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Easy Holiday Plan & Menu Ideas for a Traditional Holiday Meal

Nancy has over 20 years of experience in the administrative support industry. She is an entrepreneur, writer, mother, friend, and DIYer.

Spread some holiday cheer with bright baubles and beads.

Spread some holiday cheer with bright baubles and beads.

Easy Holiday Meal Ideas and Menu Planning

This article shows you how to create a holiday meal and gathering place for your guests that is both traditional and easy to pull off. How you plan the meal and gathering is a key component to the success of the holiday get-together. Whether you are hosting Thanksgiving or Christmas, having a practical plan will help eliminate stress, kitchen disasters, and upsets for family and guests alike.

Below you will find tips on everything from shopping to cooking to entertaining your guests.

This brightly colored fall garland and light globe easily blend with Christmas decor.

This brightly colored fall garland and light globe easily blend with Christmas decor.

Hosting the Holiday Meal

Hosting the holiday gathering is a big responsibility. You are not only in charge of the meal, but the guest list, seating, parking, budget, decorations, and seeing to it that guests are generally comfortable in your home. This is a pretty tall order to fill and is why it is important to start formulating the plan as soon as you know you will be the host or hostess.

Some of you might be lucky enough to have reliable helpers, and this makes the job easier. However, many hard-working moms will accomplish the entire event all on their own. If this describes your situation, remember that it is possible to pull off a fantastic holiday that reflects your lifestyle and the lifestyles of your guests.

Before you start planning, it is a good idea to fix firmly in your mind the type of holiday you wish to create. The next task is to determine if you can realistically expect everyone else to want the same thing! In my family, although we enjoy celebrating similarly, we differ on how that should be done. I favor a more casual atmosphere with lots of games and activities, food, and good cheer. My sister wants things (including guests) to be much more formal.

What Is Your Holiday Style?

Think for a moment about how this event can realistically happen. This will help you to keep from overloading yourself. Consider your guests’ wants and needs. How do you envision the holiday event while it is taking place? Will you strive for formal elegance (everyone dresses for dinner, etc.) or casual elegance (clothing will be a step up from everyday wear, but not formal or semi-formal)? Is your family’s style more laid back? Do guests spend time outdoors or indoors? Will the holiday include watching a sporting event on television? Now that you have a good idea of the tone and style of your gathering, you can start to create a plan.

This old red lantern was cleaned up and dressed with garland, pine cones, and a red bandanna and filled with a short string of warm Christmas lights.

This old red lantern was cleaned up and dressed with garland, pine cones, and a red bandanna and filled with a short string of warm Christmas lights.

Develop a Holiday Plan

It really is best to set up a notebook (spiral, bound, or both) and to keep some sort of inexpensive day planner with a calendar. Smartphones work well for texting or emailing reminders to yourself, and for the contact information of the guest list. But other tasks are best planned in a notebook so that you can make quick sketches of furniture arrangements and a seating plan (especially if you have left-handed guests) and keep notes on your progress. Ideally, the notebook should be small enough to fit in your purse so you can always have it with you in the busy days to come. Knowing the answers to the following questions will help things run smoother.

Number and Types of Guests

  • Overnight guests. Family or friends who will be staying in the guest room, or even on air mattresses on the floor.
  • Guests who will arrive the day of the event. What time will they arrive? All at once, or will they arrive anywhere from six in the morning to arriving late for dinner? Knowing the answer to this question can save you a lot of stress in the long run.
  • How many small children, teenagers, and elderly or infirm will be a part of the group? Considering this element helps you to think of activities for each type of guest so they will feel included and yet be able to participate in activities. For example, kids can go outside and play in the snow while the grandparents play cards or some other game.
  • Dietary needs or wants. Make note of any food allergies your guests may have. Plan additional options for those people. Include healthy snacks and sources of protein for guests who will need to put something besides cookies and candy in their tummies.
  • Contact guests and ask them what they want you to include on the menu. You may not be able to accommodate every single dish, but you will be able to work most of the requests into the menu. This also provides an opportunity for your guest to offer to contribute to the meal by cooking a salad or an entree.
  • Rearrange the furniture. Or at least know where it will go. Arrange things to maximize standing and sitting space. Where will you situate the dining table? The Christmas tree? Where will your guests sit and sleep? Where will the kids play? Are there areas that will function for several different purposes? What types of holiday décor will you use, and will tabletops and shelved items need to be moved to make room for the decorations?

Make a few notes about the answers to the above questions. You can send yourself texts or emails or write notes in your notebook or planner, but do keep track of this information. And once you have completed the list above, you will be halfway to the finish line.

Large empty boxes wrapped with Christmas paper form a stand for a small tree, which has been decorated with items like cookie cutters, bits of rope, an antique horse bridal, and a couple of red boot shaped kitchen utensil holders filled with garland.

Large empty boxes wrapped with Christmas paper form a stand for a small tree, which has been decorated with items like cookie cutters, bits of rope, an antique horse bridal, and a couple of red boot shaped kitchen utensil holders filled with garland.

