family around a holiday dinner

Step By Step Holiday Meal Planner (and Free Cooking Timeline 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 the sales and to prep ahead.

But, there are a few questions to ask yourself before you make to ensure the meal works for your guests and allows you to get the holiday meal on the table with less stress.

Here are things to consider as you create the menu:

Who’s coming to dinner?

Once you know how many people you’ll be cooking for, you can start thinking about what kind of foods everyone will enjoy. Also, take into account dietary restrictions, lifestyle diets, or food allergies.

Everyone’s preferences are different, and you may not be able to please everyone. Some people prefer traditional dishes, while others are willing to try new food. If you have a variety of options available, everyone can find something they enjoy eating.

Another thing to consider when planning your holiday meal is what the kids will eat. If you have picky eaters in the house, it’s always a good idea to have some simple dishes on hand that they can choose from. 

What season is it?

The season helps determine what ingredients will be fresh and in-season (and therefore more affordable) and what cooking methods will be best. For example, grilled meats are perfect for summer gatherings, while roasted turkey or ham is more appropriate for winter celebrations.

And by choosing ingredients that are in season, you’ll be able to get them at a lower price. Many stores offer discounts on holiday staples in the weeks before Thanksgiving and Christmas. By taking advantage of these sales, you’ll get the ingredients you need for your holiday meal at a fraction of the cost.

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 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. And that there will be something for everyone.

Holiday meals tend to be heavy on protein, carbohydrates (mashed potatoes, stuffing, bread, and desserts), and fat. However, you can easily balance that out by adding a salad loaded with seasonal vegetables or a side dish of steamed or roasted vegetables. 

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 color, and everything has a soft consistency.

Make it more appetizing by mixing up the colors and textures. Include a green vegetable to brighten the menu and add a bit of crunch.

Are the recipes easy?

Before you find out too late when in the middle of preparing the meal, consider the difficulty level of the recipes. It’s best not to try out a bunch of new, complicated recipes on your guests. Instead, when you cook for a large crowd, stick to dishes you know how to make that you’re comfortable with. 

But, if you’re up for a challenge and everyone is up for something different this year, use the opportunity to try something new. You may want to test out the recipe ahead of time on your family. Get feedback and tweak the ingredients and timing if necessary.

Four meals cooking at once on stove top.

Does the timing work?

1. Appliance Usage

Coordinate the appliances you’ll need for the recipes you selected, so you have the cooking capacity to prepare all the dishes. Will you need to use the oven? The stovetop? The slow cooker? An Instant Pot? All of the above? 

It’s difficult to get the timing right when all the dishes on the menu require the same appliance simultaneously. 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 plan accordingly, and note anything that needs to be prepared in advance. And write down the times all the dishes need to start cooking or reheating.

Things to look out for when double-checking 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?

Consider your freezer and refrigerator space. This helps you determine how much food you can realistically store and what needs to be purchased closer to the date of the holiday. 

It’s also important to consider what can be prepared ahead of time. For example, many side dishes can be prepped (chopped or cooked) or cooked a day or two in advance and then reheated before serving. This will free up valuable space on the day of the holiday and save time so you can enjoy the holiday with your guests.

At least one week before a major holiday, I plan meals for that week from the pantry. That way, I make room for the holiday meal by using up all the leftovers and ingredients for meals in the refrigerator. Remember the freeze and pantry. Free up some space for the holiday dinner and prevent waste by tapping into the food you have on hand.  

What’s the plan for the leftovers?

Reduce holiday waste and save money on a week of groceries by planning meals from leftovers.

There are two considerations when you plan the holiday meal– 

What leftovers do you need to make balanced meals for a few days? 

For example, you might want extra turkey (protein), potatoes and/or stuffing (starch), and vegetables.

What foods don’t you want hanging around the house? 

If your family is like mine, there’s a lot of leftover pie and dessert after the holidays. If you’ve hosted holidays before, you probably know what dishes end up as leftovers.

A simple strategy is to make less of the foods you don’t want to get stuck with and make extras of the foods you need for the following week’s meals. Also, prep extra ingredients for the week as you prepare the holiday meal.

Is the plan realistic?

The first draft of your menu may not be the final menu. 

Sometimes the solutions for each are very different, and coordinating is challenging. 

For example, the foods you’d like for leftovers may be different from the crowd-pleaser favorites everyone expects. Changing your family’s traditional holiday meal is bound to disappoint guests looking forward to their favorites.

Of, you might have planned easy meals, but they require too much attention right before the dinner when the guests have arrived.

Another common issue is noticing that the menu could use more variety. If you have time to adjust the menu, then swap out a meal or two. But changing the menu too much means you’ll have to re-do your shopping list and reconsider the timing. 

That’s when mistakes happen, and you might miss a few ingredients on your last shipping trip, or have a timing conflict if too many dishes need the same appliance at once. This time stick to the original menu and make a note of changes you’d like to make the next time.

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!

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 the crowds at the supermarket 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 

While it may seem counterintuitive to start buying holiday groceries weeks before the big day, a few items are best purchased in advance. 

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 that grocery stores run low on during the holiday season.

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.

Now that you have your list, it’s time to start shopping! 

Look through the sale ads for items on your master list each week. Then, when you find an ingredient on sale, cross it off the master list and add it to your weekly grocery list for that sale cycle. 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

  • Do you have any special order items? At least 2 weeks before the holiday dinner, it’s time to place orders for baked goods and meat if necessary.
  • Review the final guest list and decide if you need to make any changes to the menu.
  • Review the master list of ingredients to see what’s left to buy. 

1 week out

  • Give your meat plenty of time to defrost so it’s safe, and come holiday dinner time.
  • Review the master list of ingredients to see what’s left to buy. Now it’s time to move the rest of the ingredients to that week’s grocery list.
  • Look at the recipes and plan the daily tasks for the next seven days.

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, you might want to precook side dishes throughout the week.

But if you want to coordinate the cooking so all the side dishes are done at the same time and 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 temp 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) 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

It’s the night before Thanksgiving or Christmas, and you’re preparing everything for tomorrow. The main course is defrosting, the pies are baking, and the guest list is finalized. 

But no matter how many years you’ve been hosting Thanksgiving or Christmas 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 cleared your schedule to prep for the holiday 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 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 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 together 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 you’re expecting guests, finish the remaining time-sensitive tasks. Don’t worry if you’re still assembling the appetizer as guests arrive 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 Thanksgiving is always a busy one. By getting organized and planning ahead, you’ll be able to get everything done without the added stress.

Follow these simple tips, and your holiday meal will succeed!

Getting the timing right would be the most helpful if you can accomplish only one thing. That can be the difference between a hectic holiday meal and one you and everyone can relax and enjoy.

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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