11/17/2011 10:24 EST | Updated 11/17/2011 10:33 EST

Holiday Food Calendar Takes Stress Out Of The Season


Timing is everything, it is said, and that particular adage couldn't ring truer than when you're staring down the calendar at six weeks filled with holiday events and the grand finale of Christmas dinner. Preparing all the food can feel like an unsurmountable task. Now's the time to get organized with a food schedule.

Early To Mid-November: Set The Calendar

Look at your party invitations. Will you be bringing baked goods to thank the host? Are any of the occasions pot lucks? Figuring out which parties need food is half the battle (and don't forget to slot them into your calendar!).

Mid-November: Plan The Menu

The next step is to determine what exactly you'll be making. Try to go for choices that can be made and frozen in advance, and for large holiday meals, rely on on dishes you're already familiar with. If you do decide to try something new, it can be worthwhile to have a test run.

"Start with the main course, which is the centre of the meal, and work outward from there," advises Jennifer Reese, author of "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch". "If it’s a holiday meal, you might want to serve a roast. What kind of roast? Beef? What goes well with that? You’ll probably want a potato -- what kind? Mashed or boiled or au gratin?"

If the clock isn't on your side, there's no need to feel badly about getting some pre-packaged help.

"I advise making as much as you can, simply because what you make is usually so much better than what you can buy," says Reese. "That said, if you’re looking for ways to save time, go ahead and buy your appetizers. Honestly, buy what you need to stay sane. Holidays are supposed to be fun."

Third Week Of November: Start Shopping

Reese recommends making one big list for everything you need to serve and cook, which will save lots of time in the supermarket.

Kick things off with non-perishable items that can be used throughout the holiday season, and include any ingredients for options that can be frozen.

"You can make cookie dough a month in advance and it will keep beautifully in the freezer. It’s a great example of a holiday treat you can get a jump on before the madness sets in," says Reese. "And a lot of appetizers can be frozen. For instance, this super-easy gougere recipe."

Don't forget to put in orders for any speciality items that you may require closer to Christmas, like a turkey or seafood, in order to avoid a last-minute rush.

End of November: Make Those Dishes

Clear the schedule and take a day to put together those ready-to-freeze (or ready-to-eat) items. Label their containers clearly to prevent any confusion when it comes time to party. This is also a good opportunity to practice any recipes you were planning to use for Christmas dinner.

Early December: Don't Be Afraid To Ask For Or Accept Help

Now that the presents and menu are visualized, it's easy to see gaps in the plan. It's no time to let pride take over -- check in with your dinner guests to see if there's anything they want to bring.

"People like to contribute and you should let them," says Reese. "I don’t think there’s been a Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter in the last five years when my aunt’s ridiculously delicious spinach jalapeno casserole (originally from a great Laurie Colwin recipe) hasn’t made an appearance."

Contributions needn't be confined to food, either -- centrepieces (sent the day before) should be welcomed, as should offers of extra appliances, like buffet servers.

December 21 to 24:

Get to the grocery store for any last minute perishable goods and pre-ordered items, allowing extra time for lineups.

Based on what you're making, write down a timed schedule around their heating needs, noting the temperatures at which they must go into the oven and the time required for cooking. This will help coordinate your efforts on the big day.

Start early by making any dishes that can be served chilled, like salad dressings and cranberry sauce. Next come cakes and other desserts that didn't apply in the 'freezing' stage. Make sure to defrost the frozen appetizers and desserts as needed. Prep work on things like vegetables can also be done the day before the meal. Chop up what you'll need and place them in the fridge for easy access once the day-of cooking gets going.

Then get to it -- this is what you've been preparing for, and the time when all of your plans come together. Don't forget to relax and enjoy your guests -- the holiday meal planning is done!