It’s 1.30 on Christmas afternoon. The guests are all sitting and waiting to be called to the table, with one or two murmurs and empty promises of ‘do you need any help in there’. The turkey has gone dry, the roast potatoes have burnt to a crisp, the vegetables are boiling dry and we have just dropped the stuffing all over the floor – not to mention the cooking of the Christmas pudding, lighting the brandy butter and all. Ah …oh woops… someone has just dropped the chocolate gateau that land upside down.
This has to be that nightmare situation that we all-too-often hear about and hope (probably pray too) that it never happens to us. Interestingly, a survey just released has shown that 25% of the sample people interviewed had suffered ‘a Christmas Dinner Disaster’ in the past.
Out of all the things to do over Christmas – with shopping, writing cards, traffic jams, trying to fit in social occasions and everything else that needs doing in such a short space of time; preparing Christmas dinner is probably the most stressful part of Christmas. Both cooking and then actually having everyone around the table eating can be enormously stressful. Having immediate family for Christmas dinner is stressful enough, but when cooking for guests, the stress takes on a whole new level.
Thinking about it logically, Christmas dinner is really just like a normal roast meal, though some people seem to invite the size of an army platoon (10, 15 even 20 people). With this amount of mouths to feed, it will be difficult unless we have a team of trained chefs and an industrial kitchen. For most of us though, cooking for a small number of people, Christmas dinner is just like any other roast meal, with maybe a few extras. The worry seems to stem from the notion that a poorly cooked meal with ruin everyone’s Christmas – hence the pressure to cook everything to perfection.
Though accidents happen and events can sometimes take over, as with every part of life; there are a number of things we can do to avoid any ‘avoidable’ incidents from ruining Christmas dinner. Speaking from experience, these have helped me and also family and friends in past years. Here goes:
MAKE A ‘TO DO LIST’
Though this can be done anytime now, it is probably best to wait until we know the exact number of people coming for dinner and have the food shopping in-front of us. This makes it easier to plan times and amounts. Knowing exactly the size of the meat allows for us to plan the cooking time for everything else and knowing the number of guests exactly, ensures that we have enough food for everyone.
It is probably best to only have rough timings on the list. This is for flexibility if we do run a few minutes late – which will happen. Having precise times written down, and then not meeting these for one task, throws-out all of the other timings and gives no flexibility. This will probably lead to a major panic, so only rough timings are recommended.
WHEN INVITING GUESTS TELL THEM TO ARRIVE HALF-AN-HOUR BEFORE WE REALLY WANT THEM TO
This allows for people who are late. After all, it does not matter too much if guests arrive early as they can sit and talk with each other, while having a drink. It is always better to be waiting for dinner to be served than for it to be out of the oven and ready to eat, only to find that the guests have still not arrived – and when they do (unless we are prepared to mess about trying to keep the food warm), they will be eating a cold meal.
DOUBLE CHECK WE HAVE ALL THE INGREDIENTS NEEDED – Though many local shops are now open on Christmas Day, it is annoying to be in the middle of cooking only to find that we have ran-out of something and need to take a time consuming trip to the shop. This, I’m sure, would be even more annoying for those who enjoy using different ingredients at Christmas, where you have to buy these from specialist shops or larger supermarkets. Running-out of the ingredient then on Christmas Day could mean that whatever was being cooked, will be off the menu.
COOK MEAT AND PREPARE VEGETABLES ON CHRISTMAS EVE – Many people turn their nose up at this idea – including many well known chefs who see this as a crime. I disagree! Cooking the meat and preparing vegetables the day before (when things may be quieter) can save a lot of time and hassle on Christmas morning – especially if we have children or guests around.
TRY TO HAVE SOMEONE BE HOST THE GUESTS WHILE WE ARE COOKING
You can guarantee that no-matter how well we see that the guests are comfortable in another room away from the kitchen, there will still be calls – ‘can I have another drink?’ ‘What time are we expecting to eat?’ or the classic ‘do you need any help in there’.
