Christmas Dinner Ideas from My Mom
When it comes to serving a show-stopping holiday meal, few cooks can hold a candle to my mother. Of course, she's had plenty of practice. In my family, she's been the de-facto host for both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner since the year my parents moved into their house, which was—wait for it—1968.
Growing up, there were always more people in my house during the holidays than our small space could reasonably expect to hold. Yet, despite the cramped quarters, no one in my extended family would ever dream of being anywhere else on the big day. And so, inspired by my mom, I've thrown together a list of Christmas dinner ideas, from prep tips to ideas for holiday table settings, that you can use to wow your guests and ensure you become the reigning holiday meal matriarch (or patriarch!) of your family.
Make as much ahead of time as possible
You can't be a good host if you spend the entire time in the kitchen.
True, you can't really cook a turkey ahead of time, but did you know you can make almost everything else included in the traditional Christmas dinner in advance? In my family, pies are made days beforehand (which is actually better since it gives the fillings time to firm up), as is the cranberry sauce. And any dish that has to be cooked day-of is prepped in advance as much as possible, so all it needs is to be slipped in the oven before serving. My mom even figured out a way to make turkey gravy a few weeks before the holiday. After years of whisking in flour moments before dinner and wondering if the gravy would thicken, she now simply takes it out of the freezer and thaws it in the microwave. It turns out perfect every time.
If this is your first time cooking a holiday meal, you might want to consider a holiday cooking class, or even a class as general as knife techniques or sauces. Not only will you get potential holiday recipes and tips from a chef, you'll also get a trial run cooking any new dishes before trying them at home.
Skip the plastic
Polished silver and fine china can make any meal feel special.
My parents have an amazing set of vintage china (complete with silver- and gold-plated silverware) that they received as wedding gift. And for as long as I can remember, that dinnerware has graced the table only once a year: during the holiday meal.
It may seem like a small thing, but in an age where plastic and styrofoam partyware has become the norm, it's amazing how special eating on real plates with real knives and forks can feel. My siblings and I groan about having to polish each spoon the day before, but seeing our relatives' faces light up when they see the table set with so much glittering hardware makes it all worth it. Seriously, I think my mom could just skip the turkey and serve pizza on those fancy plates and everyone would still think it was the most special meal in the world.
One final touch—cloth napkins instead of paper. Is it a pain to wash all these things? Sure. But it's only one day.
Let your holiday baking double as a centerpiece
Flowers are nice, but something delicious and sweet is even nicer.
This has to be one of my favorite Christmas dinner ideas. Growing up, the centerpiece of my mom's Christmas dinner table was always an enormous candy-coated gingerbread house. I can remember sitting in the kitchen in the weeks before Christmas, watching as she made all four sides of the house from scratch, and poured melted sugar to make stained-glass windows. To this day, my cousins still talk about how much they looked forward to tearing the thing apart at the end of the evening, and taking bags of gingerbread home with them at the end of the night.
In latter years, my mom got wise and bought a pre-made gingerbread house from a bakery. Nobody was the wiser, and my nieces and nephews still got the thrill of pulling it apart. If my mom had simply thrown some flowers in a vase, I don't think we'd have bothered to remember (or even notice).
Even if you don't have the time (or mad decorating skills) to throw this together, some homemade Christmas cookies artfully arranged on a tiered serving plate can still provide a similar effect. After all, you spend all that time on your holiday baking, so why not show it off?
Hide the remote
DVR the big game because the holidays are time for human interaction.
Nothing really ruins the magic of a holiday meal quite like a TV blaring in the other room. My mom has actually gone so far as to hide the remote control, giving the rest of us no choice but to face one another and have a conversation. If your family finds the lack of background noise unsettling, try putting on some holiday music instead.
Of course, it's understandable that sports have come to play a big part in our holiday celebrations, especially on Thanksgiving. If someone in your family just has to have the game on, try asking them to turn it off just while everyone is eating. Your guests will probably be surprised how much they enjoy the media break, and it allows everyone to focus on the food (and each other) for a little while.
Get out the punch bowl
It's festive, easy to make, and everyone loves it.
That silverware that my mother only uses once a year? She has a lovely crystal punch bowl that she uses just as often—a particular sore spot with me, since I remember the year my brother and I bought it for her. Specifically, I remember how I carried the large, heavy box down Chicago's Michigan Avenue while my brother made "really quick" last minute trips to stores for over an hour. But I digress...
Punch has made a pretty big comeback in the bar scene, and I'd argue that it deserves to make a comeback at your holiday meal. Not only does drinking out of punch cups feels festive, but it's convenient, too. It can be thrown together ahead of time as part of your holiday meal prep, and it also keeps guests from wandering in and out of the kitchen to fetch drinks from the fridge.
The bottom line? Punch, like fancy silverware, giant gingerbread houses, and a day without TV, is a departure from routine, and that (along with spending quality time with loved ones) is ultimately what makes a holiday meal feel so special.