Skip to content
Home » Blogs » Timing Your Big Holiday Dinner

Timing Your Big Holiday Dinner

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Welcome back to my special series on how to cook a delicious Big Holiday Dinner even if you’ve never done it before. In this second-to-last installment, we’re covering not only timing your dinner, but how to get everything into your fridge in these critical days leading up to the big event. The series starts with Getting Organized, and you can find the links to The Gravy Tutorial, how to cook the turkey, and several of the side dishes at the bottom of the first post.

Timing your Big Holiday Dinner

Timing is everything they say. That’s certainly true when it comes to getting a bunch of different dishes cooked and all on the table at the right time. But fear not, I’ll walk you through the process below. But first, we have another job to do. Not one I want to be doing, nor does anyone else I know. But if you don’t, you’ll be making yourself a little crazier than you need to be come the Big Day.

The important first step

I’m talking about Cleaning the Fridge. Yes, I’m talking about going through your refrigerator and throwing out those little jars of pesto that you’re never going to use, all the science experiments, all the containers of something that’s probably still good but you have no idea what it is. Do the same with your freezer. I am willing to bet you’re going to free up a lot of space in each compartment. Why? Because we don’t like waste. So when there are leftovers, we tend to hang onto them. But then they don’t look so appealing, but we don’t want to waste, so we still hang onto them. And then they grow fur and we toss them with a cleaner conscience having spared ourselves some scary disease by doing so.

This is not the time to wait. You need that space for cut veggies, a turkey, Aunt Martha’s cranberry compote, turkey broth and all the other other ingredients of your feast.

However, keep in mind a couple things. You can pile stuff that’s packaged on top of that turkey. You’d also be surprised how many foods do just fine outside the fridge. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and many other veggies actually do better outside the fridge than in it. Anything you really need to keep crispy, like salad greens, carrots, celery, radishes, those do better in the fridge.

Cheese, unless it’s processed cheese-like stuff, keeps perfectly well outside the fridge. In fact, that’s the whole point of cheese – it’s a way of preserving milk. Anything that is going to grow nasty critters if you don’t keep it below 40 degrees, such as meats, needs to go in the fridge. Bread does better outside the fridge. You can keep your sodas outside the fridge and pour them over ice when it’s time to serve. You can keep your butter outside the fridge. It’ll be a little soft, but then most folks prefer it that way.

Planning out Timing Your Dinner

Now to getting all the stuff in and out of the fridge and into the oven/onto the stove and onto the table to applause and acclaim. You just have to do some planning. If you don’t plan, you will be running around your kitchen, frazzled and crazed. Then when something goes wrong, well, they’ll pull you out from underneath the dining room table to get the vodka bottle you’re hugging to your chest. Even if everything doesn’t go according to plan, with one, it’s a lot easier to adjust to your actual circumstances.

So, get a nice glass of wine, a few bits of cheese to nibble on, a couple notepads or a pile of scrap paper, a pencil or pen or whatever you like to write with, and let’s lay everything out. Now, I am a gadget fan, but this is one of those instances where I prefer paper.

When I’m using my tablet, the screen always goes dark right before I need to check something or when my hands are wet or gloppy. I suppose I could adjust the time before it goes to sleep. But then I have to remember to adjust it back. Not to mention, I’m always worried that the darned thing is going to fall into the sink or get melted by the toaster oven. Paper, on the other hand, is always on and will survive most kitchen mishaps. You can also tape paper to your cabinets. Can’t do that with a tablet. Your mileage may vary.

The trick to timing everything

There are two tricks to timing. First up, write everything to be done. Go through your menu, item by item. Write down the steps you will take to make or reheat that item and in what pan, and in which dish you’ll serve it. Add setting the table and pre-dinner cleanup. Secondly, assume everything is going to take two to three times longer to do than normal. So what if the turkey is buttered and ready to go in the oven a full hour before it should? You put it back in the fridge and do something else on your list.

If it helps, set alarms and write down what time something is supposed to happen, such as check the sweet potatoes at 4 p.m., instead of 20 minutes. Because you know you’re not going to remember when you put the sweet potatoes in the oven.

Working backwards

After you’ve got your list of menu items and the steps you need to take, get a second notepad. Or pull those sheets off the one you’ve been working with (or download my handy dandy checklist), and start a new list. What you’re going to do is work backwards from the time you’re hoping to serve the turkey and main course.

Say it’s going to take four hours to cook the turkey and you want to have dinner at 3 p.m. There’ll be 20 to 30 minutes of rest time once the turkey is out of the oven, so it comes out around 2:30 p.m. Four hours before that is 10:30 a.m. It takes 20 minutes to cook the potatoes, and it’s going to take 30 minutes to eat the soup and salad courses. So the potatoes need to be in the water, ready for the heat just before 2:30. Turn the heat on at 2:40.

Yeah, it’s a little like battlefield maneuvers. But it will get your specific dinner on the table at roughly the right times. And if the turkey takes too long to cook, then spread out the hors d’oeuvres, soup and salad. If it’s cooking too fast, slow the heat, then skip the hors d’oeuvres and eat the soup and salad together. In short, just because you have everything set up to happen at this time or that, you may have to readjust. But because it’s all written down, no sweat. Just re-write as you go.

And after dinner, cram all that food back into the fridge and we’ll worry about the leftovers later.

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.