Holiday entertaining turn you into the Grinch? Does the idea of traveling during the holidays give you cold sweats? Join the big and popular club of folks who finds that the stress of the holidays can sap them of their happiness. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
This time of year, I’m often asked for helpful solutions to irksome yet common holiday challenges ranging from cooking and eating to shopping and traveling—and, of course, everyone’s favorite: restraining yourself from killing your relatives! I’m happy to share some tips that you can use to make your holiday season a bit happier and hopefully less stressful.
Q: I spend all day in the kitchen preparing for Christmas dinner and can’t enjoy spending time with friends or family. What can I do differently?
A: Take some time to plan a menu with a few dishes that you can prep in advance, so you only have to assemble or reheat them that day. The Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, has super ideas for dishes like this, and even wrote a whole cookbook called Make It Ahead. Another tip is to plan dishes that your family or friends can lend a hand with in the kitchen. Maybe have your cousins put together the cruditè platter with veggies that you’ve already cut, or perhaps your aunt can trim the green beans while you’re assembling the sweet potato casserole. People love to help out and feel useful, and you’ll be able to spend fun time chatting and laughing together in the kitchen. Remember that meals are really about company more than food. With this attitude, you’ll make more memories you’ll actually want to revisit, and people will enjoy being around you.
Q: When I cook for holiday get-togethers, I wind up with either too little or too much food. Any tips?
A: Yes, it’s hard to gauge food portions with precision this time of year. Of course you want to make sure you include everyone’s favorite dishes and traditional foods that your family has come to anticipate, yet you never know who might drop by unexpectedly and add to the count. Menu planning is crucial, and be sure to check out the amount each recipe yields. It’s a good idea to keep a file of holiday recipes and make notes about how you might need to adjust the amount for next year. My sister and I keep a detailed spreadsheet for our annual Thanksgiving dinner, updating it after the meal to note how much of each dish was made, how much was left over, and suggestions for next year. That way when we start to plan the holiday the following year, we can refer to our notes (because our memories ain’t what they used to be!). And you’ll be the next day’s hero if you pack up leftover goodies and send them home with your guests. Remember to have storage containers and food wrap on hand!
Q: Help! I always gain weight during the holidays.
A: It’s easy to throw caution to the wind during the holidays, with a marathon of convivial parties and lavish meals offering tempting excuses to overindulge. You should certainly enjoy the festivities, but with a modicum of restraint. Watch your portion sizes (admit it, after a few bites, you’re pretty satisfied anyway) and instead of taking a slice of each of the three mouthwatering desserts, have the willpower to choose your absolute favorite. Fill up on the healthier options first and vow to stop eating when you’re full. You might even pair up with a close buddy to serve as each other’s eating confidantes. Pledge to call each other the day after each event and honestly report what you ate. Knowing that you will have to admit to your overindulgence the next morning may keep you more accountable the night before. And even though it’s a busy season, be sure to keep your exercise plan a priority.
Q: It’s so hard to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions and preferences. I have no idea what to make!
A: One word: ask! People with dietary restrictions will appreciate your kindness and effort, and you’ll all have the peace of mind that there will be acceptable dishes for everyone. And if some of your guests offer to contribute to the meal to assure that there will be dishes they’re comfortable eating, why not let them? It might take a little off your plate, so to speak, and they’ll feel valued.
Q: I’m always crazed food and gift shopping during the holidays and always end up running around at the last minute.
A: Take a page from Santa and make lists! Keep your lists with you all the time—on your smartphone or in a little notebook in your purse—so if you ever find yourself with some down time or you’re unexpectedly near a store that you know you want to hit, you can get some of your shopping accomplished. Figure out where you’ll need to go, and group your errands geographically. And the earlier in the season you start your planning and shopping, the more likely you can avoid the annual madness.
Q: YIKES! Shopping at the mall drives me nuts!
A: If you can avoid that scene, by all means do so! There are other places to shop, including at smaller boutiques, and of course online, which you can do whenever you like while cheerfully sipping hot cocoa and wearing your jammies. But if you absolutely must go, take a deep breath. Have your list ready and map out the most sensible route around the mall so you don’t have to backtrack. Try to go at less-peak hours, and give yourself a generous amount of time to accomplish your shopping so you’re not rushing around like a crazy person. Add an hour to however long you think it might take, to account for standing in lines, parking far away or picking up last-minute items you forgot to put on your list like gift wrap.
Q: I don’t know how much to spend on everyone.