Easy Holiday Meal Plan

Now that you have a good idea of the wants and needs of your guests, you can plan your meal. Write down your menu, and the ingredients needed for each dish. Note who is contributing to the mean and what they will bring. Begin shopping for the non-perishable ingredients as early as possible. The following menu is for a traditional American Thanksgiving or Christmas celebration. Menus do vary, however. For example, if you live in a coastal area, the meal may include favorite seafood dishes like crab puffs. If you live in Brooklyn or the Bronx, many people have lasagna or other Italian specialties. If you are uncertain about this, stick with family favorites and include small dishes of other non-traditional items.

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Traditional Christmas or Thanksgiving Menu

  • Turkey, ham, or prime rib
  • Mashed potatoes with turkey gravy for a turkey dinner. Escalloped potatoes with ham, and twice-baked potatoes with prime rib.
  • Serve two or three types of vegetables. Cheesy broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and peas work well with all of the cuts of meat mentioned above. Green bean casserole is a holiday favorite. Add sweet potatoes or yams. Candy these with brown sugar and butter.
  • Dinner rolls. Warm the rolls in the oven if they are store-bought. A different option is to buy the dough, let it rise, and pop the rolls in to bake about 20 minutes before dinner is scheduled to be served.
  • Cranberries, pickles, and olives. Most traditional holiday dinner tables include these items. Cranberries can be jellied sauce straight out of the can to be used as a turkey topper or be fixed to include whole berries in the sauce. It adds a sweet tartness to the rich and savory meat. Pickles and olives provide just the right contrasting flavor pops to the richness of the meal.
  • Salads. Typically you will find some sort of fruit salad on a holiday table. For a quick and easy fruit salad, just unthaw a bag of frozen mixed fruit. Drizzle white grape juice concentrate (thaw it first) over the thawing fruit. Give it a stir and put it in the refrigerator to finish marinating. Other fruit salad options include whipped cream and canned fruits, and Waldorf salad made with apples, walnuts, raisins, and finely chopped celery.
  • Desserts. Traditional holiday desserts include apple pie, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and any other favorite family dessert. Baked goods like cookies, chocolate-covered raisins and nuts, and other specialty items are placed throughout the home for snacks and nibbles and noshing.
This ornament was made from barbed wire cut into strips and held together with florist wire. A bow and a bit of garland add festive color and charm. Hang on a wall or lower branches of the tree.

This ornament was made from barbed wire cut into strips and held together with florist wire. A bow and a bit of garland add festive color and charm. Hang on a wall or lower branches of the tree.

Shopping for the Holiday Meal

When you shop for the ingredients for your holiday cooking and baking, it is a good idea to have the final menu written down, with the needed ingredients listed on the menu. This way, you can pick up items you need over a longer period of time instead of trying to do it all at once, which can be an overwhelming task. Plus, if you forget an item or get the wrong item, you have time to fix it. A general Christmas pantry list is provided below.

  • Stock up on things like napkins, paper towels, paper plates, plastic glasses, and even extra toilet paper.
  • Garbage bags. Have a good supply on hand of both tall kitchen bags, and larger bags, such as lawn and leaf bags. Unfortunately, the entire holiday season produces more trash, in terms of packaging for items we don’t normally buy, used gift wrapping, ribbons, and whatnot.
  • Herbal teas, coffee, coffee filters, hot cocoa mix, and frozen juice concentrate.
  • Baking ingredients. Flour, baking powder and baking soda (there is a difference), iodized salt, powdered sugar, granulated sugar, real butter, and vanilla extract are universal elements of most baked goods. For holiday cheer, add peppermint and spearmint extracts to the list.
  • Nuts for munching and baking. Use small, foil muffin liners for portion cups for things like nuts and candies. The protein in the nuts helps stabilize blood sugar levels and is a healthy snacking option. Peanuts, walnuts, pecans, and cashews are all good choices for both snacking and baking.
  • Dish detergent, hand soap, bath soap, and other cleaning supplies. You always use more of these items during the holiday, so stock up and you have one less thing to worry about as the holiday approaches.
  • Plastic containers. Stock up or repurpose these items so that you can send holiday meal leftovers home with guests. These containers also make economical gift containers for giving Christmas treats to friends and coworkers. Tip: line the inside of the container with gift wrap, then a layer of paper towel or plastic wrap. Put the homemade cookies and candy in last. You now have a festive container for almost no money.
  • Consult your menu for specific ingredients. When shopping for perishable items, or very large items such as your holiday turkey, ham, or cut of beef, consider your available storage. You might have to store a large turkey or ham in the refrigerator of a friend or relative until it is time to go through the unthawing process. Other large items include cases of soda pop, spirits, produce, and things of that nature. Plan ahead for how you will temporarily store frozen and refrigerated foods. If you need extra cookware, cookie sheets, or serving dishes, you can borrow from a friend or relative, or hit the second-hand shops to find used bowels, pots and pans, cake pans, and muffin tins. You can also find electric mixers and other utensils you may need to whip up your Christmas meal.

Now that you have begun to stock up on the supplies you will need for your gathering, you will next need to spend some time accomplishing some mundane, but crucial tasks.

This candle holder was decorated with glitter to add sparkle to the decor.

