Playing Host This Holiday Season? Here’s How to Plan without Losing Your Cool


December 6, 2022

The holiday season is a time of hustle and bustle, and hosting a festive get-together often compounds the stress of the season. As a result, what should be the most joyful time of the year may become something you dread.

But don’t let the thought of preparing for holiday company rob you of your seasonal joy. 

Instead, do what you can to plan ahead for your gathering. Organization will help you feel prepared, confident and excited for the events you’re about to host. 

Here are our best tips for cutting down on stress as the holiday season approaches.

#1) Clean the house in stages.

Preparing the house is one of the biggest jobs to accomplish before a big holiday meal. Fortunately, it’s a chore that doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop. If you break the job up over several days leading up to the party, you’ll make your life easier.

Consider tackling one room per day. Start with the rooms that won’t be seen as much by your guests, such as the bedrooms. That way, if they get a little messy between now and then, it won’t be such a big deal. Save the kitchen and the bathrooms until closer to party time.

By getting the major cleaning done several days in advance, you may need to do only a quick tidy-up shortly before your guests arrive.

Pro tip: Make sure that cleaning out the fridge gets added to your pre-party to-do list. Trying to shove ingredients and dishes into a stuffed refrigerator is a sure source of stress. By making space ahead of time, you’ll save yourself that headache once the cooking begins. 

And while you’re at it, do a sweep of your pantry space, too. Since a lot of charity pantries do food drives this time of year, now’s a great time to declutter and donate at the same time. You’ll free up space and give someone else ingredients to make their own holiday meals. Win win.

#2) Delegate tasks to others.

Just because you’re the host doesn’t mean you have to be responsible for everything. Give jobs to as many people as possible to lighten your own load.

Having others bring food can be a major help. Just make sure to assign the food or do a signup sheet so you don’t end up with three green bean casseroles on the dinner table.

Guests coming from far away may want to bring cold salads that can be packed in coolers. Other items that travel well include drinks, rolls and disposable tableware.

Those who live closer may be willing to bring hot items. In addition to easing your workload, that could keep your oven from ending up too crowded.

You can delegate more than just what to bring, too. Give people tasks during the gathering. You might appoint family members or close friends to answer the door, collect coats, take drink orders, or keep the cheese and cracker trays filled. Most people want to help, so let them.

#3) Determine your budget.

Holiday overspending can be a major source of stress. As the cost of groceries rises, so does the cost of hosting people for the holidays.

Ahead of time, figure out what you can afford to spend on the festivities. Then, hold yourself to that budget. That might mean cutting a dish off the menu or using generic ingredients instead of name brand ones. It’s worth it if it saves you from going into debt over one meal.

This is another good reason to rely on delegation. With everyone pitching in, you’ll spread out the cost of your holiday dinner.

#4) Use pre-made ingredients.

Your success as a host isn’t determined by the number of from-scratch items you make. Save yourself time and trouble by using prepared ingredients when possible. That may include buying pie crusts, frozen vegetables or gravy mix from the store. Those shortcuts won’t keep guests from enjoying the meal.

You may even want to purchase some fully prepared ingredients. For example, visit the bakery for dinner rolls, fruit pies or breakfast cinnamon buns. Order a pan of mashed potatoes or mac and cheese from a homestyle restaurant. Not only will this save you time, but it can also be a way to support local businesses.

And if making things from scratch is important to you, don’t sweat it. Find other ways to cut down on your prep work, like buying pre-diced onions and other veggie mixes, or trimmed and cut versions of your meat. 

The key here is to cut time and effort where it doesn’t matter so you can focus your energy on where it does.

#5) Choose make-ahead dishes.

Speaking of meal prep, the less cooking you have to do on the big day, the better. Spread out the task over a couple of days — or even longer.

Some dishes can be made a whole week or so in advance and then frozen. Most cookies, for example, freeze quite well. It doesn’t take long to thaw them out at room temperature, either.

Other items can be prepared and refrigerated about a day or so in advance. Dips, cheeseballs and other appetizers often fall into this category.

You can even cut and carve an entire turkey the day before your big meal. When it’s time to eat, arrange the turkey slices in a shallow baking pan. Pour a bit of broth into the pan, and spread a thin layer of gravy over the meat. Cover the dish with foil and bake it until warm. You may lose out on crispy skin, but since you’re likely covering turkey in gravy or cranberry sauce anyway, it probably won’t matter much.

For many casseroles, you can prepare the ingredients but save the baking until the last minute. Stir the ingredients together for your corn casserole, for example, and transfer the mixture to a baking dish, and cover the pan. Leave the casserole in the fridge overnight. Before the meal, allow the dish to come to room temperature for a bit before popping it in the oven. Just keep in mind that you may need to bake the casserole for an extra 15 minutes or so. 

This same advice applies to lots of casseroles, like green bean and sweet potato (minus the toppings).

#6) Gather your recipes.

If you’re like many modern cooks, your recipes are scattered all over the internet. For holiday cooking, consolidate those recipes into one handy notebook.

Fortunately, this is a job you can do well in advance. Pull up the recipe for each dish and print it. If some of your recipes come from good old-fashioned cookbooks, make copies of the relevant pages.

Slip each recipe printout into a page protector. Clip those into a three-ring notebook. When it comes time to cook, you can quickly flip to the correct page — and the plastic page protectors mean you won’t have to worry about spills or splashes as you’re working.

This is one time when doing it the paper way may make more sense than saving a lot of browser tabs. You may need to use your phone as a timer, for one thing. Plus, it’s much easier to look at physical copies of recipes than to juggle different tabs while you’re cooking.

#7) Make a timeline.

When you’re planning a holiday gathering, work backwards when making a timeline to account for everything. First, pick what time dinner starts. Then, calculate how long each step of preparation will take.

For instance, if the broccoli casserole needs to bake for 60 minutes, then you should toss it in the oven about an hour and 15 minutes before you’d like to eat. The extra quarter of an hour will give you a bit of cushion in case the center takes a little longer to get up to temperature than you’d expected.

Don’t forget that a pre-made casserole may need to sit at room temperature for a while before cooking. That should be added to an earlier spot on your timeline.

Go through this process for each dish on your menu. Add in jobs, too, such as setting the table and lighting scented candles.

Put everything onto one master timeline. It may seem like overkill at first, but you’ll appreciate the easy breakdown of steps once the holiday arrives.

In fact, that’s the key to low-stress holiday gatherings: breaking down big tasks into smaller portions. When you share the workload and do a little bit each day, you can make it to party time without running yourself ragged.