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A Classic Make-Ahead Menu for Not-So-Normal Holidays

Starting a day early is the key to making a holiday feast without the help of friends and family 

The holidays always bring some chaos, but this year, the anxiety is of a different variety. Now, piled on top of all the stress of 2020, there’s the matter of figuring out how to get dinner on the table without the help of a small army of friends and relatives. In some ways, cooking for a few loved ones is much simpler than hosting a big dinner, but cooking a holiday feast without the help of a crowd brings its own challenges. Part of what makes an impressive spread feasible is the crowdsourcery, the potluck-y nature of the whole ordeal. So to recreate that little-bit-of-everything vibe this year, consider starting a few days early.

Planning a menu around dishes that can at least partially be prepped in advance will make it so much easier to get a feast, albeit a smaller one, on the table. All of the dishes on this list can be made in advance, but doing so is a more natural fit — in other words, a holiday kitchen disaster is less likely — for some than for others. Here are a number of classic dishes you can get started on at least a day early, ranked from no-brainer make-ahead options to ones that are slightly more difficult to prep (and that maybe you should simply plan to make on the day you’re feasting).

Candied yams

If you are a candied-yam lover, you almost certainly have strong opinions about whether or not marshmallows should be involved. But however you lean, this is an easy dish to make in advance. It’s worth noting, as you grocery shop and browse recipes, that what we call yams in America are actually sweet potatoes, not the starchy tubers native to more tropical climates. If you’re going sans marshmallow, you could make the entire dish the day before: Just put the pot in the fridge overnight, and to reheat the next day, add a bit of water and re-stir, as the starches and sugars will thicken and solidify overnight. If you’re going for more of a mashed-sweet-potato casserole with marshmallows on top, you can do the mashing one or even two days in advance. Then, before dinner, all that’s left to do is spread the sweet potato into a baking dish, top with your marshmallows, and bake.

Recommended recipes:
Sweet potato casserole [Serious Eats]
Baked candied yams [I Heart Recipes]

Wild rice salad

This is an easy one to prep ahead of time, since it’s often served as a cold salad. Some recipes include instructions for making the dish in advance. The most time-consuming step in most recipes is in cooking the rice. And unless the recipe calls for the dish to be served warm, you can cook your rice the day before and refrigerate it overnight.

Recommended recipes:
Brown and wild rice salad [Taste of Home]

Roasted squash salad

Alongside the heavier side dishes, it’s nice to serve some more carbs, disguised as salad. If you have recipe-follower’s exhaustion, you can probably improvise this dish, mixing chunks of roasted delicata or butternut squash with a light green leaf like arugula, along with pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and a tart vinaigrette, a classic combination of flavors. To get ahead, roast the squash a day or two in advance and prepare your salad dressing. Then when dinner comes around, it’ll take minutes to throw everything together.

Recommended recipes:
Squash and radicchio salad with pecans [Bon Appétit]
Roasted butternut squash salad with warm cider vinaigrette [Food Network]


It seems silly to provide you with a stuffing recipe; I don’t know a family that doesn’t already have extremely strong opinions about how it should be made, and what should go into the casserole dish. If you do choose to follow a recipe, you’ll notice that some include a note about making the dish ahead. These recipes will instruct you to bake the stuffing one day ahead of schedule, then warm and crisp it in the oven when you’re ready to eat. To make great stuffing, you’ll want bread that is at least a day old, which means factoring bread-drying time into your schedule here. For truly excellent stuffing, start two days early.

Recommended recipes:
Sausage fennel stuffing [Epicurious]

Mashed potatoes

This is one of those gloriously simple dishes you definitely can make day-of, especially if you’ve gotten so much else done in advance. But if you’d rather make your mash one or two days ahead, it’s as easy as following your preferred recipe up until the serving step, and stashing the mashed potatoes in your fridge. When you’re ready to reheat, add a good bit more milk or cream as the mash warms through. The potatoes will have soaked up quite a bit of moisture as they cooled, and will need some assistance to become creamy again.

Recommended recipes:
Basic mashed potatoes [All Recipes]
Mashed potatoes [NYT]

Mac and cheese

To cook mac and cheese the day before, it’s worth finding a specific make-ahead recipe to avoid a mushy outcome. The make-ahead recipe will instruct you to slightly undercook the pasta and fully cool the sauce before mixing the two, so that when you finish cooking the dish, each noodle is perfect. If you’re dreaming of stovetop mac and cheese, don’t try to do this more than an hour or two in advance. The cheese sauce will get gloopy as it cools, and the noodles will turn to sludge when reheated.

Recommended recipes:
Make-ahead baked mac and cheese [The Kitchn]

The main course

In the spirit of shrinking the holiday spread this year, consider roasting a chicken, not a turkey. One upside to this swap — other than not having to eat turkey for a month — is that a whole chicken takes a lot less time to cook. Roast the bird about an hour before you plan to set the table, so it has a little time to rest. There’s not much to do the day before, except salting the entire bird liberally. You might think salting a day in advance is overkill, but it makes an enormous difference to the taste and texture of the meat. If you decide you’d rather cook a steak, or make some kind of roast this year, the same goes: Salt your meat, and do it well in advance.

Recommended recipes:
Zuni Cafe chicken [NYT]
Butterflied roast chicken [Serious Eats]

Roasted Brussels sprouts

Most of cooking Brussels sprouts is actually a matter of preparing to cook Brussels sprouts. Peel, trim, or wash these little guys a day in advance, and refrigerate the prepared sprouts in a Tupperware or zipper-lock bag until it’s time to season and bake. If oven space is a concern, you could even bake these a day in advance and reheat them at dinnertime. Be cautious, though, because an overcooked Brussels starts to taste sulphuric, and reheating in the oven won’t provide enough heat to regain any crisp bits that sogged overnight.

Recommended recipes:
Roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic [NYT]
Crisp Brussels sprout chips [Nom Nom Paleo]
Shredded Brussels sprouts and bacon salad [Half Baked Harvest]

Green beans

Whether you go old-school with a cream-of-mushroom green bean casserole or you prefer your string beans another way, it probably makes sense to save this dish for day-of preparation. Reheating will cook green beans past the point of no return, and if all you’re doing is baking or blanching, that won’t take very long. You can trim the beans a day ahead, and leave everything else for a little closer to dinner time.

Recommended recipes:
Green bean casserole [Bon Appétit]
Sichuan green beans [Dinner Then Dessert]

Photo credits: Mashed potatoes photo, pamela_d_mcadams/Getty; Box photo, venakr / Getty