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How to Host Your First Holiday Dinner

by Karen on November 20th, 2014


Pilgrims Going To Church, George H. Boughton, American 1833-1905

Pilgrims Going To Church, George H. Boughton, American 1833-1905

This painting hung in school rooms across the country when I was growing up,  I attended six different schools in Florida, North Dakota, California, and Texas and it was a staple in all.

My husbands’ mom grew up in Boston and gave the painting to us, obviously it figured in fairly large in her life living so close to Plymouth. Each year we rotate it into the dining room during the holidays to remind us of the challenges our ancestors faced.

We are lucky, our biggest challenge at this time of the year is hosting family gatherings. If you are hosting your first holiday dinner the mere idea of being the host can make you want to crawl back into bed and stay there.

Here is an easy checklist for hosting your first holiday dinner:


Figure out what you want to make and ask for help.  The host generally prepares the main dish, so for Thanksgiving we agree to do the turkey and the gravy, a few pies, and make-ahead mashed potatoes.  I always do the gravy prep work then turn it over to my husband to put it together because he just has a way with gravy, what can I say?  Find that person in your group and delegate, delegate, delegate!

make ahead mashed potatoes

make ahead mashed potatoes

For side dishes, desserts, and beverages ask that they all be prepared in advance and only need rewarming for 30-40 minutes.  Think about your oven and microwave space, keep lots of aluminum foil on hand to cover the dishes once they come out of the oven to keep warm until serving time so the oven can be used to warm other items.


Have coolers on hand to keep food cold or hot if you don’t have enough refrigerator or oven space.  These have been sitting at the bottom of the staircase so our dog doesn’t try to go up and down the treacherous stairs— so at least now they will have a second use!  They are even near the front door, so convenient for the guests as they arrive….

Iceberg folding 2x4 table and IKEA folding chair

Iceberg folding 2×4 table and IKEA folding chair

___Table and Chairs

If you have a standard dining room table you can make it a bit longer with some of the great lightweight folding tables sold at office supply stores or warehouse stores.  Buy two 2×4 tables, ours are the Iceberg brand, heavy-duty but lightweight.  You can place them side by side at one end of your table.  They are 30” tall which is standard table height. Be sure you have the right sized tablecloths and you are good to go. (Iron or dry clean tablecloths and cloth napkins a few weeks before the event).  If your table is big enough use these 2×4 tables as serving tables for food, at two feet wide they hold plenty and should fit most spaces.  Don’t bother with 8 foot long folding tables, go for the 2×4 table for versatility.

Rent tables and chairs if you need to—generally renting is quite inexpensive.

Ask your family to drop off any folding chairs or tables a few days before the dinner.  We did this for several years when we lived in small spaces and it worked well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

___Clean the day before

….. so you aren’t as stressed out.

___Make-ahead whatever you can

……. freeze some items a week in advance.

If making pies, prepare the crust and freeze 6-inch rounds of dough.  Make ahead mashed potatoes or roasted vegetables the day before for reheating. Mini popovers are made with a mixture that can be blended earlier in the day and then baked off 20 minutes before serving. Brisket can be cooked the day before and then reheated.  Look for recipes that you can incorporate into your week instead of trying to do it all at the last minute.

Caretaker Pinot Noir from Trader Joes a good value wine

Caretaker Pinot Noir from Trader Joes a good value wine


Ask a wine steward for recommendations. Buy a good corkscrew that actually works.

Holiday Wine Suggestions:

Appetizers and Salads:  Bubbles are always the best pairing with most appetizers, cheeses, and salads. Choose from sparkling wine, Cava (Spain), Prosecco (Italy), Champagne (France).  Salads are difficult to pair but they can work with Sauvignon Blanc or a crisp Chardonnay. Both of these wines also work well with many appetizers.

Beef Brisket:  Old world Burgundy from Côtes de Beaune but you could also pair this with Chianti, Zinfandel, or Syrah (Shiraz).  A Côtes du Rhone works too which is typically Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah.

Beef Tenderloin:  Our all-time favorite is a Châteauneuf du Pape which is a higher end version of Côtes du Rhone.  A Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux) is also always wonderful with beef.

Turkey:  Generally Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are recommended. If you want to experiment with French wines look for names like Chablis, Côte D’Or, Côte de Nuits, and Côte de Beaune from the Burgundy region.

Lamb:  French Red Rhône, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Rioja

Dessert:   Coffee! There are many dessert wines that pair well to sweet foods: Sauternes, Port, Sherry, Orange Muscat, and Ice Wine are all possibilities.

People want to drink what they already know they like whether it pairs with their food or not.  I think it is fun to introduce various wines at the dinner table, the only way to learn more about wine is trying one bottle at a time.

water carafes

water carafes


Encourage your guests to drink water throughout the evening by placing water glasses and carafes at the table.  Fill that old decanter that was your grandma’s with water.  Set the example by filling your glass often.  I ALWAYS forget to do this but wish that I had consumed more water during the meal.

___Set up a beverage table

Set up a table for all beverages away from where you need to work in the kitchen. Include ice bucket or cooler with ice, glassware, bottle openers/corkscrews, and beverage napkins. You can also place a few small appetizers on this table.

___Use Easy Recipes

Keep it simple and within your skill set.

Make a recipe you are comfortable with.  Roast a chicken first using the same method as in our turkey recipe so you get the hang of it before trying to roast a big bird on turkey day.  A roast chicken obviously cooks in less time than a turkey so you will need to adapt.


our new ebook for computer, phone or tablet

our new ebook for computer, phone or tablet

Turkey—There are so many ways to prep or cook a turkey: brine, roast, grill, or deep fry.  Forget anything that looks difficult, it’s just too much stress for that first time.  Brining a turkey is a huge undertaking requiring a very large container and refrigeration space.  Once you get the bird and water and salt in there it weighs a ton that most refrigerators can’t handle easily.  Then you have to rinse the bird and let it air dry overnight. Lots of time. Grilling a bird takes some skill and deep frying uses a TON of oil.

Instead, buy a quality fresh bird and roast it early enough in the day so that it is resting while the side dishes are reheated.  Our Turkey and Gravy recipe.

For other holidays try brisket, a leg of lamb, or a beef tenderloin.  The  brisket is probably the easiest of all for great results.

___Get a sturdy roasting pan
A turkey can be cumbersome, a roasting pan with solid support comes in handy!


It was a dark day for the roasting pan photo but you get the idea.

set the table with what you have, keep it simple

set the table with what you have, keep it simple

___Festive table

Look at pictures online for ideas but keep it simple. Set the mood with tea lights inside votives to avoid dripping candle wax.  If you light new tea lights just before guests arrive they should last through the evening. Borrow or rent tablecloths if you need to—it’s the quickest way to class up your look.


Often overlooked, be sure you have a couple of bags of ice in a cooler on the back deck.



___To-go containers

Have plenty on hand to send your family and friends on their way with leftovers.




Ready to plan your holiday meal?

For our well-loved recipes for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas,  New Years, and Easter check out Cooking Gluten Free for the Holidays here

It’s an instant download ebook to your computer, phone, or tablet…….and you are ready for all of your holiday meals and treats.




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