meal. If a guest is really eager to help—well, the dishes are already soaking—so plunk them in front of the sink, and then you’re really set!

9. Practice Gratitude

Above all, when I’m entertaining, I try to take a deep breath, smile, and be grateful that friends and family surround me—even in my overly crowded kitchen—during this busy season of celebration.

And, with that, I wish you the happiest of holidays, and a happy, stress-free kitchen!