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Hosting a holiday get-together may feel more challenging right now, given the uncertainties with the pandemic.

Thinking of having people over, or doing something special just for your family for the holidays? You may feel a bit out of practice—and a little stressed out by that—as well. “But there’s an awful lot that can be done in advance,” says Jodie Watson, an organizing pro.

And the truth is, you don’t have to do everything yourself. “No one wins awards for making their own piecrust,” Lilly Jan, a food and beverage expert, points out. In fact, time-savers abound. As Leslie Lampert, a chef, notes, “You can supplement a homemade menu with a handful of takeout items.” Here, you’ll find a bounty of simple tips and CR-tested tools to help you get ready for­­­—and enjoy—a special meal with those you love.

Planning

Pin down the menu. This allows you to get a jump on everything else. A simple one to consider: Butternut squash soup, roast turkey or boneless ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, roasted brussels sprouts, and pie.

Choose truly easy appetizers. To whet appetites without filling guests up, “stick to something simple and light, like spiced nuts or olives,” says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian at Consumer Reports. Or skip the formal soup course and serve soup shooters in espresso cups or shot glasses instead. Soups like butternut squash and potato leek can be served warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

Prepping

Be appliance savvy. If more than one menu item requires a seldom used (and bulky) appliance like a stand mixer—think piecrust and cookies—prep them all at once so that you can stash the mixer away instead of pulling it out multiple times.

Chop in bulk. You’ll probably use the same staple veggies in more than one recipe, so cut up, say, all the garlic, onions, and carrots you’ll need at once. (A food processor can speed this up.) Store strong-smelling items in airtight containers, Keating says, “otherwise, foods like chopped onions can stink up the fridge, or worse, migrate into foods like butter.”

Spread out your cooking. Cook some menu items a few days beforehand. “Dishes like sweet potatoes or stuffing can be made two to three days ahead,” Lampert says. (Soup, too.) Just reheat and serve on the day of the event. It’s best to cook turkey on the day of your gathering.

Use this go-to pot. Large, lidded, and versatile, Dutch ovens can be used to cook dishes in the oven or on the stove and then go into the fridge for storage. For your holiday meal, simply transfer the pot back to the range for reheating. Plus, “in our tests, Dutch ovens also retain heat, making them a great choice for serving, too, since your sides will stay warm on the table,” says Tara Casaregola, who’s in charge of CR’s cookware testing. “Use a trivet if you’re transferring directly from oven to table.”

The Gathering

Organize all your nonfood items. At least a day before the meal, bust out any dishes, glasses, utensils, and serving platters you’ll need, says Kathi Lipp, a home-organizing expert and author. Wash anything you haven’t used in awhile, and “match” each food to cookware and serving pieces. And “check to see if the pots and pans you’ll need will all fit on the burners at once,” Casaregola says. In addition, be sure to have a dependable meat thermometer, like an instant-read digital model. CR’s tests have found that the pop-up thermometers that often come with turkey may pop up before the bird reaches a safe temperature, says Sana Mujahid, PhD, manager of food safety research and testing at CR.

Neaten counters. Stash whatever you won’t need for the get-together, like canisters, advises Jodie Watson, owner of Supreme Organization in California. “Those sorts of items can be put away to give you more space to work in the kitchen and cut down on clutter,” she says.

Do a table test run. Put the empty serving pieces you’re planning to use on the table to make sure everything will fit, suggests Lilly Jan, a lecturer on food and beverage management at the School of Hotel Administration at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business. Once the arrangement is to your liking, snap a quick photo. That will help you place platters quickly and surely during the meal or let you pass the task on to someone else.

Put countertop appliances to work. These efficient devices can make cooking and reheating easier while freeing up oven and stovetop space, Casaregola says. Instead of roasting veggies in the oven, for instance, try an air fryer, which can quickly turn out tasty sides like cauliflower or asparagus. Use a toaster oven to warm up sides or breads and a slow cooker or multi-cooker for warming soups or hot dips. Bonus: The latter two can keep food warm for hours. Chafing dishes are also an easy way to keep food at the right temperature throughout your meal, Jan notes.

Attend to last-minute concerns. Missing an ingredient? See whether a food 

store is open nearby or whether you can use something else instead.

If you forgot to defrost the turkey, you can roast it frozen. (It will take more time, at least 50 percent longer.) Carefully remove the bag of giblets inside the bird about 2 hours into cooking, says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at CR.

Add some music. Use multiroom speakers to create ambience. Allen St. John, CR’s guru on smart speakers, suggests linking a few WiFi-enabled Ikea Symfonisk speakers (starting at $99 each). For Bluetooth capability, sync them with a Sonos Roam ($170).

Let others pitch in. Jan suggests creating a list of the tasks you don’t necessarily need to tackle yourself. Kathi Lipp advises having someone make a playlist, for instance, or do the vacuuming. This can add to the holiday gathering in more than one way, she points out: “Everybody wants to help—and these are things that can make them feel involved and get excited about chipping in. It makes for a much better atmosphere and will give the host more time to enjoy the event, too.”

As long as the weather isn’t frigid or stormy, you might be able to hold at least part of your holiday dinner outdoors. Three tips:
SET THE SCENE. Add string lights, music, and cozy blankets, and if you have a fire pit, put it to use.
HAVE COCKTAILS ALFRESCO. If you don’t want to do the whole meal among the stars, “putting the wine and beverages outside gives you time to finish up [meal prep] without guests interfering,” says Lilly Jan, a food and beverage expert.
ADD A SPECIAL TOUCH. “Set up a hot chocolate bar where people can fill up their mugs,” says Kathi Lipp, a home-organizing expert. Or have the fixings for toasting s’mores. For a casual meal, serve slow-cooker chili or have your guests make pizzas in an outdoor pizza oven. “All of these things could be so fun,” Lipp says, “and might start your next tradition.”

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