Step-by-Step Holiday Meal Planner (And Free Template)

The holidays are a time for family, friends, and food. But, if you’re hosting Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner this year, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed at the thought of cooking a huge feast.

You’re not alone–

According to a 2019 poll, 51% of the respondents said that hosting a holiday party or dinner caused the most stress during the holiday season.

A holiday meal planner can help you get organized and take the stress out of cooking for a large crowd.  

In this article, I’ll give you grocery shopping and food prep tips and a day-by-day guide to prepping a holiday meal the week before the celebration.

How to Plan a Holiday Menu

Start your holiday meal planning at least four weeks before the holiday. That gives you time to shop for sales and to prep ahead.

But, there are a few things to consider before to ensure the meal accommodates your guests and allows you to enjoy hosting a holiday with less stress.

Who’s coming to dinner?

Once you have the guest list, consider foods that everyone might enjoy, and dietary restrictions, lifestyle diets, or food allergies.

Everyone’s preferences are different, and you can’t always please everyone. You’ll find that some relatives look forward to the usual traditional dishes, while others are willing to try something new. Instead of choosing a new menu vs. family traditions, add a few new dishes to the old menu so there’ll be something for everyone to enjoy.

Also, consider how many kids will be there, and depending on their ages, what they can and are willing to eat. If there’ll be picky eaters at the holiday table, you might want to offer a few plain side dishes to choose from. 

Is the meal balanced?

Include all the major food groups when creating a balanced holiday meal. That means incorporating starch, vegetables, and protein into the menu. 

A simple strategy is to create a main vegetarian and a main meat dish. Then offer a variety of side dishes, including starch (potatoes, bread, rice, pasta) and vegetables. This helps ensure the meal is balanced and not too heavy on any particular food group. That way there’ll be something for everyone.

Holiday meals tend to be heavy on protein, carbohydrates (mashed potatoes, stuffing, bread, and desserts), and fat. A salad loaded with seasonal vegetables or a side dish of steamed or roasted vegetables will balance the holiday table.

Also, give some thought to how the color and textures of the meals go together. 

Is it all one color?

Is everything the same texture?

For example, a Thanksgiving dinner comprised of turkey, mashed potato, dinner roll, and roasted cauliflower is the same bland beige color, and everything has a soft consistency.

Make it visually appetizing by mixing up the colors and textures. Include a colorful mix of roasted or grilled vegetables to brighten up the table and add some crunch.

Are the recipes easy?

Before you discover in the middle of preparing the meal, consider the difficulty level of all the recipes. Save testing out new, complicated recipes on your guests for another day. Stick to sides that you’re comfortable making and have a good idea of how long they take to cook.

If you’re up for a challenge and everyone is up for something different this year, test a new recipe ahead of time with friends or family. Get feedback and tweak the ingredients and timing for the holiday.

Does the timing work?

1. Appliance Usage

Coordinate the appliances for the selected recipes, to ensure you can prepare all the meals at once. Don’t hesitate to use all the tools available including a slow cooker, instant pot or even the grill outside.

It’s hard to get the timing right when everything on the menu uses the same appliance. That’s a recipe for stressful holiday cooking and cold side dishes. 

2. Prep ahead options

Can some of the dishes be made the day before? Can they be partially prepped (chopping vegetables, for example) so that they’ll be ready to go come mealtime? The less work you have to do on the day of the event, the better!

3. Day-of-holiday dinner timing

Timing is everything when it comes to cooking a big meal. You want everything to be warm when you serve it. Carefully read through each recipe and note any prep that needs to be done in advance. Use a piece of paper or a whiteboard to keep track of various cooking and reheating times.

Things to look out for when reading through recipes for prep-ahead instructions:

  • Let cool first
  • Bring to room temperature 
  • Refrigerate for X minutes
  • Marinate the night before
Open freezer and refrigerator full of food.

Do you have enough storage space?

Free up some space for the holiday dinner and prevent waste by tapping into the food you have on hand. On the days leading up to the holiday, consider a pantry challenge to clear space in your refrigerator and freezer for holiday meal ingredients and leftovers.

What worked last year and what didn’t?

Keep a holiday notebook or folder on your computer if you host big holidays regularly. Save the guest list, menu, and timing planner. Then afterward, note how things went. Remember to take pictures of the set table and meals!

If you don’t have a record of last year’s holiday, think about what worked and what you’d like to improve.

  • Was there something you had too much of or a meal you wish there was some left to enjoy the next day?
  • What meals were crowd-pleasers?
  • Was there enough variety?
  • Were the side dishes easy and were you able to coordinate the cooking times?
Pushing shopping cart with a blurry supermarket in the background.

Why You Should Start Grocery Shopping Early

If you’re dreading the thought of fighting your way through supermarket crowds in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving or Christmas, I have some good news for you: starting your holiday grocery shopping four weeks in advance will save you time and money.

Saves Money

Many stores offer significant discounts on these items in the weeks leading up to major holidays. Stocking up while prices are low will save you money.

By starting early and giving yourself plenty of time to shop around, you can find the best deals on all the items on your list. And, you can spread the cost of holiday food shopping over a month rather than getting hit with one huge grocery bill. 

Incorporate the holiday meal into your usual grocery budget and plan to have the leftovers the following week. Then you can skip food shopping the following week and save even more money.

