12/03/2012 04:21 EST | Updated 02/02/2013 05:12 EST

Avoid holiday dinner disaster by doing plenty of advance planning and prep

TORONTO - Preparing Christmas dinner or holding a holiday party can send many people into a tailspin, especially if it's their first time.

Plenty of planning and preparation are key for rookie hosts, who should not bite off more than they can chew, say experts.

"The most important thing is to keep your cool. ... There's nothing worse than a stressed-out host. It's not fun for the host and it's not fun for the guests," Chris Hyndman, co-host of CBC-TV's "Steven and Chris," said in an interview.

But even seasoned style gurus like interior decorators Hyndman and his co-host Steven Sabados made joking comments like "Take a Valium" and "Call your mother" when asked about preparing and hosting Christmas dinner.

They know of what they speak. The two, who will be featuring a roster of design and food experts on their show from Dec. 10 to 24, acknowledge that even the most fundamental things can send the big day awry — such as a malfunctioning oven.

"The first year that we got our loft, there was a brand-new oven," Sabados related. "The entire family came over. We had 21 for dinner. My brother-in-law brought the turkey over first thing in the morning and couldn't get the oven to work. I'd never used it. I pulled the manual out. It took hours. We literally were down to the wire."

Hyndman chimed in, laughing, "It was a very late evening, so there were a lot of tipsy inebriated Sabadoses there."

They suggest novices consider buying a couple of dishes and make the rest. If you're intimidated by cooking a turkey, Sabados suggested ham.

Dana Speers, executive chef for the President's Choice test kitchen, said she plans and does as much as possible ahead so she can enjoy her time with her guests rather than being in the kitchen.

"The first thing to do, it's like any day at work. You sit down and you make a to-do list," she explained. "First list all the dishes you're going to make for your holiday meal and then from those dishes you break it out into a chart. What can I do in advance the day before?"

She uses a trick she learned early on in chefs school called "mise en place," or "everything in its place," to keep organized.

"So I have everything on trays, prechopped, precut, prediced, presliced, in the fridge with a label on it for each dish. Then I make my dishes in advance that I can. I have them in the refrigerator. Then the next day, one by one, from my list I time it out. I mark on my list the different times things are going in and out of the oven," Speers said in an interview at the company's test kitchens in Brampton, Ont.

For stuffing, saute the onion and vegetables the day before, then toss the bread with the herbs, spices, oil and sauteed vegetables. Cover and refrigerate.

"If you're doing a potato gratin, slice the potatoes, layer the cheese into the casserole, pour the cream over, wrap it in plastic, put it in the fridge," said Speers. "You could even cook potatoes au gratin the day before and then reheat it the next day.

Make cranberry sauce and desserts ahead. Vegetables should be cooked on the day of the dinner, but they can be ready to go. "So if you're doing Brussels sprouts, trim them, toss them in the oil, salt and pepper, put it on a sheet tray and throw it in the fridge."

Turkey, ham and roast beef will retain their heat and juices for an hour, loosely tented with foil, after being removed from the oven.

"That's another trick for holiday entertaining. I take my turkey out and put it aside, then I've got an oven for an hour that's free to do all my other things like the vegetables I have to do last minute, reheating the potato gratin, taking the stuffing out of the turkey, putting it in a bowl," Speers said.

For a party, consider a weekend afternoon event as opposed to the evening.

"Guests eat less, they drink less in the afternoon," said Hyndman. "They'll be there for a shorter period of time. You're not going to break the bank with food and you're not going to break the bank with decor. Keep it simple."

Another cost-effective idea is to devise a theme and a dress code.

"Everyone always likes to dress up during the holiday season ... but a lot of times that does add stress and it can get expensive," said Sabados. "A really fun idea that we came up with is to host an ugly Christmas sweater party. Not only would it be fun and inexpensive, conversations that would flow through that would be a riot. Or even make your own ugly Christmas sweater if you can't buy one secondhand."

Pick up some campy decorations at the dollar store — sparkly garlands, coloured lights and plastic reindeer. "Go over the top and make it fun," said Sabados.

"And then everyone will remember that first party that you threw because those sweaters are so much fun and there's so many pictures of it," Hyndman said.

A festive punch will reduce your alcohol bill. Include a non-alcoholic version and do a test run of the punch a week before to ensure you like the recipe.

Potluck gatherings can also take pressure off the host. Sabados recommended group emails when planning "so everyone is in the conversation about who's bringing what because you're going to get seven salads."

Set the dinner table before guests arrive. Use three (or five depending on the table size) small arrangements of one type of flower, such as inexpensive baby's breath.

"When you do one grouping in one vase and three of them down the table it just looks so beautiful and it has such a sophisticated look and it's so inexpensive," said Hyndman. "So matching vases, all the same flowers, down the table, not expensive, repetition. It looks very chic."

Sabados recommended compiling a music playlist to set the tone.

"Don't place too high expectations on yourself, especially if it's your first party," Hyndman said.

"Your guests are there to see you and mingle with each other and catch up. ... Always know that they're there for company and they're there to gather together for the holiday season and other than that they're going to enjoy some food and some good drinks," he said.

"They're not there to judge your decor," added Sabados. "And if they are they shouldn't be there."