There's lots of stress related to the holiday season: presents to buy, decorations to hang, festivities to attend. It can really start to suck up extra time and money -- two things most people already have in relatively short supply. But while decorating and gift buying can be done weeks -- and in the latter case even months -- ahead of time, whoever's been nominated to host the holiday dinners knows stress like no others. The time line offers little flexibility, and while some activities can be completed in advance, it's a process that's remarkably similar to the football games blaring out from the TV. The plays you call can make or break you, so you need to make sure everything you do is well-run and perfectly timed.
If you've ever been in charge of feeding a herd of hungry guests all expecting a gourmet meal to cap off their holiday festivities, you know that holiday meals will leave you with a much longer receipt at the grocery store than your normal routine. Prep work and cooking will likely occupy much of your time for two whole days, depending on your particular process. Then, to make matters worse, chances are the compliments will be fleeting before talk turns to other matters, leaving you exhausted, broke and not enjoying the holiday like you should be.
By taking a little time to plan your holiday meal strategy, you can save yourself time and money, which can help when a chorus of "Looks great!" and, "It's delicious!" quickly gives way to a lengthy discussion centered on the day's football games.
Stock Up Using Smarts
Before any cooking can go down, you have to hit the grocery store. But it's important not to go in blindly. Have a list of everything you'll need, arranged according to aisles, so you aren't racing back and forth for overlooked items, plus a stock of coupons you've collected. A few dollars off here and there can add up if you have an entire cart to fill with the makings of a holiday meal for many guests.
Look for sales; often items are carried by many brands, so you can pick and choose if you're looking to save a little cash. It can also be a good idea to do a little leg work before the big shopping trip. If you compare prices between stores and find one runs cheaper than others for a particular product, you'll know where to snap up the lowest-priced goods when the time comes. Also, since prices fluctuate from week to week, you can start eyeing the foods you'll need in advance and maybe see a discount in the days leading up to the holiday. If it's nonperishable or the expiration date gives you the leeway you need, go ahead and grab it early.
Get the Most for Your Money
And speaking of buying food on the cheap, don't hesitate to stock up on store brand items. After all, by the time guests start arriving, chances are good all the boxes and cans that the products came in will have long since hit the trash, so even if you have a few snooty guests with the spare cash to indulge exclusively in name brand cuisine, they won't be able to tell the difference.
Bulk food is another good money saver -- especially since you don't want to run out of anything essential after the stores shut down for the holiday. For ingredients that don't feature strongly in your regular menu, you might want to back off from buying in bulk. If the item is a holiday staple or is something that pops up in your recipes on a regular basis, it can't hurt to stock up.
Don't forget to compare different types of the same products, too. How do the canned tomatoes stack up to the fresh ones? How about the sweet potatoes or the ingredients you need for a casserole? By comparing serving sizes across aisles, you can scoop up additional deals.
Prepare the Battlefield
Once you have bought and hauled home all your ingredients, you might suddenly find yourself frozen in front of your open fridge, wondering how on Earth you're going to cram everything in. Lots of people let their refrigerators become a place where condiments run wild and leftovers go to die -- not a good strategy when the holidays are approaching and food production ramps up.
Take a few minutes to evaluate what's essential and what has been languishing for so long you can't remember what prompted you to buy it in the first place. Anything that fails to ping your memory can be fast-tracked to the trash. Clear off a refrigerator shelf and some room in the freezer for housing holiday dishes, and free up as much counter space as you can to make room for the bustling excitement that's about to go down.
All the ingredients and tools you'll be using during the cooking process should be as accessible as possible to speed things up, so drag the mixer out of its dusty corner and round up all the tongs, mixing spoons, measuring cups and other equipment you think you'll need. Having it on hand and ready to go will make the entire process much smoother.
Make a Game Plan
Whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas or another holiday, lots of traditional dishes appear at the table. Turkey, ham, stuffing, gravy, potatoes and pies are among the usual suspects. When it comes to meat, you must cook it the day of, but many other dishes can be prepared -- or least the preparations can begin -- in advance.
To save time during the holidays, make and refrigerate a whole range of items like pies, steamed vegetables, deviled eggs and cranberry sauce ahead of time. You can also bake rolls, dice up vegetables and prep casseroles the night before. Your task load is slashed the next day, and many dishes just need a quick warming up right before the meal. You can even squeeze in last-minute reheating while the meat rests before carving.
Additionally, when it comes to saving time during the holiday season, your freezer is your best friend. Take cookies, for example. Dedicate an afternoon to baking up multiple batches of cookies, pop them in the freezer and pull some out when you need them.
Enlist Some Help
It's finally time to mention the elephant in the room: The easiest way to save time and money around the holidays is clearly to eat at other people's houses, coasting through the season without dropping a dime on extra holiday feasting festivities. Just show up, eat your fill of delicious turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, pie and whatever else they're serving, and then skedaddle. You might even score a few leftovers if the host's fridge is too full.
Of course, in the real world that's not always possible -- or particularly polite on a regular basis without good reason. So if you end up the designated host for an occasion but are really strapped for time and cash, consider encouraging your guests to bring a side dish. Then you're free to focus on the main course, while the time and money needed to make the entire assemblage of food is scattered among several people.
Depending on different people's situations it's not always an option to foist some of the responsibility onto others. If this is the case, at least designate some helpers to assist you in the kitchen. Having someone around to mash the potatoes, pop the rolls in the oven or decrease the growing stack of dishes in the sink can save a lot of time in the long run.
If you love history and cookies, you might want to try this ancient twist on the gingerbread cookie. Learn more at HowStuffWorks Now.
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