A: Your very first step is to establish a realistic holiday spending budget based on what you can reasonably afford without incurring debt. The “I’ll just put it on the credit card now and worry about it later” strategy isn’t worth the anxiety and stress you’ll face when the bills roll in after the New Year. Develop a well-thought-out list of gift recipients, and don’t forget about the little “extras” like the holiday tip for your hair stylist and mail carrier or the gifts for the kid’s soccer coach or piano teacher.
But don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet though—there are other expenses to think about too when it comes to holiday budgeting. If you aren’t careful, some of the more costly aspects of the season will sneak up on you and your wallet in January. Whether you’re feeding your family, bringing a dish to the office potluck, or hosting an event, grocery bills can add up at an alarming rate this time of year. Consider your travel expenses, whether you’re buying plane or train tickets, or even gas for the car. And those twinkling Christmas lights give your power bill a boost—so think ahead for the next month’s budget. Try to anticipate what you’ll need to spend—down to the tiniest of details—and plan accordingly.
Q: When guests or family members ask, “How can I help?” I never know what to tell them.
A: Well first, consider yourself lucky to have gracious guests who are willing to help! Have a handy list of smaller things you need done and be prepared to take these folks up on their generous offers. Obviously you’re not going to ask Uncle Herb to prepare the roast, but surely he could fill the water glasses or uncork the wine or tend the fireplace. It’s always helpful to have guests clear the table and dry the washed tableware, but if you don’t trust your slightly clumsy niece handling your china, perhaps you could ask her to keep the littlest ones entertained. Every small thing will lighten your load, and you’ll find yourself less stressed and more ready to be merry.
Q: No matter what, my family members and I always end up getting into the same old fights.
A: If you adjust your mindset and your behavior a bit, you may be able to make the family holiday gathering a whole lot merrier—or at least not as irritating. Remind yourself that the holidays are a time to create meaningful memories, and perhaps agree beforehand to keep hot-button topics off limits for the occasion. Listening to escalated arguments isn’t pleasant for anyone attending the party. If partisan politics or the mention of decades-old grudges flare tensions, make a pact not to go there. And if things do wind up turning controversial or confrontational, step away. Politely excuse yourself, take a deep breath, and join another conversation. Remember that you’re a role model for the younger guests, whether they’re your own children or others’, and acting diplomatically and with courtesy will set the most respectable example.
Q: My family gets cabin fever during winter vacation and we all go a little crazy by the third day of being in the house together.
A: Been there, done that! There are loads of inexpensive family activities that’ll get you back on track in no time. For starters, just step outside your front door. Depending on where you live, you can ice skate, go sledding or tobogganing down your local hills, take a family hike, or map out a bike ride. For a short excursion, head to a local zoo or museum, go to the library, or spread some holiday cheer by volunteering as a family somewhere in your community. If you’re looking to go a little farther afoot, plan a day trip to explore some new surroundings or visit a friend or relative who lives out of town. There are even fun, creative activities you can do within the four walls of your own home. For instance, ask your kids to put together an instrument recital or write and perform a play, complete with homemade costumes. Schedule a family game afternoon. Plan a relaxing spa day in the luxury of your own home. Build a snowman or a snow fort or have a giant snowball fight. Or invite another family over who might be feeling the same cabin fever for popcorn and a movie.
Q: Traveling always stresses me out—expensive tickets, flight delays, bad airport food, traffic, etc. How can I make things a little easier?
A: If you accept the fact that crowded airports, long lines, bumper-to-bumper freeways, and weather delays are out of your control, a little planning can make the things within your control a lot more pleasant, helping to alleviate some your travel headaches. Planning the details of your trip ahead of time is your best hedge against travel nightmares. This means incorporating realistic travel expenses of any kind into your holiday budget so you don’t wake up with an unmanageable January surprise on your credit card. Find economical ways to ship gifts or clothes to your destination in advance so you’re not bogged down on travel day and you won’t be incurring unexpected baggage charges. Pad your anticipated travel time abundantly so you’re not scrambling yourself and three crying kids to the gate in the nick of time or letting road rage get the better of you. Pack a variety of healthy, portable snacks to keep the troops fed and energized, and have on hand a plethora of fun activities to keep everyone entertained for an extended period, whether it’s movies, games, books, music, stories, sing-alongs or whatever else keeps the “When are we gonna get there?” to a minimum. Remember to stash extra batteries for games or headphones, grab a couple more movies than you think you might need, make sure the diaper supply is more than adequate, and keep some trash bags and napkins in your glove box or travel bag. Last but not least, try to keep a cool head. Your kids and other travel companions will take a cue from you, and if you stay calm and unflappable, you’re all bound to have a little fun while you get where you’re going.