How to Host a Stress-Free Holiday Meal

Updated 11/5/18

The holiday season is my favorite time of year, but it can be really stressful if you’re hosting dinner. Getting all the food ready to serve while it’s still hot and making sure all your guests are comfortable while doing it… that’s a daunting task! Over the past several years of hosting holiday meals, I’ve learned a few tricks to make the process go more smoothly. I can serve a delicious meal AND enjoy myself!

6 steps to help you plan a stress-free holiday meal so you can actually enjoy your day.

1 | Plan your menu in advance

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a step I’ve glossed over in the past. Sure, I knew we were eating turkey for Thanksgiving, but I didn’t think through all the sides ahead of time. Instead of shopping sales or prepping food ahead of time, I was left doing everything at the last minute. Planning the menu for your holiday meal allows you to save money, time, and stress.

2 | Delegate responsibilities

Just because you’re the hostess, that doesn’t mean you have to do everything. Once you plan your menu, ask guests to bring side dishes that can be reheated before dinner. Desserts and appetizers are a great option if you really like to have control over the menu. I’m not super confident about making gravy so I always put my dad in charge of that task.

If you have a large group, be specific about what they should bring so you don’t end up with repeat dishes. It’s not hard (or unreasonable) to send an email asking guests to tell everyone what they plan to bring.

Give your kids cleaning duties. Even younger ones can help unload the dishwasher or run a vacuum before guests arrive. I’m not super confident about making gravy so I put my dad in charge of that task.

3 | Prepare food ahead of time

Many side dishes can be prepared ahead of time and reheated prior to dinner without affecting the quality. Potatoes, stuffing, rolls and desserts can all be made a couple days ahead.

Be sure to account for reheating time to ensure you have room in your oven. Vegetable sides should usually be made the day of, but you can still wash and cut your veggies earlier in the day.

4 | Make a timetable for day-of cooking

Write out your full menu, noting the oven temperature and cooking time needed for every dish. Figure out which items will fit in the oven and can be cooked at the same temperature.

Then, counting backwards from the time you plan to sit down to dinner, determine when each item needs to go in the oven. With this masterplan in hand, you won’t need to worry about dishes not being ready in time or sitting out until they’re cold.

5 | Set your table the day before

Iron your tablecloth and napkins. Lay out place settings and your table decor or centerpiece. Set up extra tables and chairs if necessary. By doing these tasks the day before, you’re freeing up your time on the big day for cooking and spending time with guests.

If you need to use your table the day before a gathering, delegate as many of  these tasks as possible to family members. You can find some beautiful inspiration for your Thanksgiving table decor HERE.

6 | Plan outfits & lay them out the night before

If your holiday gathering is completely casual, you can skip this step. If you have a more formal celebration to attend or certain outfits in mind for your family, save your time and sanity by laying out these items in advance.

Prepping ahead not only ensures that clothing is definitely clean and presentable, it also eliminates the time spent picking out clothes or debating choices with a child (not that this would ever happen in my house lol.)

What are your tips for a stress-free holiday meal?

Five tips for a stress-free holiday meal.
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How to Simplify Meal Planning

How to simplify meal planning to make your day run more smoothly.

Confession: meal planning is not my strong suit. I know it would help my week go more smoothly, but I struggle with implementing this strategy. One of my goals this year is to improve in this area so I’m taking steps to simplify meal planning.

prep some Back-up freezer meals

To start, I want to have a few crockpot meals in the freezer for busy days. Even this takes some planning because most meals have to thaw beforehand.

If I look ahead at the week and see that Thursday is going to be busy, I’ll have to thaw a freezer meal on Wednesday to make dinner easier the next night.

I did some research on Pinterest for freezer meals and found Six Sisters’ Stuff. They have a great post for making 8 slow cooker freezer meals in one hour. I chose three of the eight meals to start: Black Bean Taco Soup, Hearty Beef Stew, and Cilantro Lime Chicken.

Meal planning takes the guesswork out of dinner, making your busy nights go more smoothly.

I labeled gallon Ziploc bags with each meal, today’s date, and the time each takes in the slow cooker. Then I just followed the instructions and dumped everything in. It took me about an hour to get everything ready for these three meals.

use a Menu Tracking Sheet

Each week, I can usually predict which nights I need to have a meal that’s either in the crockpot all day or very quick to prepare. Particularly when the kids have activities that end on the later side, I don’t want a dinner that takes a long time to prep or cook.

With a menu tracking sheet, you avoid the 5 o’clock panic that sets in when you don’t have a plan for dinner. You also know what needs to be done ahead of time, such as thawing a frozen meal to go in the crockpot.

There are a zillion menu planning sheets on Pinterest. I personally like a weekly option that also has space for a grocery list, such as this one from Finding Time to Fly. The grocery section is even broken down by category.

Simplify meal planning to make your week run more smoothly.

Keep a Favorite Meals List

If your family is anything like ours, I’m sure you make a lot of the same dinners over and over again. My kids are on the younger side (and one of them is picky) so it makes mealtime a lot more pleasant when everyone enjoys what we eat.

