How to Guarantee a Stress-Free Holiday Dinner

How to have a stress free holiday dinner
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No one wants to be stressed during the holidays. Preparation, paying attention to detail, and asking for help can ensure that you have a stress-free holiday dinner. Here are a few ways that you can make that happen.

Winter holidays in our family are spent with immediate family, extended family, and our closest friends. Everyone hosts a different holiday. For Thanksgiving, we spend time with my in-laws; and Christmas is spent with my family. My sister has Father’s Day and I have Mother’s Day.

My tiny house has had over 50 people at once with folks coming and going throughout the day. Can we say “busy”?

Learn From My Mistake

In the first couple of years, I took the reins and did it all!

I like what I like and did all of the shopping and cooking. My parents and BFF helped with the set-up and clean up. My husband manned the grill. Everything else…me!

But it was a LOT! Top it off with insisting on having a different “theme” every year, and you’ve got nothing but STRESS!

Time passed.

I learned.

I asked for help.


Then…things changed.

My last holiday cookout was PLANNED well in advance and was a potluck. It was great!

My stress levels were low and I finally had the opportunity to sit back and enjoy myself like everyone else.

So, here are my tips for a stress-free Family Holiday Dinner.

“All great change in America begins at the dinner table.”
~Ronald Reagan

RSVP/Guest List

I know that many people do not feel the need for an RSVP on the special family holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas), but I’ve been witness to people preparing a load of food, decorating and ready to entertain, and no one showed.

Sending a simple text invite to your contact list that you are having festivities is not enough. Texting people your plan is simply informational. It’s not a proper invite. If you want to decrease your stress, you need to request an RSVP.

Details are your friend.

Knowing exactly how many people are to be expected is the difference between needing a 10 pound or 30-pound turkey. We are often disappointed because of our expectations. So, don’t expect anyone to just show up!

Plans change. People change. That one person who has been to your holiday dinners for the last 10 years may decide to visit distant relatives. That niece or nephew that you watched grow up now has a significant other and wants to spend time with them.

So, the moral of the story…know the numbers. Ask for an RSVP.

“To us, family means putting your arms around each other and being there.” ~Barbara Bush

Have a Menu In Mind

This may sound silly, but I promise it’s not. Having a menu helps with focus and provides direction.

There is nothing worse than to go into the busy store during the holiday with an “idea” of what you want. You wander through each and every crowded isle without direction, filling up the cart that you, by the end, need help to push.

You have “everything you need” and spend way too much money.

You get home to realize that, not only did you spend wayyy too much money on things that are already in your pantry, but the only thing that you really needed (the milk) is the one thing that you left in the store. So, back out you go!

Don’t do this! Have a menu in mind, even if others are bringing things.

Go through your recipes and pantry to see what you have, check the expiration date, and see what you need. You’ll probably find that you need less than what you thought.

During this time, it is also nice to think outside the box. Once you see what you have, now’s the time to alter your menu; either add, delete or spice up your menu ideas.

Ask For Help

Like I mentioned in my story, I like what I like. Well, this type of thinking made me a very tired woman. There I was, hosting gatherings that I couldn’t even enjoy because I had to do it all. Learn from my errors.

Ask others for help.

Try having a potluck for your winter holiday dinners. A potluck is the easiest way to go. People don’t mind bringing something. And my attitude is, if they do mind, they can stay at home!  (The only exceptions are the sick and the elderly, of course!)

Now please, as you look over your menu, don’t assign things like the pies, stuffing, turkey or goose to the non-cook of the family!

Every family has that one person who we know can’t boil water.

Unless you want un-, or under-cooked food, or (just as bad) store-bought food on a notorious homemade holiday, then be careful what you ask for.

Encourage everyone to participate in ways that will be beneficial to all! A major holiday is not the time to experiment with new recipes or try to cook for the first time.

Think of your favorite meal and ask someone that you know has made it and made it well, to make their “famous _____”. It works every time. Folks like to know that someone likes and appreciates what they do.

For me, I don’t like to cook over the stove, but I do bake around the holidays. Sweets are requested of me every holiday, and (hopefully) I won’t disappoint.

Now for those who can’t cook…every gathering needs help with set up and take down (clean-up).

“Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.”
~Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)

Write It Down

As you ask for help, write down what everyone has committed to bringing to the gathering. No dinner needs 3 dishes of scalloped potatoes. Use this Family Holiday Menu Planner to keep things straight.

Even if you are doing it all, this can help keep you on track so that you know what is done and what is still to be done.

Know Your Budget and Stick To It

Budgeting is part of planning, too!

That’s why having a planner can help you stay on track. Write down your budget. Then list what you need and what you plan to spend. Take that ONE list into the store with you (along with your payment source and license) and stick to the list.

Don’t get drawn in by the mouthwatering smells over at the bakery. Don’t think, “Well, one more pie/cake/cookie/side dish/soda/juice/bottle of wine, etc. will be ok.” It will balloon!

Make every effort to stay on track and stick to your budget.

“Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt.”
~Benjamin Franklin

Imperfections can be fun, too!

Life is not perfect and it doesn’t become so just because it’s a holiday. But the imperfect holiday can be both enjoyable…and sometimes funny!

So what if everything isn’t perfect?

What if someone brings chocolate ice cream instead of mint chocolate chip?

So, what if the rice burns (happened Christmas Eve a few years ago)?

It’s all OK.

Neither of those situations marks the end of the world. As long as you watch for food allergies, all is well! Laugh about it and move on. You are probably the only one that cares or even notices. Don’t let an imperfection ruin the event.

If you need humorous inspiration, watch “A Christmas Story”. We watch it every year on TBS (No endorsement, here!).

In the end, in spite of the unexpected family drama, injuries, and dinner destruction…the story ends with smiles, laughter, togetherness, and a new experience.

Remember the reason for the season

For the winter holiday season, it should not be about who can outdo whom, our differences, bickering, old hurts, etc. It’s about love, family, togetherness, giving, and reflection on the blessings that we’ve received this year and the blessings that we are going to pass onto others.

Don’t Wait!

Don’t wait until the last minute! Make the holidays easy on yourself by being prepared.

Download the free holiday menu planner and grocery tracker to help you keep things in order. You have enough to worry about, don’t worry about your holiday menu, too.

Plan the work. Work the plan. Sit back and enjoy your family and friends.

“Having somewhere to go is home, Having someone to love is family, Having both is blessing.” (source)

Happy Holidays

How do you ease the stress of holiday family meals? 

Leave a comment below.


  • By observing how the brain lights up in stressful situations, scientists have found city-dwellers are more sensitive to stress than their country cousins. Flickr As if any further proof were needed that traffic jams and overcrowding make us anxious, scientists have concluded that city-dwellers are more sensitive to stress than country folk.

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