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As with so many things this year, the holiday season is going to be unlike any we have had before. For many of us, because of the virus, we will not be gathering with our loved ones in the same ways. We do this out of love and care for one another, but there is no denying that the loss is real and painful.
In order to help you through these difficult times, over the next two weeks I will be sharing ways for you to make the holidays joyful, meaningful, and celebratory, in spite of these challenging times.
In this post I’ll cover different ways the food you eat can be a centerpiece of your celebrations, whether you are alone, with just your nuclear family, or finding a safe way to come together as a larger group.
Then, next week, I’ll share creative and fun ideas on how to safely celebrate in person and from afar.
Cooking for the Holidays, 2020-style
When you think of your family’s holiday traditions, most likely one of the first things you think of are specific dishes that you enjoy on that day. That’s because food is essential to our identities. The recipes that we make for special occasions are part of our legacy. These dishes often have stories attached to them, they provide comfort, and they offer connections to the past.
In this year that is so different, we have two options: we can choose to honor the traditions we hold dear, even if we may not be able to be with the people we usually share these traditions with, or we can decide that since this year is such an anomaly, we will do things completely differently.
Given this strange and unusual year, the first question to ask yourself is: do I want to go traditional or do I want to do something completely different?
There is no right or wrong answer here.
The traditional route will allow you to feel connected to the ways things usually are. It can provide a sense of comfort and normalcy. While this year may be different from any other that came before, the special foods and memories we cherish can serve an important role in making the holidays meaningful for us. In addition, it can provide an opportunity to learn how to make dishes that perhaps you depend on others to make in normal years (more on this later).
On the other hand, this year is like no other, so perhaps it’s the year to do something completely different and break with tradition. This could add excitement and anticipation to the holiday that you may feel lacking and, who knows, you might even discover some new traditions to add to the celebrations in future years.
Once you have decided on your course of action, then you can start to discern what that will fully look like.
How to Cook a Traditional Holiday Meal
If you decide to take the traditional holiday meal path, then the next thing to decide is which aspects of the meal you will hold onto and which (if any) you will let go.
If, for instance, your family usually has a gigantic Thanksgiving gathering with 40 people, but this year you will only be six, then the volume of food needed will be very different, so you likely won’t need seven different desserts and could settle on one or maybe two.
So, sit down and figure out what that menu will look like. Two options for this are: the full meal, just smaller amounts and favorites-only.
The full meal, just smaller amounts
If you have always cooked for an army, making the transition to a smaller meal can seem unsettling. To give you a sense of what you should be envisioning, here is what Thanksgiving, for a family of four might look like:
- 10-16 lb. turkey (or you could go smaller and just do a turkey breast)
- 6-8 potatoes in mashed potatoes
- One dozen corn muffins (some of which get frozen for later). You could use this traditional recipe or go for our feta jalapaño corn muffins for a fun change.
- 1 or 2 vegetable sides
- A half-batch of stuffing/dressing
- Cranberry sauce (1 bag of fresh cranberries, if you are making it from scratch, like our low sugar version or our cranberry-fig sauce with ginger)
- 1 or 2 desserts (preferably one that’s leftovers can be frozen). We are fans of sweet potato and French chocolate silk pies.
This will still give you a TON of food and lots of leftovers, but it won’t be so excessive that you are eating leftovers for weeks.
Another way to go the more traditional route is to ask everyone to list their holiday favorites and then just focus on those. It may not give you the full meal that you are used to, but will offer the highlights that will make everyone happy.
Learn How to Make Family Favorites
What if you want to have the traditional meal but have never made certain dishes (or any of them)? Learning how to make classic family favorites can feel pretty daunting, but this is where I actually see a silver lining in this strange time that we are living through.
If I have learned anything over the past 8 months, it is that we shouldn’t take our time with those we love for granted. So perhaps this is the year to ask your loved ones to teach you how to make those special recipes that mean something to your family.
There are a couple of ways to do this: in person, written down, or on a zoom or video call.
In Person Cooking Lesson
If you are able to be together in person, ask your grandma, mom, dad, uncle, or auntie if they could teach you how to make their signature dish this year. As you learn, take notes, ask questions, and see this as an opportunity for further connection.
If you want to get really fancy, you could even set up a tripod and record the cooking lesson on your phone (this is the smartphone tripod I use and love (affiliate link)). Then you’ll have a lovely memory recorded as a keepsake and as a reference for the next time you need to make the meal.
When my brother and I were starting off our lives as young adults, my mom hand wrote out all of our favorite family recipes. It is one of my most treasured cookbooks. I love reading the recipes in her writing and the little additional tips she put in to help us to make the dish just like she does. You can asked your loved ones to do this for you and then collect them all and put them into a binder, box, or folder to keep for years to come.
