Cooking is often a joyful experience, but it can also be stressful – especially during the holidays, when preparing a multi-course meal for a large group of people can be enough to rattle even experienced cooks.
That’s why we asked our Thrive Global contributor community to share their best tips for staying calm while making high-stakes meals during the holiday season. Their smart advice will help make your cooking less stressful and more joyful this time of year.
Embrace your own traditions
“When we moved away from family and friends, I no longer found myself cooking for 30 people on Christmas. On my first year of cooking for a mere six people, I was a bit sad until I realized that I could do everything my way. So I revived the Polish tradition of the ‘12 dishes’ – Wigilia – on Christmas Eve by preparing the vegan version, the vegetarian one, and the old-fashioned Polish kind. We are now entering our seventh year of this tradition and the kids are more involved than ever before.”
—Renee Tarantowski Baude, mindfulness teacher, Chicago, IL
“Guests enjoy a dinner party when they see how calm and happy the host seems. I dare say that a relaxed host is more important than any elaborate dish or presentation. With that in mind, whatever you’re serving, offer it with confidence, joy, and certainly no apologies. Apologies can introduce an atmosphere of regret and sadness. And remember, this is your home game, it’s a friendly crowd — not a restaurant — and your guests aren’t food critics. They’re — hopefully and most likely — ready to have a good time, they’re not there to criticize you.”
—Ayala Laufer-Cahana M.D., pediatrician and entrepreneur, Greater Philadelphia, PA
Let go of perfection
“Plan your meal in advance, as well as the experience you want your guests to enjoy. Invite at least one or two people who are in ‘your tribe.’ Play great music while cooking. Laugh and enjoy the experience. Let go of being perfect!”
—Pamela Bennett, artist and consultant, Phoenix, AZ
“There’s something very special about a home-cooked holiday meal. As a child, I watched in wonder as my mother would prepare a delicious menu days in advance. Not only would she prepare a main meal and a bunch of side dishes, but she would also make an array of scrumptious appetizers. Our family and guests would return for the holidays year after year, so she must have been doing something right! Here are a few tips I picked up from many years of observation, to help your guests enjoy the experience and make your day stress-free:
1. Organize and prepare as much as you can in advance so that there’s time to get anything you’ve forgotten without any last-minute scrambling. Really think through how long everything will take to cook because you’ll need to have the different dishes done around the same time.
2. Set your dining area the night before and check this task off the list. Now you have one less time-consuming thing to worry about.
3. Make sure there’s plenty to eat in the form of appetizers, and an array of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
4. Activities keep your guests engaged and also out of the kitchen! There are a bunch of options, including: opening presents, watching a football game, playing a board game, or enjoying a good, old-fashioned conversation.
5. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself! Holidays only happen a few times a year. As long as the food is fresh, abundant, and hot, and there’s a relaxed atmosphere, everyone is sure to have fun and look forward to next year.”
—Jennifer Zar, marketing, New York, NY
“There’s always someone — or multiple people — on your invitation list who understands the pressure of undertaking this monumental task. Most times, they’ll sincerely ask you if there’s anything they can do to help. So take them up on that, and ask for one thing in return: Ask them to make this be their gift to you, and nothing else. You may wind up with two or more helpers. Everyone loves to feel needed, and everyone loves to give a gift that’s truly appreciated, especially during the holidays. So now you have a team. You’ll be amazed by how much pressure this takes off of you and how much more fun the dinner will be. Just remember to thank your teammates at the table and accept the fact that you’re never going to please anyone who loves to play The Grinch.”
—Todd Garrett, marketing, Nashville, TN
Focus on enjoying each other’s company
“Christmas Day falls in the height of summer here, and it’s generally hot. Coming from England, I tried to continue our traditions of turkey and trimmings for many years, but it was too much pressure. After about 10 years, my family and I started to create our own stress-free traditions. As a family of meat-eaters, vegans, and vegetarians who all love dessert, we all participate. Those who don’t cook are in charge of decorations, table layouts, and more. Everyone brings something, whether it’s food, wine, candles, or games. While it’s never perfect, and often messy — like when the cat ate the salmon — we all have fun and enjoy each other’s company. The wifi is turned off and photos are limited to five – all of people and pets, not food or decorations.”
—Amanda Renwick, HR manager, Johannesburg, South Africa
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