Saves Time

Another advantage of shopping early is that it gives you more time to plan ahead. When you’re not in a rush, you can take the time to compare recipes and make sure you have all the ingredients you need. This saves time and money in the long run because you won’t have to make multiple trips to the store or waste food that spoils before you can use it.

How to Shop Ahead for the Holiday 

Non-perishable items like canned goods, baking supplies, and alcohol can all be bought well in advance without worrying about them going bad. And grocery stores sometimes run out of popular seasonal ingredients as the holiday approaches.

For example, turkey gravy, half and half, seasonal dry herbs and spices, and almond paste are a few ingredients I’ve had trouble finding as it gets closer to the holiday.

Plan your menu at least four weeks in advance. This gives you time to keep an eye out for sales on seasonal ingredients. Once your menu is set, make a master list of all the ingredients you need.

Then, each week look through the sale ads for items on your master list. When you find an ingredient on sale, cross it off the master list and add the food to your weekly grocery list. By following this strategy for the next four weeks, you should get everything on your list, avoid the last-minute crowds and save money.

2 weeks out

  • Order special order foods including bakery items or meats around 2 weeks before the holiday depending on the store.
  • Review the final guest list and decide if you need to make any changes to the menu.
  • Review the master list of ingredients to take inventory of what’s still needed.

1 week out

  • Give the meat plenty of time to safely defrost in the refrigerator.
  • Buy the remaining ingredients on the master list.
  • Review the recipes and plan the timing for prep and cooking.

How to Time a Stress-Free Holiday Meal

The week before holiday meals is the time to get organized and start prepping meals. If you don’t have time to spend hours in the kitchen the day before or the morning of the holiday, you might want to precook side dishes throughout the week.

But if you want to coordinate the side dishes so they cook simultaneously and are served hot, follow this timeline and use a mix of cooking methods (air fryer, oven, stove top, crock pot).

7 days before

  • Pick up pre-ordered items.
  • Buy the main course meat (turkey, ham, prime rib) and let it defrost in the refrigerator.
  • Make your meal-prep plan for the week (note extra steps in recipes like letting things cool, room-temperature eggs or butter, date to shop for fresh ingredients, and cooking and prep taste to do in advance).
  • Plan the meal timing for the day of the meal dinner.
  • Look over the recipes one last time and list any ingredients you missed.
  • Put your recipes in the order they need to be prepped during the week.
Homemade spice mix.

3 days before

  • Borrow small appliances (slow cooker, air fryer, turkey deep fryer) from family or friends if necessary.
  • Make the last trip to the grocery store.
  • Make spice mixes and store them in small plastic bags or containers.
  • Pull out serving trays and wash them if necessary.

2 days before

  • Take out all the ingredients and group them by the recipe on the counter (including the spice mixes you’ve made). That way, you’re not running around looking for things while you cook. 
  • Roast nuts.
  • Make cranberry sauce.
  • Make sauces.
  • Make dough for bread, cookies, and pies.
Hands holding an assembled uncooked pumpkin pie.

1 day before

No matter how many years you’ve been hosting a large holiday dinner, there’s always something that gets overlooked in the hustle and bustle of the holiday. It’s your last chance to run to the store for anything. 

Most of the holiday prep is done the day before the holiday. So whether you’re coming home after a long day of work or you took the day off to prep for tomorrow’s dinner, you have a few hours of cooking ahead of you.

  • Dry rub main course meat–rub the spice mix you prepared on day three all over the meat. Then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
  • Do all of the baking today.
  • Wash and chop all vegetables, including onions, garlic, and vegetables needed for all recipes (except potatoes–peel and chop potatoes before cooking).
  • Grate the cheese, measure the amount you need and store it in a bag or container
  • Prepare the stuffing and any side dishes that you’re cooking ahead.
  • Assemble casseroles and other meals that can be assembled now.
  • Double-check the meal timing plan for the next day.
  • Check on the main course meat to ensure it’s defrosted.
  • Make whipped cream.
  • Make flavored butter such as cinnamon butter–great for sweet potatoes and dinner rolls.
  • Pre-measure ingredients for the meals prepared on the day of the holiday meal. 
  • Place the recipe on top of the ingredients you have grouped on the counter so it’s easy to find when you’re finishing up.
  • Update the meal planner timer or kitchen whiteboard with cooking and reheated times. Remember to add additional prep notes, so you don’t forget.

Day of the holiday 

As the minutes get closer to the time of your guests’ arrival, finish the remaining time-sensitive tasks. Don’t worry if you’re still assembling the appetizer as everyone walks in as long as the turkey is in the oven!

Here’s a list of the tasks to finish dinner.

  • Hang up the meal timing planner and note the finish times and additional steps needed during cooking. 
  • Take out ingredients that need to be at room temperature 
  • Put the turkey or ham in the oven
  • Assemble salads and appetizers
  • Follow the meal timing planner for times to assemble ingredients, start cooking, and for additional steps required during cooking. For example, mixing, basting, turning over, or adding ingredients. Remember to cross off tasks as you complete them.
  • Slice bread and place it in a basket with a stone warmer

Wrap It Up

The day before you’re hosting a major holiday is busy but it doesn’t have to be stressful. Follow these planning and timing tips to get organized so you and your guests can relax and enjoy the holiday.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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