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Merry Menu Planning for the Holidays

Posted by Lisa Peterson -

With the holidays drawing closer and closer, I find myself scrolling *Pinterest and paging through cookbooks looking for new recipes. As previously mentioned, I've taken over the task of cooking for the holidays since I was tall enough to look over the stove. Typically, within my extended family we switch hosting duties every other holiday. Lucky for me I have a small extended family, but I still have the tendency to prepare food that could feed a small army. Menu planning can help cut food waste, save time, money,and reduce overall holiday stress.

Where to Start

There are numerous factors to consider when planning for the holidays. A few bigger items to consider include:

  • People
  • Time
  • Cost
  • Equipment
  • Balance, Variety, Taste, Texture, and Color

People: Planning to Please

Developing a guest list of how many people to feed during the holidays will impact how much time and money is spent in preparation for the big event! Will this holiday be an intimate group of 2-6 people, or is the extended family, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, neighbors, and/or Cousin Eddie, Catherine, Ruby Sue, and Rocky joining in on the festivities (for all the National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation fans)? When reviewing recipes, look at yield, and serving size to help determine how many people the recipe serves. The website will make automatic recipe adjustments for increasing or decreasing the amount of servings.

Other than number of people, think about dietary needs of the guests. For example, in my family because my sister is diabetic and has celiac disease; I do my best to provide diabetic friendly entrees and additional gluten-free options. Lastly, do not discount the familiar. Traditions are great around the holidays and crowd pleasers. Do a combination of the new items with the traditional food. See how well the new items are received among the guests and decide if the new recipes are worth keeping for the future or should be nixed.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found in November and December of 2009, 57% of Americans spent an average of 1.1 hours engaging in food preparation and clean up. Food preparation doesn't have to cut into family time.

  • Take all the recipes intended for the meal and make a chart with headers: Food item, estimated prep time, and cooking time. This will help give a visual of the entire meal and make a plan of attack for preparing each item. The chart can also include how the item needs to be made (this will help with mixing up equipment use). Don't forget about thawing time as well!
  • To help with time management, ask family members to help! This is a great way to incorporate family time in the kitchen. The tasks can be as easy as chopping onions, peeling potatoes, or mixing up ingredients. By getting others involved this will cut time spent preparing for the overall meal.


The amount of money spent during the holidays continues to grow. As of 2013, the National Retail Federation cited, on average, Americans spend 730 dollars during the holiday season on food, gifts, decoration and more. Cost can decrease by looking back at the number of people who are going to be eating. Below are a few tips and resources for shopping for the holiday menu and saving a few dollars.

  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season. Fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season are less expensive and a great way to incorporate more of them into the meal.

Not sure what's in season in December? Check out the links below!

  • Coupons! Check with the local grocery stores for specials and sales. Catering around sales can help make menu planning easier and less expensive.


What is available can be a both a blessing and barrier when preparing a meal. Trying to get all the food done at the same time isn't possible when the menu is dedicated to oven use, especially with different times and temperatures. When menu planning, think about different methods of preparing the meal that require different types of equipment. Utilize other cooking methods other than just the oven, such as slow cookers, microwaves, electric roasters, and foods that can be prepared stovetop (poached, sautéed, steamed, boiled, and simmered).

Balance, Variety, Taste, Texture, and Color

Remember to consider Myplate when menu planning! Instead of just making half the plate fruits and vegetables, try making half the meal (entrée, soups/salads, side dishes, desserts, appetizers) a mixture of fruits and veggies! Referencing to Myplate will help make sure all those food groups are covered, or if one is missing make it an appetizer!

  • Keep the meal colorful! The more colors, the more appealing the meal will look. People often "eat with their eyes" and doing a mix of colors *hint: more fruits and vegetables* will make the meal look even more delicious. Example: Serve a spinach salad with mandarin oranges or apple slices.
  • Use a mixture of strong and mild flavors.
  • Provide both crisp and soft foods in meal.
  • Switch up herbs and spices used in the meal. For example, if making garlic mashed potatoes maybe reconsider making garlic bread.

Bonus: Food Safety

Food safety should also be considered when menu planning.

  • Think about refrigerator and freezer space. Aim to pick up items that need to be cold or frozen last before leaving the grocery store to minimize time at room temperature.
  • Keep the refrigerator at or below 40°F and the freezer at 0°F. Monitor temperatures occasionally with designated appliance thermometers.
  • Keep meats on the lower shelves of the refrigerator to prevent cross-contamination.
  • Wondering how long food (leftovers or ingredients) will keep in the freezer and refrigerator? Visit for more info!

For more quick nutrition, physical activity, or wellness tips follow me on twitter! Looking for upcoming programs? Feel free to visit our local extension website at:

*Pinterest: For those unfamiliar with Pinterest, Pinterest is a social networking website that allows people to organize and share ideas, such as recipes, with others. The University of Illinois Extension has an entire page dedicated to all areas of extension. Check it out at:



"B.L.S. Spotlight on Statistics Food for Thought."Food For Thought. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nov. 2010. Accessed Dec. 2014.

Grannis, Kathy. "The Long and Short of America's Consumer Holidays." National Retail Association, 1 May 2014. Accessed 08 Dec. 2014.

Molt, Mary.Food for Fifty. 12th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.


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