November 17, 2022
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Photography by Lucas Ottone/Stocksy United
If you start planning now, the tasks will be far less daunting in the months to come.
As I put away my summer-themed decorations to make way for scarecrows and pumpkins this autumn, I wasn’t just thinking about Halloween. I was dreaming of family holiday gatherings to come. As the heir to my late Grandma Wilma’s recipes, my role in these events carries a special responsibility.
Preparing food for a group can be stressful enough, but since I have multiple sclerosis (MS), I need to take extra care to minimize the burden. Don’t get me wrong — I love to cook. It brings me tremendous joy to spend time with family and nourish them with food I make myself, so I’m not letting my disease take this away from me.
However, I don’t hesitate to take advantage of tools and hacks to save time, energy, and strength. You may be thinking about cooking for family this holiday as well, and what I’ve learned may help you, too. Below are my top eight tips.
Great meals don’t start with a shopping list. They start with a plan well before a trip to the store. First, I make a count of how many people will be attending. Second, I find out whether any of my guests have special dietary needs. With this information in hand, I’ll then leaf through my favorite cookbooks, including Wilma’s card file stuffed with handwritten recipes. I also enjoy surfing online cooking websites, which provide recipes and feedback from people who made the dishes and contributed their own improvements. Many of these sites also provide convenient tools to scale a recipe up or down, depending on crowd size, as well as exportable shopping lists.
When I first began hosting family meals, I often went overboard, making two types of potatoes, for example, such as creamed russets and mashed sweet potatoes topped with pecans. But the more often I host family gatherings, the more I’ve learned it’s less about the food than the fellowship, and this means I opt for one-pot meals as often as possible. Chicken and wild mushroom soup is one family favorite. Another is cowboy beans, which includes a variety of beans stewed with onions, barbecue sauce, and ground beef. A hearty vegetarian lasagna is another option, as it’s so filling and easy to prepare ahead of time. I usually round out a one-pot main dish with frozen breadsticks or rolls and a simple green salad.
A comfortable work environment is paramount due to physical limitations, so it’s important to use your space efficiently and make any necessary adjustments. Because standing for long spells of time tires me, I recently invested in an anti-fatigue and anti-slip mat. This cushions my legs and provides support for my ankles and feet, while helping prevent dangerous falls. When it comes to prep work, I prefer to do most of these tasks while sitting, so I’ll perch in front of a card table that I bring into the kitchen just for that reason. If this is the case for you, consider using a table or a stool.
Any cook worth her salt (pardon the pun!) relies on a variety of tools to help. These include sharp knives and specialized appliances, such as my hand mixer and my blender. I am fortunate to own a full-size food processor, but recently, I’ve started using my one-cup chopper when possible. It’s lightweight and much easier to clean, even if I have to chop food in multiple batches. For the same reason, I will also use my trusty old hand grater from time to time. But I’ve recently learned about an electric potato peeler, and although I’ve never used it, I’m definitely looking forward to giving it a try. Among all my appliances, however, I rely the most on my electric dishwasher.
You will thank yourself later for completing any little steps ahead of time. I chop my veggies and measure out my spices as early as a complete day ahead and set them aside or in the refrigerator in little bowls. But there is so much more you can do well before then, from desserts to bread. My favorite bread recipe makes 48 crescent rolls, which I freeze in 4 batches of 12 rolls each. These can be done as much as 2 months in advance, which means I can store them and pull out just what I need on the day of the event. If you make your own ice, as I do, start making it at least 1 day before the event so you’ll have plenty by the time you need it.
A word of caution: If you decide on a dish that you haven’t made before, do a trial run at home ahead of time, just for practice. This allows you to avoid any disasters by perfecting your technique and gives you the opportunity to tweak the recipe to the tastes of your family.
I also find it helpful to set and decorate the table ahead of time. Pulling out my holiday place mats and coasters early puts me in a great mood. Besides, once I know my menu, it’s easier to choose the plates and flatware. For ease and convenience, I use paper napkins, and I stow an extra supply in a festive holder directly on the table in case of any accidental spills. A washable table-runner is a godsend for this very same reason. I don’t usually go overboard with centerpieces, however, as they obscure the faces of my guests and inhibit conversation. A basket lined with a seasonal tea towel and filled with bread fresh from the oven is decoration enough!
If people are arriving at 6 p.m., try to have most dishes ready by 5:30. Because I adore the smell of fresh bread, I’ll pop my rolls in the oven at the very last minute. If everything else is ready, I am able to concentrate on just this item, which makes it less likely I’ll be distracted and accidentally burn the bread — something that, alas, I have learned the hard way. In that last half hour, I’ll also take the beverages out of the refrigerator, slice the lemons for tea, and put the butter dish on the table.
In my early days of cooking for the family, when someone asked what they could bring, I used to tell them not to bother, but things have changed since then. My fatigue has worsened through the years, and I’m also getting older, which means I have much less energy. Now, if someone offers to bring a side dish or a dessert, I happily accept, grateful for their additions to the meal. This reduces the stress on me tremendously and increases the engagement among my guests because many of them get to contribute in their own ways. My niece Bailey recently started to bake, so I look forward to enjoying what she will bring.
Later, I also happily share cleanup duty, whether it’s clearing the table, taking out the trash, or loading the dishwasher. These interactions can make even drudgery fun! Still, I never try to do too much immediately. It’s more important to rest and recover. The next day is the time to unload the dishwasher, wipe down the counters, and sweep or vacuum. But if it’s still holiday season, I’ll leave any decorations in place. If you’re like me, you’ll want to prolong the holiday spirit and bask in those warm memories of your party for as long as possible.
I hope these tips and tricks come in handy as you cook for your family this holiday season. While hosting a meal can be a lot of work, there are so many advantages (saving gas and travel time come to mind!) to opening up your heart and home to guests. A fringe benefit, however, and what I especially appreciate, is the fact that the chef gets to keep most of the leftovers.
Happy holidays and bon appétit!
Medically reviewed on November 17, 2022
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