This candle holder was decorated with glitter to add sparkle to the decor.

Getting the House Ready for the Holiday

Do a good cleaning of the entire house early, between mid-October and Mid November for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Everyone’s home is different, but by now you should have your furniture arranged the way you want it. Do a thorough vacuuming, including window tracks, nooks and crannies, and other dust catchers. Wash windows and doors, and give the refrigerator, microwave, oven, and cooktops a good cleaning. You should be good to go until after the holiday if you are careful to wipe up spills and cooking messes right away to prevent stuck-on scrubbing issues. Keep up on laundry and other household chores during this time so that you don’t have to move Heaven and earth to do it all in one day.

Decorate Your Home for the Holiday Season

Once the house is whipped into shape, you can begin to decorate. For Christmas decorations, you can begin early in the season to dig out the decorations and begin testing light strings, and checking to see that everything is in good working order. This is especially true if you are doing all of the work with little help. Many people put up their outdoor lights in October or November, and turn them on the day after Thanksgiving. Work a little of this into each day, and begin adding your décor elements a little at a time in the weeks before Christmas.

Shopping for Christmas Holiday Decorations

Even when you are on a tight budget, you want your home to look festive and nice for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Check your local “dollar” or discount stores for inexpensive décor items such as led light strings. Holiday light strings are one of the best ways to warm up a space and illuminate rooms with festive charm.

Put a small tree in several different areas of the home at Christmastime. Save tons of money by purchasing used trees at your local second-hand outlet or senior center store. Buy some cute wrapping paper and use it to temporarily paper a small wall or even a backsplash in the kitchen. Foil paper works great for this and can eliminate lots of cleaning later on. After the holiday just take down the paper, and your cooking splatters are gone! Just don’t put it near your stove or oven.

Decorate With Items You Have On Hand

This is especially true if you are on a very strict budget. One year when my daughter was small, and I was barely getting by, we could not afford a Christmas tree. I went outside and found a large tumbleweed, brought it into the house, and painted it with silver spray paint. After it dried, my daughter and I decorated it with ornaments and popcorn strings.

We even put a string of lights on it. Our Christmas “tree” was very festive and turned out to be a great ice breaker when company came to visit. There are many ways to have warm and festive decorations that do not cost a lot of money. Barren branches fallen from a tree, dried grass, coffee mugs, and even jelly jars can all be transformed into holiday decorations for just pennies.

Holiday Baking

About three weeks to a month before Christmas, you can begin making cookies and candies. These items store well in containers and make very special and inexpensive gifts. Again, by starting early and making a batch every couple of days, you spread the work out and eliminate stress.

Easy Christmas Candy Idea

Chocolate-covered nuts, pretzels dipped in chocolate, and even strawberries dried and dipped in chocolate are easy to prepare and store in advance. Fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate are best prepared the day you serve them.

A Thanksgiving table set with candles and coordinating dishes

A Thanksgiving table set with candles and coordinating dishes

Recapping the Plan

Begin preparing as early as mid-October. Move furniture and décor to accommodate the holiday decorations and Christmas tree. Talk to guests about their meal preferences prior to shopping. Write down your menu and the ingredient list with each menu item. Shop for the meal early, except for perishable items which must be purchased shortly before the dinner. Save money on decorations by looking for things you already have that could be converted into a pretty display by adding shiny beads, baubles, or light strings. Clean the refrigerator, stove, and microwaves early, then wipe up messes quickly as time goes on. Organize the decorations early, then do a little at a time as the holiday approaches.

When the holiday finally arrives, you will find you are ready to greet your guests with confidence on this special day.

© 2017 Nancy Owens


Nancy Owens (author) from USA on October 25, 2017:

Thank you for reading and thank you for knowing that I needed Angels yesterday. Because hosting the holiday gathering is a really big project, I wanted to help first time hosts so their celebration could be a little more fun and less stressful.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on October 24, 2017:

Well thought out plan for anyone who is planning a holiday get together. Knowing steps to take in advance if one has never hosted such an event takes much of the stress out of it. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

Nancy Owens (author) from USA on October 21, 2017:

Hello, Peachy! Thank you for stopping by. I like the idea of ready-made. So much less work. Just out of curiosity, what is your geographical region? I have friends who live in Boston, and they make favorite Italian dishes for their holidays, as well.

Nancy Owens (author) from USA on October 21, 2017:

Hi, Linda! So it turned out to be sooo long, Lol! I thought about dividing it into two hubs, but decided against it because when I go searching for some sort of a plan, I don't want to click all around. I want to find what I need all in one place.

I think for a lot of young women, hosting a holiday at their home is a sort of rite of passage. At least, it was for me. However, I was shocked to realize just how much work goes into it, and I forgot to do so many things. Like making sure I had blankets and pillows for my overnight guests!

Anyway, I hope it helps someone to have the day go smoothly.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on October 21, 2017:

I prefer to have a mixture of ready made food and homemade food for christmas dinner. Buy pizza, cook baked chicken with pasta, grand feast!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2017:

There's a lot of useful information in this article, Nancy. I can tell that you put a lot of thought and work into it! It's a great article for people who entertain over the holidays.

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