Around this time every year, I post something about how to reduce holiday stress through a little up front planning.

The stresses that accompany big holiday gatherings are myriad. And COVID is still here even though we wish it weren’t, making safe gathering even more complicated. So, yes, you’re about to face yet another year of listening to your curmudgeonly uncle drone on (and on) while running around the house trying to ensure that everyone gets enough appetizers in their bellies before the wine really starts flowing. And at the same time, you’re trying to make sure your cousin’s new baby doesn’t end up with COVID when all you were trying to do is make sure everyone has a great time.

Work holiday parties are back. Family gatherings are back. And we’re marching ahead into this next phase of the pandemic, which I call “cautiously living our lives”.

It’s a brand new world. Yet again. So we’ve got to keep adjusting.

But, even though it’s bound to be stressful, you have a little more agency than you think. The better you plan, the more relaxed you’ll be, no matter the situation.

To that end, here are a few things you can do this year to set yourself up for success, and ensure that your in-person celebrations bridge that gap between fun and safe.

Travel Safely

Yes, I know that masks are no longer required on airplanes. But do you really want to be the one that brings COVID to the party? One of the best ways to reduce stress around the holidays this year is to make sure you’re being as safe as possible when traveling. So wear a mask, test before you leave, and bow out if you’re feeling sick.

Make a big picture game plan

Get out a spreadsheet and plan the meal. Choose your recipes, and write down the ingredient lists. Check your fridge and cabinets to see what you’ve already got. Then…

Get your groceries delivered

Over the past few years, many of us have embraced delivery in a way we never would have before. Personally, I’d never used Instacart pre-pandemic because I didn’t want to pay that up-charge.

2 years later? Well, let’s just day I haven’t been to Costco in a LONG time. But I’m staring at the world’s largest jar of pickles in my fridge nonetheless.

So, once you’ve got a comprehensive list, make that order… and then make yourself a cocktail while you wait for your groceries in the comfort of your own home. (And make sure to give a big fat tip if you can. That delivery person deserves to be well compensated for their labor.)

Make a timeline

Working backwards from meal time, figure out when you need to start cooking or preparing each of your dishes. Prepare a timeline, post it somewhere visible and refer to it often so that you’re not scrambling.

Take it a step farther and put reminders in your phone, or your Alexa/Google Home (i.e. “put the roast in the oven at 11am”).

Do what you can in advance

Spend a few hours in the days ahead of your gathering prepping and chopping all of your veg and measuring out all of your dry goods for breads and pie crusts. Get an extensive mis-en-place going. This will significantly reduce the time you spend in the kitchen the day of your celebration and make the whole operation run more smoothly.

Got family staying with you? Make the beds and set out the towels up to a week in advance. Your guests will be so surprised at how relaxed you look when they arrive.

Agree on a “safe word” and a “let’s get out of here” script

If you’ll be the guest, agree on a “safe word” or phrase with your partner, kids or +1 so that you have a secret signal with each other when it’s time to get out of there! You don’t want to hurt any feelings, but you know you’ve got your our own upper limit on how much time you can spend with others before you’re just DONE.

And if the time you need to leave is far earlier than it might be considered customary to leave, then plan a short script in advance. Here are a few you can try:

“It’s been so lovely to see everyone, but we’re just exhausted. Time for us to call it a night!”

“I wish we could stay longer, but we have to get up early!”

“Our dog is missing us; we’ve got to head out! Thanks so much1”

Make a list of things to be grateful for…in advance

While the past couple of years have been rough because we haven’t been able to celebrate with family, this year might be rough for another reason. You know the saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? Well, clichés are clichés for a reason. Because they contain a grain of truth. Even if you’re so happy to be able to celebrate together again, that doesn’t mean your relatives won’t grate on your nerves once you all back in the same physical space.

So right now, start making a list of what you are grateful for. Then return to this list whenever you need a mood boost. (In fact, some studies show that stress hormones are up to 23% lower in people who cultivate gratitude.)

When you plan, you are are better able to enjoy yourself and be present in the moment.

Holidays are no different.

A little work on the front end goes a long way towards our own happiness, and the happiness of others.