Creating Prep Lists to Make Your Holiday Meals Stress-Free

Essential Tips - How to Create a Prep List to Make Your Holiday Meals Stress Free

This year, I cooked the Easter holiday meal at my in-laws’ house. I decided to do as much of the prep as possible at home, and do the final cooking there, for two reasons. First, I know where everything is in my kitchen (prep bowls, mixing bowls, storage containers, et cetera) and second, to make cooking in their kitchen as calm as possible.

I wanted to share about the menu and the prep that went into this meal. I’ve read in many places about the importance of being organized, but nobody seems to have written about HOW to put together prep lists. Let this be the first in a series I’m working on discussing how to prep. Bear with me, this is a bit of thinking out loud – blind leading the blind and all – but here goes.

Preparing the Menu

First off, the menu. Holiday meals are a bastion of tradition, well-worn setpieces that mustn’t waver. Last year, after our meal, we decided to change up the feel a bit to reflect a new balance in our diet (read: more vegetables, more meat, less starch). After some negotiation, we settled on this:

MENU:
Baked Ham
Baked Sweet Potatoes, with spring onions, bacon, butter, cinnamon
Roast Broccoli, with garlic
Seared Mushrooms, with shallots, scallions, garlic, butter
Halved Strawberries
Cheese Plate

Right. That gives me some focus and, more importantly, a grocery list I could stick in my head, ticking off what I already had at home and what I needed to go buy.

After the grocery store, it was prep time. I wanted to have everything as ready as I could get it, so that all I had to do Sunday morning was to apply heat and combine. I didn’t want to be reheating finished dishes, but I didn’t want to be scrambling to get things cut and prepped, either.

The Preparation of Each Dish

Oddly, looking over my notes, this is the one part I didn’t make a list for. Rather, I had a list, but it all stayed in my head. Let’s talk, in shorthand, about what goes into each dish on the menu.

BAKED HAM
heat and serve | 20 min ish per pound | 10 pound ham | so about 3 hours since their oven cooks a bit fast

BAKED SWEET POTATOES
mince spring onions | dice bacon | render/cook bacon | wrap potatoes in foil | bake for about an hour

ROAST BROCCOLI
separate florets | cut to uniform size | slice garlic | toss broccoli with olive oil | roasting pan, scatter garlic over | roast 450F 10-15min

SEARED MUSHROOMS
clean mushrooms | remove stem | halve mushrooms | mince shallot | mince scallions | toss mushrooms in olive oil | sear on HOT pan | cut heat to medium | return mushrooms to pan and add shallots butter scallions | warm through

HALVED STRAWBERRIES
remove leaves | hull berries | cut in half

CHEESE PLATE
unwrap cheese | put on plate

This was the mental checklist I used to keep track of where I was, how far I could go, and what needed to wait for the morning. Order matters – in these instructions, I’ve tried to bring as much prep tasks earlier in the sequence to not lose anything (as opposed to more conventionally saying, say, “Add minced shallots to the mushrooms” – oh, I needed to mince them, did I?).

In preparation, just about everything got cut and packed. Spring onions (same as scallions, here, but it sounds cooler to use both words on the menu, so…), broccoli, mushrooms, shallots, strawberries – everything cut and ready to go. None of that would suffer for being cut ahead of time – for example, I cleaned the mushroom caps with a damp paper towel only to avoid soggy, waterlogged mushrooms.

Choreographing the Actual Execution of the Work

The other prep list I did write down was a timing sheet. This is a new thing for me to do, but the trick is to think not of each dish individually and how long it takes, but look across them to weave the timing together. This was a huge part of why Sunday morning was calm – at any given time, I knew where I was across the whole feast, not just one dish.

10:00 AM: Put ham in oven – 3 hours @ 325F
10:00 AM: Cook bacon bits for potatoes
12:00 PM: Bake Sweet Potatoes
12:30 PM: Sear Mushrooms
12:45 PM: Prep Broccoli
01:00 PM: Remove Ham
01:00 PM: Remove Sweet Potatoes
01:00 PM: Raise oven temp to 450F
01:00 PM: Broccoli in oven
01:05 PM: Finish Mushrooms with shallots and butter
01:15 PM: Serve

The thought process: The ham’s going to take the longest and hog (ha!) the oven the most. It really determines the meal time. Behind that, the potatoes will take an hour, so they go in for the last hour. The broccoli needs the oven, but at a much higher temperature and for a short time, so it can cook while the ham rests. The bacon is a prep item – I just didn’t want to chill it overnight – so it can happen early, and the mushrooms need a pan on the stove. I’ve cooked mushrooms like this a few times recently, and the searing step seems to take longer than I expect, so best to try and do that before the ham comes out – it’ll finish with the butter and shallots while the ham rests.

I won’t say that I followed this to the minute, but I wasn’t far off. About the only step I didn’t have on here is to wrap the potatoes in foil, and I didn’t factor in any time for washing dishes (that happened, as much as it could, in between tasks). With only a couple of edits – namely, I left the potatoes in with the broccoli – this is how it went down.

Making this list – and putting times to it – is a great benefit for two reasons. First, it is a roadmap for the effort, so I know where I am and what’s left to do at any time. Second, it forced me to think through the choreography – what food is in what pan on what oven rack or burner at any time. This is why the timing matters – I’ve made interwoven lists before but without timing, and have had to do some fancy shuffling when two foods wanted the same pot or burner to follow the plan.

The Don’t Forget This List

Finally, the last list I made on Saturday for prep is the don’t-forget-this list. Everything I might want to have from my own kitchen needed to be on a list so I wouldn’t forget anything. There were only a couple of additions not shown (a sauté pan that the ham cooked in – I wanted the roasting pan for the broccoli – and a cast iron skillet for the mushrooms). Let’s just say I’m not always the sharpest in the morning, so having an external backup was a very good idea.

Bring along:

  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Ham
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Bacon
  • Green Onions
  • Strawberries
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Shallots
  • Cinnamon
  • Salt
  • Knives
  • Thermometer
  • Olive Oil
  • Garlic

The resulting food went unphotographed, but it was delicious. Everything was hot, done at the same time, and best of all, I was relaxed throughout. THAT is a first for me.

Mike loves to cook. He also loves coffee. You can find his personal blog at CoffeeCorner.org and find him on Twitter as @CoffeeMike.