How to Feed The Crowds (& Stay Sane) This Christmas Season

Christmas is as much about cheer and carols and presents as it is about food. Whether they gather for Christmas lunch or dinner, families have their traditions—the recipes that are paraded year after year, that become set in stone and eagerly anticipated.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

In our family, this means: the turkey that my mother marinates in maple syrup and spices overnight then puts in the oven first thing in the morning; the potatoes that I roughly chop (never peel), drench in olive oil  and coarse salt, and roast in the oven for 2 to 3 hours; and, for the rest, braised red cabbage, two kinds of stuffing, brussels with chestnuts and pancetta, and chipolata sausages, which we prepare the day before and then just gently cook off in time for lunch.

All of these somehow take care of themselves: Roasting the turkey is as much part of Christmas as decorating the tree or going for a brisk walk after breakfast. It is tradition, it is untouchable, and it is enjoyed. It is part of what makes the day special.

Photo by Linda Xiao

The headache, I find, is the meals that cluster around the Christmas lunch: the festive dinner on Christmas Eve; breakfast on the morning of the day itself; perhaps a little supper that night; and then, of course, breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Boxing Day (December 26).

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All of this leads to a rhythm of prep, cook, clear, clean up, and start all over again that can feel more like drudgery than jolly.

To that end, here are my cardinal rules for planning the meals around Christmas:
1. Plan, make, and shop ahead.
2. Simplify.
3. Double up.
4. Delegate.
5. Serve decadent desserts.

Read more about each one, then scroll down for my menu ideas for all of the Christmas-adjacent meals.

Photo by Skye McAlpine

1. Plan, make, and shop ahead.

Think of things that can be made (or bought) well ahead of time, and either freeze or store in the fridge. You could, of course, plan out each meal and what you will be eating—and if you are a great number (more than six guests), you will most likely need to do so. But for smaller, mostly family Christmases, it's enough to stock the house with those basic components for a cozy meal: soup, smoked salmon, eggs, bread, cheese, charcuterie.

I stock up on large dishes of cranberries, which I find look festive, but can also be turned into anything from a cranberry upside-down cake to a nice homemade cranberry sauce (which can save even the driest piece of meat).

Also invest a little time in cooking or baking couple of "centerpiece" dishes around which you can hang a good meal: a nice cold ham or perhaps or a chicken pot pie that will keep over a few days and give each meal that sense of occasion that we crave around the holidays. 

2. Simplify.

While Christmas lunch itself might be over-the-top extravagant, the rest needn’t involve endless fiddling in the kitchen. The key is to choose dishes that you feel confident cooking (or reheating), where it's more about assembling key ingredients than doing any heavy duty work in the kitchen.

  • So, for Christmas Eve dinner, make something like scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and a nice loaf of bread. You could top the eggs with shavings of black truffles if you wanted to make the meal feel a little more fancy and open a nice bottle of prosecco or Champagne.
  • On Christmas night, make a bowl of spaghetti carbonara or frittata for those who still have an appetite after the big lunch with all the trimmings.
  • Then, for lunch on Boxing Day, serve a hearty bowl of soup with bread, baked Camembert topped with cranberries in syrupy sauce, and a red chicory salad with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.

3. Double up.

When preparing a dish, double the recipe and think about how you can use the leftovers. This saves hugely on cooking and planning time. So, for example:

  • Serve cranberry sauce with turkey on Christmas day, then with baked Camembert the next day and in a turkey and stuffing sandwich the day after that.
  • Spread brandy butter onto a cranberry upside-down cake on Christmas Eve, then bake it into warm buns or slather it on toasted panettone for breakfast on Christmas morning.
  • Make brussels sprouts with the turkey on Christmas Day, and then use them again in bubble and squeak for supper on Boxing Day. 

Photo by James Ransom

4. Delegate.

As tempting as it might be to insist on cooking everything yourself, it is almost impossible to do so and also enjoy Christmas with your loved ones.

So make a list in advance of simple tasks that guests and family members can help with, then give each person an explicit task and clear timings for it. Not having to think about setting and clearing the table, for example, will cut down the time you spend in the kitchen considerably. 

5. Serve decadent desserts.

I am and always have been a firm believer that a beautiful, rich dessert makes up for the most parsimonious of meals. And never is it more true than at Christmas: Fruitcake, brandy butter, panettone, pandoro, mince pies, clementines, dates, candied nuts, and all manner of sweet treats should be served in abundance to end each and every meal.

Brandy butter is a favorite of mine: I whip it up in plentiful quantities and then store it in a jar in the fridge. I will serve it with everything from homemade mince pies, to store-bought panettone. For breakfast on Christmas Day, I make a batch of cinnamon buns the night before, replacing the cinnamon filling with brandy butter, then leave them to proof in the fridge overnight, and bake them off when I wake up the next day.

If that seems like too much effort (though freshly baked buns warrant a fair bit of effort), spoon brandy butter on to slices of toasted panettone.

Some menu ideas:

Christmas Eve Dinner

Something a little bit fancy that can be largely prepared in advance and otherwise pulled together with ease

Christmas Day Breakfast

All you need to do on the day is warm the buns in the oven, put the kettle on, and toast the panettone

  • Freshly baked brandy butter buns or toasted panettone with brandy butter
  • Hot ginger tea

Christmas Day Supper

One pot recipes that create very little cleanup

Boxing Day Lunch

Cozy and informal

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Writer & home cook living la dolce vita in Venice