Sitting down to plan the weekly menu is a lot harder when you’re relying on your own memory to come up with options that everyone likes. To simplify the meal planning process, keep a list of family favorites handy so you aren’t trying to remember if you’ve ever eaten anything besides tacos.

Just these three simple strategies make meal planning less of a chore. By planning ahead, you’ll be less rushed, spend less money at the grocery store, and waste less food.

How do you make meal planning easier?

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How to Plan an Effective Schedule to Make Your Week Run Smoothly

How to plan an effective schedule to make time for your real priorities.

If you’re anything like me, the way you feel at the end of the week is often determined by how smoothly the week flowed. Did you feel anxious and frazzled? Or did you feel accomplished and organized? Did something slip through the cracks or were you prepared ahead of time?

Though our success in life isn’t based on how much we do in a week, life certainly feels a lot more peaceful when we aren’t constantly racing against the clock. The best way to ensure that we feel organized is to plan an effective schedule for our time.

Whether you have children or not, whether you work outside the home or not, whether your kids are in school full time or not, we all have one thing in common: we only have 168 hours each week.

Those hours may look vastly different depending on your circumstances, but the key to feeling calm over chaotic is in how you use your time. In her book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think, journalist Laura Vanderkam explains that when we don’t think about how we spend our time, we tend to spend it doing things that don’t really align with our priorities.

“We don’t think about how we want to spend our time, and so we spend massive amounts of time on things – television, Web surfing, housework, errands – that give a slight amount of pleasure or feeling of accomplishment, but do little for our careers, our families, or our personal lives.” – Laura Vanderkam

So how do we plan effectively? How do we set up our schedule so that we’re running our lives and not the other way around?

Here are a few things to consider when planning your week.

Pick a time to map out your week in advance

By looking ahead at what the week holds in terms of time commitments, you’re jogging your own memory. Seeing that it’s your aunt’s birthday on the calendar gets that in your brain and reminds you of any associated tasks, such as sending a card or remembering to call.

You’re also forming a picture of whether the coming week will be busy or slow-paced. You can allocate important tasks to days that have fewer time commitments. Rather than feeling like you have to squeeze things in, you’re giving time to what needs to be done.

Sunday evening is an ideal time to look ahead at the week. You’ll wake up Monday with a clear picture of how the week will go. Obviously life isn’t entirely predictable, but at least you’ve got a fighting chance when you know what to expect outside of the fluke events that throw a wrench in our plans.

Batch your tasks

Studies show that when our brain has to switch between activities frequently, we accomplish less. We get in the flow of one activity, and then disrupt this flow when we start doing something else.

For example, if I’m writing blog posts and decide to stop and clean the kitchen, it takes my brain more energy to get back into the flow of writing than if I hadn’t stopped. The solution to this problem is batching your tasks.

Some people like to batch by days, while others prefer a time blocking method each day. Either way, your goal is to focus on one type of task at a time before switching to a new activity.

For me, this means that instead of cleaning up after breakfast, then spending time writing, and then vacuuming, I do the bulk of my housecleaning chores in one sitting. I’ll empty the dishwasher, load breakfast dishes, do a quick tidy-up and vacuum. Then I sit down to work on blog posts.

Routines help us to be more productive and efficient because we know what to expect and how to balance our schedule accordingly.

Incorporate Routines

We often have routines that are so ingrained in our daily life that we don’t even think about them. For instance, every time I shower, I follow roughly the same steps in the same order out of habit.

Routines minimize the brain power needed for a specific task. I don’t need to remember to put shampoo in my hair in the shower so my brain is freed up to focus on other things. By incorporating routines in other areas, you’re allowing your brain to spend less energy on the mundane so that you can focus on higher priority tasks.

For example, if you empty the dishwasher every morning before breakfast, not only do you not have to remember to do this task, but you also know that it’s ready for loading breakfast dishes. You’re saving mental energy AND crossing two jobs off your list: emptying and loading the dishwasher.

My typical daily Schedule

Since it can be helpful to see how other people manage their schedule, here’s a peek at my day.

6:00 Wake up, have coffee & quiet time
7:00 Get breakfast for the kids & get ready for school
8:00 Drop off at school, walk with the dog
9:00 Pick up the kitchen & do any other house cleaning tasks
10:00 Shower
10:30 Work on writing/blogging
12:00 Take a break for lunch
12:45 Errands, household chores, or work
2:20 Pick up kids at school, afternoon activities
6:00 Dinner, family time
7:00 Kids shower & get ready for bed
7:30 Read with the kids & put them to bed (usually by 8:30)
8:30 Time w/ my husband, read, watch tv
9:30/10 Bedtime

Not every day flows like this. Sometimes I have appointments or commitments at school. Other days are more laid-back and involve brunch with friends or a pedicure. The general flow is what helps me to predict my day though. I’m allocating time to my family, to work, and to myself.

What’s your key to an effective schedule?