How to Set Up a Successful Video Call Cooking Lesson
First things first, if you are learning how to make a special family recipe from an older family member, you will need to make sure that they know how to use whatever technology you use to have the cooking lesson. Whether it is Zoom (which can be recorded, an added bonus!), FaceTime, Skype, or another platform, just make sure your loved one knows how to use it and/or has someone nearby who can help to get it set up and running.
Get a shopping list ahead of time
Make sure that you have all of the ingredients you need so that there isn’t any scrambling or struggling to figure out substitutions once you have already gotten started.
If using your phone, set it up so it can stand on its own. This will allow you to watch, cook, and talk all at the same time. A cheap phone tripod can work wonders here (this is the smartphone tripod I use and love (affiliate link)).
Important note: If you are using your computer, make sure that it is in a safe location, so that it won’t get any liquid spilled on it.
Ask All the Questions
This is your chance to really learn the ins and outs of this recipe, so make sure to ask all the questions you have as you go along. No question is stupid. Show your diced onions to make sure they are the right size, hold up those egg whites to make sure they are stiff enough, the details for a special family recipe matter.
Record or Take Notes
If possible, set up the session so that it can be recorded. Not only will this make it easier for you to go back to reference the next time you make the dish, but it will also become a special video memory of your loved one passing on something that means a lot to both of you.
If you can’t record the session, then make sure to jot down as many notes as you can so that you can remember how to make it next time.
Invite Other Family Members
This could be a lovely way to spend time together with family that is far apart, all while make a beloved dish. It is an opportunity to share stories, laugh, and do something together.
Mute when using loud appliances
If all of you will be using a loud appliance at once, mute your mic as it will get very loud!
Special Year, Special Food
If, on the other hand, you have decided that this year is so strange that you would prefer to do something completely different, then here are some ways you could do that.
Experiment with the traditional meal
Have you ever wanted to brine the turkey or try different spices but haven’t dared? This is your chance!
Have you been curious about sweet potato recipes that don’t include marshmallows? Discover how delicious they are this year! You might want to try these sauteed sweet potatoes or these slices.
Ever been tempted to do a vegetarian feast instead? Why not use this as your test year? This cassoulet might be a fun option as would this baked risotto.
The point is, this could be your year to try something new and, who knows, maybe discover some exciting traditions to bring into other years.
Different Meal Entirely
This is also your chance to make a completely different meal. Try a recipe you’ve always been curious about, have an appetizer night, try a traditional dish from another culture, the possibilities are endless and could be really fun!
Support a Local Restaurant
Since you likely won’t be spending as much on travel, another option would be to support a local restaurant (many of whom are really struggling these days) and have them cater your holiday meal. Then, all you need to do is reheat and enjoy.
How to Make Holiday Cooking Easier
Whether you go the traditional route or try something new, cooking for the holidays is usually pretty labor-intensive, especially when there aren’t lots of extra helping hands to pitch in.
Having lots of cooking to do, however, does not need to become a stressful or overwhelming task. Here are some ways to ease the burden of holiday cooking.
Make Ahead and Freeze for Later
Many traditional holiday foods are very freezer-friendly, which means you can make them days or even weeks ahead of time and then just reheat on the day of, making for a much more relaxed holiday. Examples include:
- Baked goods such as cornbread or muffins, biscuits, cookies, and some pies (pumpkin and apple both freeze well). Note: if you want fresh baked cookies, you can also prepare and freeze the dough ahead of time. I like to freeze mine in a long, log shape and then just slice the frozen dough and place the rounds on the baking sheet.
- Soups (especially pureed vegetable soups, which can make a wonderful appetizer or first course)
- Cranberry sauce
- Stuffing/dressing (that is not cooked in the turkey)
Just because there isn’t an army of home cooks in your house, doesn’t mean you don’t have helping hands. Get your kids and partner in on the cooking action and use it as an opportunity to teach some kitchen skills! (Need ideas on how to do this? Check out my ideas on how to get your kids involved in the cooking).
What is your plan for cooking for the holidays this year? Do you have other tricks for making the cooking easier? Let’s share ideas with one another in the comments!
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Saturday 31st of October 2020
Hi Jessica -
Do you have any recommendations for a vegetarian main dish to complement a traditional thanksgiving holiday menu?
Saturday 31st of October 2020
Hi Robin, absolutely! You could go the Italian route and do a Spinach Lasagna, a Cassoulet made with vegetarian sausage would be lovely as well, or you could use some of the stuffing mixture to stuff and bake in an acorn or delicata squash! Hope this helps!