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Here's a day-to-day countdown for stress-free, happy holiday meals

Football coaches, presidential candidates, generals and scientists all know and value planning. So do home cooks…especially at the holidays.

Producing a lovely meal is just that: a production of sometimes epic proportions. And, sometimes the cook can’t control everything…the weather, length of the church service or the traffic to grandma’s house. Still, you can have a plan in place.

While we may all have vastly differing menus for the holidays, we are all given only 24 hours in each day. So, the playing field is level.

What makes the difference between holiday entertaining that seems effortless and that which looks stressful is thinking ahead, doing ahead, engaging others (family and friends for key points of assistance) and being prepared for slight deviations from the plan.

Here is a plan for the next six days similar to what we organized for last year. (Or use the plan for six days prior to any fancy meal). Planning works… if you work your plan.

With thanks to the Lord for all He provides, here are suggestions that have worked well for many years.

Decide on final menu. Consider asking friends or family to make specific items to bring to the meal.

Prepare grocery list in two stages: “dry shop” to be done now (even today) and “fresh” shop for up to three days prior to meal.

Phone ahead and order turkey or other main dish item. If frozen, allow 3-5 days for thawing in the refrigerator. For any questions, contact the Butterball Turkey Talk Line at (800) 288-8372) or visit

Make pastry for pies and freeze, if desired.

Do pre-preparation work for appetizers, as applicable.

Do “dry shop” for groceries and sort onto trays, bowls or pans (9x13-inch pans work well) according to recipe.

Find, clean and put all specialty cookware (roaster, pie pans, gelatin molds, etc.) where they can be seen and are ready for use. If you need to “season” any pans, do it within the next two days.

If linens are to be dry cleaned, take them into dry cleaning establishment with commitment to pick them up two days before the holiday.

Order flowers or floral arrangements to be picked up two days prior to the holiday (or delegate task to family or friends).

Inventory refrigerator and construct meals for the next several days. Refrigerator needs to be almost empty by Day Four to accommodate fresh items and items that will be prepared in advance.

Plan soup or do-ahead casserole meal for dinner for Day Six.

Create a staging area for serving. Place all serving pieces (include silverware) in this area.

Create and set area for serving drinks, beverages, coffee with all items necessary for use except items that need refrigeration (cream, ice, etc.). If serving cocktails, remember napkins, canned or bottled cocktail items. For wine, wash and dry glassware and store on a tray upside down. Locate wine opener and place in bar area.

Find, clean and set aside all dinnerware and specialty serving pieces such as gravy boat, carving platter, etc.

Polish all silver items (or delegate task to family member).

Wash and press linens as needed. (Or delegate task to family or friend to be brought to you the day before the holiday.)

Measure, label and set aside all dry ingredients for any recipe that is being prepared, such as Indian Pudding or a special Holiday Cake.

If possible, set table and chairs into place. Do not place linens on the table. For auxiliary seating, place table, chairs and linens in the closest out-of-the way area (guest room).

Start thawing large turkey (15-18 lb.) in refrigerator.

Shop for “fresh” ingredients such as fruits and vegetables. Clean vegetables as they are put away.

Prepare Julia Child’s Gravy*, if using.

Prepare cranberry sauce or gelatin salads.

Prepare ingredients for stuffing: cube bread, sauté onion and celery. Refrigerate onion and celery.

Thaw pie dough in the refrigerator.

Start thawing smaller turkey (12-15 lb.) duck, roasting chicken, etc.

Set aside one hour with a list (and a cup of tea or coffee) to review all plans and “what needs doing,” eliminating any tasks which at this point cannot be easily accomplished.

Prepare meats for roasting. Refrigerate.

Prepare Sweet Potato casserole. Refrigerate.

Trim vegetables and store in plastic bags for cooking Day Seven.

Vacuum and dust as necessary.

Prepare tables, floral arrangements and table settings. Turn glasses upside down as they are placed on the table.

Clean bathroom(s) to be used by guests. Ask family to use another bathroom if available.

Tidy up front entrance, fluff pillows, lay logs in fireplace (place note to remind you to “open the flue”).

Prepare holiday clothes for self and tell others to do the same if over 12 years of age. Assist younger ones. Polish shoes as necessary.

Prepare appetizers and condiments.

Up early to bake pie(s). Prepare roll dough for proofing. Proof in oven and bake, if possible. Or, depending on recipe, baking after entrée has been baked and is “resting” prior to carving.

Go to church and give thanks.

Put turkey in oven and roast as directed.

Meantime, in proper sequence prepare vegetables, casseroles and sauces (exact order determined by your specific menu). Or enlist aid of family or friends to bring specific menu items.

The turkey will require “resting time.” This can be as much as 30 minutes. This is the time to bake rolls, heat casseroles, finish off gravy, bake a shallow casserole of stuffing, etc.

Enjoy your happy and pleasant holiday, giving thanks for your plan as well as to God, who provides all.

I’ve used this method of making a base for turkey gravy for many years. I do it several days in advance and then finish off with the drippings from the roasted turkey. And, I always have plenty of turkey gravy.

This recipe is adapted from the cookbook “From Julia Child’s Kitchen” (Alfred A. Knopf publisher).

Julia Child’s

Turkey Gravy Base

Turkey giblets and extra turkey necks or wings

¼ cup cooking oil (not olive oil)

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped carrot

2/3 cup dry white vermouth

2 cups chicken stock

Water as needed

1 bay leaf

½ tsp. thyme

½ tsp. sage

3 tbsp. cornstarch

¼ cup Port wine or cold chicken broth

Chop neck into 2-inch pieces, quarter gizzard and halve heart. Dry well in paper toweling. Heat oil in a heavy 3-qt. saucepan. Stir in giblets and brown well. Remove and add vegetables. Cover and cook slowly about 8 minutes. Then uncover, raise heat and brown lightly for several minutes. Return giblets to pan. Add wine, chicken stock and enough water to cover ingredients by l inch. Salt lightly. Add bay leaf, thyme and sage. Simmer partially covered for about 3 hours. Strain. Refrigerate. Scoop off fat and discard. There should be about 3 cups liquid. Heat just until warm. Combine cornstarch with Port wine or chicken broth. Blend until smooth. Add to stock mixture. Bring to a boil, stirring, until slightly thickened. Cook for 2 minutes. Cool and then refrigerate. Use as a base for the gravy for the turkey.

To finish, spoon excess fat from roasting pan. Pour in the thickened prepared gravy base and cook over moderate heat for several minutes, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to gather browned bits into the sauce. Strain into a saucepan. Taste, correct seasonings and serve.

*The Butterball Turkey Talk Line will answer any questions about roasting a turkey, leftovers, etc. The number is (800) 288-8372. Additionally, you may read blogs, sign up for text messages, send e-mails and view Webcasts at

**Marilyn Mork’s Butter Scones (Crescent Rolls), published 11/13/08 in this column, would be a great choice for holiday meals.

Time the proofing so that the rolls are to be baked as the turkey comes from the oven and then keep warm until serving.


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