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Easy tips to help you plan an effective schedule to make time for your priorities.
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How to Pack for a Family Vacation

Packing for a vacation can be a challenge, especially if you're packing for young children. Read my tips for easily getting your family packed for a trip.

Welcome to my 14 Days of Organization series where I’m sharing tips, tools, and strategies to help you organize your home, your family, and your personal life!

Yesterday I offered some helpful tips for prepping your house before a trip. Today I’m talking about ways to simplify the process when you pack for a family vacation. Packing for yourself can be enough of a hassle, but it’s a whole new world when you’re packing for kids as well.

*I originally published this post when my kids were much younger. I’ve added some new tips, but I’m focusing on packing with young children because it does require a different mindset. I’d also like to encourage all you mamas of little ones that this process gets a lot easier as they get older so hang in there!

I’m a classic over-packer. I hate the feeling of not having something I need on a trip so I tend to overcompensate a little bit. Fortunately, I’ve tamed it down since having kids so we can actually fit it all in one car.

I’m a big believer in learning from prior experiences so I’ve started taking some extra steps to ease the stress. Packing us up in an orderly way will help to keep things running smoothly during the packing process, as well as the trip itself.

Use a “Don’t Forget” List

As I’m packing for my family, I keep a running list of things I definitely don’t want to leave behind. Travel bed anyone?! As I pack things, I cross them off, but I also do a double check during our final walkthrough.

Pack Ziploc Bags

Having plastic bags on hand can save your butt when you have wet or messy items. Wet swim suits, sandy shoes, or extra dirty clothes from an accident can all be packed in a Ziploc bag for the trip home.

I also use gallon-sized bags to keep things organized. Having a separate baggy for snacks or sunscreen makes it easy to toss in a backpack or beach bag. All the bottle or sippy cup parts can go in another bag. By keeping things separate, they’re less likely to get lost.

Pack basics instead of outfits

By packing mix-and-match basics, you ensure that you have multiple options. For kids, I recommend having a top and a bottom for each day of travel, plus one extra. While you probably won’t wear all the clothes, at least you won’t run out.

Bring special Activities

Grab a few cheap activities and/or books as a special treat for times when the kiddos are bored. Exploring new places is fun, but sometimes kids need a break. Having a few new (but inexpensive) things to do will keep boredom at bay.

This is also really helpful in case of unexpected delays at the airport or to keep kiddos quiet on the plane.

One last tip: remember that unless you’re going to be in the middle of nowhere, you can probably buy anything you forget (except for a favorite lovey – don’t forget that!)

What do you do to make packing easier?

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5 Easy Ways to Protect Your Home When You Travel

Follow these 5 tips to protect your home when you travel.

Welcome to my 14 Days of Organization series where I’m sharing tips, tools, and strategies to help you organize your home, your family, and your personal life! 

This might not seem like it has much to do with organization, but there’s so much to do when you go out of town that things can easily slip through the cracks. Just a few simple steps can help keep your house safe while you’re enjoying your trip.

1 | Hold the mail or ask someone to pick it up

Don’t let your mail pile up when you go out of town. A full mailbox is a sign to unwanted visitors that no one is home.

A neighbor might be willing to grab your mail each day. If not, it’s really easy to have the post office hold your mail. You can do it online at usps.com.

Your mail will be delivered in bulk on the first business day after your scheduled return. You should do the same for the newspaper if you have a daily delivery.

2 | Plan for pet and plant care

Arranging pet care is a given if you have cats or dogs. Don’t forget about the small pets like fish or hamsters! If you plan to be gone for more than a few days, it’s a good idea to have someone water your plants.

A trust-worthy teenager is perfect for tasks like getting the mail, newspaper, and watering the plants or caring for a low-maintenance pet.

3 | Notify your neighbors

Let a neighbor or two know you’ll be traveling and for how long. They can keep an eye out for any problems or suspicious activity. At least one person should have a spare key in case of emergencies.

Make sure to provide a contact number so they can reach you if anything comes up. A few years ago our neighbor noticed water pooling near our garage when we were out of town. It turned out there was a problem with the sprinkler system. We were able to have the water turned off and prevented major flooding, all thanks to our kind neighbor!

4 | SET AUTOMATIC TIMERS FOR LIGHTS IN DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE HOUSE

This one is pretty self explanatory, but having a couple different lights turn on at different times makes it look more like someone is at home and keeps shady characters away. Who else remembers the scene from Home Alone when the two crooks are watching all the automatic lights turn on?!

5 | DO A FINAL WALK-THROUGH BEFORE LEAVING

It’s common sense to lock up when you go out of town, but I’ve often found a bathroom window left open when we do a final check. By walking through the house quickly before you leave, you can be sure that windows and doors are secure and that valuables are hidden from view.

You should also turn off unused lights and turn down the thermostat. No sense wasting energy when you aren’t even there.

None of these tasks are too time-consuming, but they all help to protect your home and ensure it will be safe while you’re away so you can enjoy your trip. 

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