I have to admit that I actually enjoy this hectic time of year, especially all of the opportunities to cook. I know that’s nuts, right? But the way I see it is, if you go into something, the holidays or whatever it might be, with the expectation of being overwhelmed and stressed out, you likely will end up that way. I try, and definitely don’t always succeed, to see it rather as a manageable challenge.
I don’t know what the next several weeks entail for you, but off the top of my head I know I’ll be busy preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for 10, attending at least four parties, managing one holiday catering gig and traveling for Christmas gatherings in two states. And there’s always the unplanned get-togethers. Not to mention all of the gift giving.
How do you not go crazy with all that needs to get done? I honestly don’t know how you do it. I don’t have kids, I don’t have to travel all that far, and I don’t have as many friends or as big of a family as I know many of you have. But here’s how I make things work for me.
I make a plan and a few lists
This isn’t specific to the holidays. I say this all the time. Yet it can be even more difficult this time of year, when everything is that much more shiny with lights and tinsel, there’s always upbeat (if not intoxicating) music in the air, and in your head you can justify anything by telling yourself it’s a special occasion. It’s just too easy to go overboard. But don’t fall into the trap. Know what you’re doing before someone else decides it for you.
Before you go shopping, have an idea of what it is you need and write it down. If you’re cooking a special dinner, for instance, know how many servings of potatoes you actually need before you grab 25 pounds for six people. Or if you’re shopping for gifts, have an idea in mind for that person and keep track of what you’ve purchased. Last year I forgot I already had found something for a friend and ended up buying them another gift that I believe is still in the back of a closet somewhere.
While browsing the farmers market in the middle of summer, yeah, I might see what catches my eye and make some unplanned purchases and unexpected meals of them. But that approach doesn’t work for me this time of year.
I try to be realistic, but still, have some fun
Nope, you don’t need a dozen bottles of sprinkles for decorating cookies. And no one expects you to make 16 side dishes when you host a dinner. That doesn’t mean you have to be boring. You can show off your skills in other ways. Maybe you pick three dishes that are a bit out of the ordinary and actually are a little special. More doesn’t equate better. I’m always in favor of doing less and doing it well.
Something I’m working on, because I know I can be a control freak in the kitchen, is letting people help. Whether it’s asking a friend to show up early to help me prepare something or specifically asking a guest to bring something I’d like to have, yet know I can’t pull off in time. Or maybe it’s getting together with friends to do your cookie decorating and sharing your supplies. I’ve found that the more people can contribute and collaborate, the more they feel part of things, not just another attendee.
I share and recycle as much as possible
If I am cooking something for one party and have something else coming up in a few days, I’ll use the same recipe for both, if I can. Who cares? Or even if I just have a boring meeting coming up, I might make some extra food while I’m already at it, and try to make that typically dull meeting a little bit more enjoyable. Even if it’s just bringing in some extra food with a coworker or friend on a day where nothing is going on, I find that most people appreciate it and that makes it all worthwhile.
However, you don’t want to share leftover food that has sat out for long periods of time at an unsafe temperature. Do not share food poisoning.
I don’t reinvent the wheel every time
Food bloggers and magazines, without any restrictions, will drive us all crazy. What I mean is that these sources of inspiration and guidance are always trying to throw something new at us. On one hand, this is helpful. On the other hand, do I need to try this newly discovered, yet somehow also entirely traditional, method for cooking my turkey this year, or can I just use the same approach that worked well last time around? The answer is do what works. Try something new when you can, but find your favorites and stick with them until they’re not your favorites anymore. If you had success before, and people enjoyed it, you don’t need to employ this year’s most fashionable cooking technique.
That’s what I try to keep in mind with my approach to this column. I could have shared eight ways to jazz up your mashed potatoes this week, but I opted to share some practical thoughts instead. If nothing else, try to have fun, keep calm, and think of how eventful things will be come January.