Make Ahead Turkey Feast

Spend less time in the kitchen and more time with your guests with these twists on traditional holiday fare

The holidays are a time to get together with loved ones to enjoy good food and good company — or at least they would be if we all had personal chefs. Big turkey dinners are still the expectation in many families — and that means someone usually gets stuck in the kitchen.

It’s time to break that tradition — or at least bend it. While you can’t avoid the prep work altogether, you can do some of it a day or two ahead when you aren’t so pressed for time.  We’ve scoured the cooking advice — and picked the brains of our friends and family — to find these ideas to help lighten the load on turkey day.

Perfect potatoes

Mashed potatoes are classic holiday fare — but they can take precious time peeling, cooking and mashing. As an alternative, try roasting mini potatoes. Give them a wash and place them in a shallow pan big enough that they aren’t piled up. Because there’s no need to peel, there’s no need to soak them in water until you’re ready to use them — just cover with some foil. Just before you bake, remove the cover, give them a prick with a fork and toss in some olive oil and seasonings. (You can use any kind of vegetable oil — we choose olive for its healthy fats.)

However, you don’t have to sacrifice your love of mashed, creamy potatoes. That’s why cooks invented the baked mashed potato casserole.  In its most basic form, you cook and mash potatoes, whipping them with some milk to keep them moist. In a separate bowl, whip a couple of egg whites (or more, depending on how much potato you have) and gently fold it into the mashed potatoes.  Spread the mixture in a greased baking pan. (Note: you can “cheat” with instant mashed potatoes if necessary.)

Now comes the fun part: combine some bread crumbs and grated cheese with a bit of melted butter to moisten. (Again, you’ll want to figure out the amounts yourself depending on how many people you’re serving.) Any kind of bread crumbs will work, especially whole grain or artisan breads.

Sprinkle the mixture over the potatoes and lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Now you can cover it and leave it alone until dinner time. It will need about 30-45 minutes in the over at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Want a healthier option? Use the same technique with a mashed turnip and carrot blend.

If you prefer to work from a recipe, there are many to choose from including variations using cream cheese and butter. Here are a few suggestions:

Baked Mashed Potatoes with Parmesan Cheese and Bread Crumbs
Cheddar Potato Puff
Potato Mountain Casserole

Tip: In our family, everyone loves the topping so we use a shallow pan rather than a deep dish. After all, more surface area means more topping! (You may need to adapt the topping amounts accordingly.)

Easy ways to get your vegetables

We do love our veggies — and steamed or roasted vegetables are easy to prepare. After a marathon chopping session the day of or morning before, there are fresh vegetables for the pot as well a party tray with a bowl of dip. You can use your favourite seasonings to flavour the vegetables, or sprinkle on some parsley for flair. Colourful bell peppers, carrots and celery bring colour to plates otherwise dominated by white.

Other ways to sneak in some healthier sides:

Marinated vegetable salad: This dish works as well in winter as it does for summer barbeques and no cooking is required. Simply chop up your favourite vegetables — we recommend carrots, celery, cauliflower and broccoli — and place them in a glass or stainless steel bowl. (Avoid plastic as it may stain and absorb odours.) Drizzle with your favourite salad dressing — like sweet onion, roasted red pepper, Italian or Greek — stir, and cover. Give it a stir from time to time until ready to serve, then transfer to a nice serving bowl.

Turnip: In our house, turnip doesn’t need a lot of dressing up or mashing. Instead, it’s cut into 1/2-3/4 inch cubes and mixed with enough melted butter and brown sugar to coat. Bake it for about an hour at 375 degrees. Yes, you can cook this a day ahead too and reheat for 1/2 – 3/4 of an hour.

Tossed salad: The day before or morning of your dinner, wash the greens, drain and refrigerate in a bowl. If you’re using green onions, toss them in now so the flavours will spread.

In smaller prep bowls or containers, assemble your ingredients — like sliced cucumber, grated carrot, cherry tomatoes, nuts, dried fruit and crumbled cheese. All you have to do is toss with salad dressing right before serving.

Hint: We prep plenty of extras to use for salads, wraps and sandwich plates the next day. Only toss what you need for the meal — the greens will wilt after they’ve been sitting in dressing. Frozen peas also add some sweetness, and a quick rinse with warm water is all they’ll need before going in the bowl.

Jellied salad: Okay, it’s perhaps not the healthiest way to enjoy some fruits and vegetables, but it’s become a holiday staple at our gatherings. (The jelly often gets prepared while waiting for a morning cup of tea to steep.) Go red with a fruity gelatin mix and can of fruit salad, or go green (lime) and add grated carrot and celery.

NEXT: Make Ahead Turkey

Make ahead turkey

Ever been stuck waiting for the turkey to finish cooking, gotten up at 4:00 am to put the bird in the oven or run out of oven space? You can dodge all of that by preparing the main attraction in advance.

The “make ahead turkey” technique involves preparing the bird as you normally would — usually a day or two before — carving it once it has cooled. Then, arrange the slices in a pan and reheat the meat with its own broth or gravy. The day of your feast, 30-45 minutes is all the oven time you’ll need.

While some cooks say you can freeze the turkey meat, broth and make-ahead gravy weeks or months in advance, a holiday gathering may not be the time to experiment. However, freezing could be a great way to deal with leftovers.

Looking for more details? For different takes on the technique, try:

The Thrifty Mama
The Bitten Word

Tip: Skip the stuffing and stuff the turkey cavity with fruits or vegetables. Thanks to its moist texture, stuffing offers the ideal environment for bacteria — which can lead to food poisoning if it isn’t refrigerated right away and thoroughly reheated. Skip the drama by preparing stuffing on the stovetop or bake it instead.

And yes, you can even make the gravy ahead of time too, like this recipe from

Homemade cranberry sauce also keeps well in an air-tight container in your fridge, and can even be frozen too.

NEXT: Delicious Desserts

Delicious desserts

Admittedly, a sinful dessert is one necessity you can buy without any guilt. However, many desserts can be made a day or two ahead of time without too much work — and sometimes no baking at all. For instance:

Reheatable fruit pies or crumbles. There’s nothing like a warm, light dessert to end a holiday meal. Because some fruits like apples and pears can discolour after cutting, you’re better off baking these desserts right away and then reheating them in the oven after the turkey comes out. Try a handful of cranberries in an apple crisp for a festive touch, and top with a scoop of frozen yoghurt.

Frozen desserts. Desserts made with ice cream, frozen yoghurt or sorbet will easily stay out of your way in the freezer until a few minutes before serving. They can be as simple as an ice cream pie (think your favourite holiday ice cream spread over a cookie crumb crust and topped with nuts, chocolate sauce or candy) or as fancy as a semifreddo.

Dessert tray. A tray full of cookies and bit-sized portions of tarts, bars, fruit cake and other treats offers something to please everyone. It’s a good way to use up your holiday baking, and even mix in some store-bought goodies.

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