This can be frustrating enough at any time, but with all the other stresses on the day, it is the last thing we need. To stop this from happening, a good tip can be to have a family member (or other guest who is also invited to Christmas dinner) to be in charge of being host to all the guests. This way, the host can see that all the guests have drinks and so-on, but also, if anyone does shout into the kitchen to ask anything, we can say ‘speak to …………, they’re taking charge out there’.
HAVE THE TABLE DECORATED BEFORE THE MEAL IS READY AND THE GUESTS HAVE BEEN CALLED
This is one of those jobs that we can do on Christmas Eve, or even on Christmas morning – unless of course we need to use the table as a work-surface. Having the table laid-out makes life easier when we are ready to serve the meal. It saves valuable time during that mad rush when cooking the vegetables and placing the meal into serving dishes or onto plates – before the food goes cold. Even better, get somebody else to do it.
TRY NOT TO HAVE TOO MANY CHEFS IN THE KITCHEN
The saying ‘too many chefs spoil the broth’ can be equally applied to ‘too many chefs spoil the Christmas dinner’. Aside from too many people in a small space leading to an increased risk of accidents; having too many people helping out can be even more stressful than having nobody at all. Helpers, especially if they do not live in the house, while having good intentions and may be excellent cooks, will probably not know where anything is kept. This leads to the usual questions ‘where can I find the…. with tasks taking even longer as we have to sift through draws and cupboards looking for things. There is also the problem with that old chestnut: ‘well I don’t do it like this; it’s better to do it this way’ (mother-in-law thinks she knows best). While good intentioned; this all leads to stress and confusion.
Probably one extra person or two at a push (when cooking for a larger number of people) is probably best – though this also depends on the size of the kitchen.
HAVE A FINAL CHECK OVER EVERYTHING BEFORE ASKING GUESTS TO BE SEATED AT THE TABLE
Once everyone comes to the table there’s no turning back. Most guests (or those that have not been eating too many sweets and cakes) will be hungry, especially after smelling the food cooking. If your house is anything like mine, as soon as everyone is called to the table, they will be round quicker than a plague of locusts. Having everyone sitting there and trying to lean over to place down plates, serving dishes full of hot food and so-on is awkward, takes time and can cause accidents. Placing tall wine classes and bottles of wine on the table when leading over someone’s shoulder is a nightmare! Having more food over a shirt or dress than on the plate is not a good way to start a festive meal.
Having everything ready, bar the pouring of drinks and passing serving dishes from one end of the table to the other (that needs to be done when everybody is seated); checking over everything and doing last minute any things before everyone is seated is a good way of avoiding accidents and stress.
TRY TO HAVE THE PERSON/PEOPLE WHO MAY NEED TO LEAVE THE TABLE SITTING WHERE THEY WILL BE ABLE TO DO THIS WHILE NOT DISTURBING EVERYONE ELSE
For those who have a dining room the size of a football pitch, this does not really matter, but for the rest of us, this can save a lot of hassle. No matter how well planned we are, there will always be something that we forget or need to leave the table for during the meal. This could be anything from getting another bottle of wine, lovingly attending to the Christmas pudding or going to turn off the oven that we left on.
There may also be one guest (or heaven forbid more than one) who we can guarantee will want to leave the table for some reason during the meal. Like the person cooking the meal, it is always better to have people who are likely to get up, near to the door or in a place where they will not have to move others – disturbing the whole table. We all know the guests who do this will be! This is an important consideration when laying the table and something that many people, me included, often overlook.
TIME TO EAT AND ENJOY…
After all this hard work, it is now time for a well deserved rest (nobody mention the washing up). A time to sit back, eat good food and enjoy spending time with family and friends.
I have chosen these tips, as they seem to work for me year after year and though not all may apply; there may be one of two that you may find useful. These should lead to less stress and an easier, more enjoyable Christmas meal (and Christmas more generally).