Any other year, as the start of the holiday season gets underway, we may be getting our shopping lists together and formulating a plan for our epic holiday feasts! There is something incredibly special about spending weeks planning and coordinating, for the moment when your friends and family come together to enjoy the fruits of your labour. When you begin to hear how much everyone appreciates each morsel, all the hard work is incredibly rewarding!
Every year since 2015, Sarah and I (Katie) have found ourselves hosting multiple feasts. It is such a joy to work together to ensure everything is in order. We have all our recipes, ingredients and assigned tasks. We love this part, all the scheming, the lists and the excitement building up to when we actually begin our food preparation!
It cannot be stressed enough how important planning is! Working backward from when you plan to eat will help ensure you get your timing right; and let's be honest, timing is everything!
The first thing you should plan is if you are going to make this a formal meal or a more casual one? This will help you determine if you want a buffet style meal or to have everything laid out on the table. This will also help you determine how many you can accommodate for your feast. Think about your budget; this is where I struggle the most and if left to my own devices, I will over spend every time. Even if you don't want to be strict with a budget, it is a good idea to price things out. If you exclude booze, (who would do that!?) cooking a large meal usually works out cheaper per portion than if you were making the same meal for two people.
The next thing to consider is whether or not you would like to have a theme. What is the occasion? How would you like people to dress? What can you put on your menu to really bring home the theme you have chosen? Of course, this will be made easier depending on the season.
Last year, (2019) when all was right with the world, Ted and Sarah, (with some help from yours truly) hosted a "New Life" festival, (for those of you who are Elder Scrolls fans, this is the Winter Festival in Tamriel). Equipped with the "Elder Scrolls Cookbook" by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel, we set out with a plan. We had appropriate table dressings and an optional fancy dress code for those who wanted to immerse themselves a bit more. There were even planned activities that would help us apply the meaning of the day (which is sort of a mix between Thanksgiving, Yule, and New Year's Eve). In the end, everyone agreed that we should make this an annual event!
After deciding on a theme, devise a guest list and send out invitations (even if it's just a shared WhatsApp group) asking for RSVPs well in advance. This will help you know for sure how many to prepare for. It also confirms if you are going to need to plan for any allergies or dietary requirements. If you want to decrease the amount of work to do, you can always assign a recipe to each guest to prepare and bring (that is, of course, if they are happy to help in that way). This has the added bonus of getting your guests involved!
What we have found over the years, is that there is no such thing as being too prepared. We even go to great lengths to prepare as much as we can the day before the feast and to schedule out when each dish should be ready. We make sure that our main course, which is usually a roast of some sort, and the very few sides that can't be made in advance, are the only things we need to focus on the day of. We will sit down with each recipe we plan to execute and ensure we have all the shopping done. Next, we will put together an order of events, leading up to meal time.
Here are some things we have learned along the way with our years of Thanksgivings and Christmases:
Ensure the turkey (or whatever you've chosen for your main) is sorted, either from a butcher or if planning to buy frozen that it is procured in enough time to be completely defrosted before we are ready to stuff it. (This will depend on the size, but usually it will be 24 hours for every 5 pounds, while defrosting in the refrigerator).
Make sure you have all your recipes in order and the shopping is finished no later than the morning before, there shouldn't be any last minute running to the shops on the day of (unless of course you're doing it to run away from the stress).
Use the day before to do all the baking and preparing any side dish that can keep in the fridge and put in the oven just before serving. What we have discovered is that our sides are always much better on the second day anyway, as they have had time for all the flavours to merry together quite nicely. A tip for those who don't have heaps of fridge space: it is useful to have a cooler that you can use as an "overflow" for things you need to keep cold overnight. During the winter months, if you are lucky enough to have any outdoor space, it will come in really handy as you can stick the cooler outside and eventually use it for drinks once your guests arrive!
WAKE UP EARLY! This cannot be stressed enough, even if you aren't planning to have your meal until later in the day. Put some music on. Get the oven preheated and make sure your main is all prepped. If you're having stuffed turkey, get the stuffing in, ASAP! Peel your potatoes. Get whatever you need into the slow cooker. Clean your dining space and get your table settings sorted. The only thing you should really be waiting for is your main to be finished, which will be shortly before you intend to serve your meal.
Make sure you set aside some time to get your common spaces presentable. Toilets, carpets, tables, kids toys etc. all should be clean and tidied up. Not that your guests will care so much, but you will absolutely feel better for it. This is where it is really handy to be working on your event with 1 or 2 others. Splitting the cleaning tasks in such a way that it should only take you a matter of minutes to get things glistening.
Change your clothes. After slaving over your food prep all morning, it is important to feel prepared in every sense before your guests arrive. Get yourself a drink and relax. This is much easier said than done, but even if it's just pulling yourself away from prep for 5 minutes, you will feel much better for it. I have a bad habit of forgetting this step and have opened the door more than once still in my pyjamas!
Never turn down help! If you're like me, you have really amazing friends who will offer to help as soon as they step though the door. By all mean's make sure you take their coats and get them a drink first. But by this time, you will noticed how the dishes have pilled up or the kids have been underfoot and need some entertaining. All these things will ease the pressure a bit. Not to mention, you will feel more prepared for the big event of getting your feast onto the table.
Enjoy every second. The moment everyone arrives and your feast is ready to be devoured is the main event! You should be excited not stressed. If the meal isn't quite ready on time, it's all good! If you happen to dump all of your gravy onto the hob, (because gravity is a force for evil) don't panic! There is a solution to every problem and I guarantee your guests will jump to your aid. Ultimately feasts are a group effort and the work is a joy when it's done together!
Clean-up can feel daunting. Make sure you offer your guests leftovers. I guarantee they will take you up on the offer. Put any leftovers you want to keep for yourself into smaller containers so that all your serving dishes are empty and ready to wash. More often than not you will find that your guests will offer to do the washing up. Let them. This will be the biggest help to you, especially because your evening had really only just got started and not having to think about all the dishes will help you enjoy the rest of your time. Besides, there will be plenty of cleaning tasks after your guests leave.
After your guests leave, give yourself a moment before you tackle anything else. Let yourself reflect on what you have just achieved. If you're not super drunk and there are any bits to clean, I suggest you do it. If you don't, you may wake up the next day, (possibly hungover) regretting all your life choices that led you to that moment. It will also help you sleep better. You will be exhausted and should sleep really well knowing that you have accomplished something great and your friends will be talking about this night for years!
In the end, taking on organising and preparing a feast is a massive and rewarding undertaking. I cannot wait to be able to host in-person events again and am already panning what it will entail. The hard part will be deciding how to limit my guest list, because if I could, you would all be invited!
Please let us know about any of your own feast tips, tricks, successes or disasters in the comments!