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A Checklist for Your Big Holiday Dinner

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

This is part of a multi-part series that will help you make your own delicious Big Holiday Dinner, even if you’ve never done one before. I’ll be giving over the next two months to this series, which will include directions on how to make some very simple, but tasty dishes.

When I originally wrote about planning and your menu for the Big Holiday Dinner, naturally I came up with a few other thoughts as soon as it was posted. But instead of updating that post, I thought I’d simply add this bonus post – which also has the added special goodie: a checklist you can use to plan your meal.

The checklist is a basic Word doc that you can download at the bottom of this post. It’s nothing fancy or pretty. I did it that way to give you maximum flexibility in planning your big meal. It starts with a basic task list and a rough schedule of when to get things done. It may seem a little over-planned, especially since you’re assigning serving dishes to meal items weeks ahead of time. But trust me, the morning of the big dinner is not the time to find out your best meat platter is broken. Or that you have one serving bowl and two sets of potatoes.


The other reason you want to be sure early on that you have everything you need is that you will need to buy or borrow whatever you don’t have, and you do not want to be fighting over the last gravy boat on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. You’ll have other emergency purchases to make that night. That’s why there are three shopping passes on the list.

The two phases of Holiday Dinner prep

The list is broken up into two parts. The task or checklist and the menu, which will also serve as your timing worksheets when we get to that point. It also has spaces for what pots you’re going to use and where you’re going to cook it. (You can see a sample of how I filled one of these out for my dinner in the photo on the right). Your main course won’t necessarily be in the oven. Maybe you’ve got your heart set on smoking a bird outside, or your special duck will steam on the stovetop with a bamboo steamer. Which means you’ll have some extra oven space for a special casserole.

I seriously do not recommend deep-frying a turkey, though. It can be very dangerous, especially if you’ve never done it before. If you’re going to try something that crazy, save it for after you’ve got a few more Big Holiday Dinners under your belt and plenty of folks to help.

I’m also going to assume you’re going to buy dessert. Why not? There are plenty of perfectly good bakeries and frozen options out there, and dessert can be tricky. Make it easy on yourself.

Plan your menu

And a couple other thoughts on menu planning. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially if you have junior members in the household. I am firmly in favor of child labor. Okay, not the child labor that involves underfed 7-year-olds picking cacao beans for pennies a day. I mean putting your own children to work helping you clean house, cut veggies and being useful, in general. That’s how they learn to clean house and cook so they’re not dependent on you or frantically searching web sites the night before Channukah starts to find out how to make latkes.

Also on the menu planner is a space where you’ll decide which items can be made ahead of time. Not too far ahead of time, or sure as shooting, somebody in the household will discover the jar that plainly reads “Don’t touch under pain of death” and suck down the one perfect gravy you finally made. It’s appalling how otherwise perfectly intelligent human beings suddenly forget how to read or think gravy is a really thick soup. And if you’re going to serve chip and dip for hors d’oeuvres, that should probably wait until closer to the main event to buy and serve, especially if you have hungry teen-age males in the house. However, there are a good many things you can make ahead of time, including soup, sweet potatoes, stuffing. Three things you will want to make fresh are the meat main course (if any), the mashed potatoes (they get funky when they’ve been made ahead) and your green vegetable side. And probably also your salad, but there are some salads that you can make ahead. Make-aheads can make your life easier. Unless you forget to serve them. That’s why we make lists. And lists of lists.

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