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Tips to survive when holiday plans crumble

Christmas doesn’t have to be a day of pain or chaos.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 - 12:01 am

Q. I always think I am ready for a big holiday meal with friends and family, but on the actual day, I am pulling out dishes, pots and pans from everywhere! It is so chaotic and a big mess.

A. When you are alone and dreaming of your ideal holiday meal, everything seems pretty smooth. Once that doorbell starts to ring, anyone can be thrown into a state of panic. Attending to your dinner and the needs of relatives, guests, aging parents, drunken uncles, children, babies, dogs and cats all seems to discombobulate the most serene of hosts! I have a few tips to ease your pain.

Try to think like a restaurant or a great hotel. If you have read the book by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, “Life, On the Line,” you will recall that when Achatz was designing their award-winning restaurant Alinea, he wrote down every single plate and utensil he would need on which to serve his culinary masterpieces. I want you to think like this for your holiday.

Make a list of what you are serving. Number it and put it into columns. Write what you will need for each item, such as a mixer, food processor, whisk, etc.

Write any unusual ingredients that you must get and anything else you can think of pertaining to the dish.

Re-write it as often as needed to make it neat and user- friendly to your eyes. When I am doing a job, I may rewrite or retype my lists 10 times. Some of you may want to use spreadsheets.

While I am not on good terms with Excel, I am a master outliner and can Roman numeral anyone under the table. That is what I prefer, and you do what you feel will make you the most focused.

Try not to have cross outs and things written in the margins on your final list, unless it is the night before or the day of.

All those extraneous marks in different kinds of ink will distract your eye and your mind.

Now, get out every platter, plate and bowl you will use and label each one with a sticky note (I just use a scrap piece of paper and throw it in the dish, but you may be a little neater than I am!) reminding yourself what goes in each one. Next, place the serving utensils that you will use in each one.

Move all of it off the counters so your space is not cluttered. Move them into a spare bedroom if you must, because clutter is not your goal.

There are two reasons to label. One is so you know you have enough vessels for what you are cooking and the other is so your helpers will not drive you crazy in the kitchen.

No more, “Mmmmmm, Susie, what do you want the potatoes to go in? The blue bowl? Where is the blue bowl? What cabinet? Where are your serving spoons? Which drawer again?”

If that goes on in your kitchen like it used to in mine, you might as well do everything yourself. And that is not what we are aiming for.

Next, make a list of what you are making and read every recipe carefully. Do you have the ingredients for each recipe? Write down what you need and what it will be used for.

Check to see if you are low on anything. This is not the time to find ants in your sugar; check your supplies as you would check your child's car before a road trip.

After you get your groceries, group the items going into each dish together and label them. I often put each one on a different cookie sheet. Of course, many will share the same ingredients.

Put those in the center of your island or where they can be easily reached on your counter.

I do not expect you to make a mise en place (that's a French phrase that means “everything in place,”) for this meal, but grouping main things for a dish and labeling them will save you frustration. A frustrated cook makes more mistakes, which raises frustrations and … you get it.

Think logically about some disasters that might occur. Babies coming? It would behoove you to have some extra diapers around. Make sure you have stain remover too, and not just for the babies!

Have someone coming with special dietary needs? Make sure they have some interesting things to eat while you are eating. I do not use sugar in my coffee or tea, but lots of people do and most seem to prefer sweetener.

Buy some of this; it keeps forever. In other words, think like a hotelier.

Even if you do not have overnight guests, all your preparation will be appreciated and will also assure you of less drama.

Setting your table

There are endless ideas on the Internet for beautiful holiday tables. I want to do them all!

Before you get blindsided by all the photos, think about what you actually want your whole gestalt to be about. Do you like formal, with all the china, crystal and silver you can get on that tablecloth your great Aunt Martha embroidered?

We used to live in Virginia, and those southerners can set a table at which any queen would be happy to sit.

Are you more the Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel type?

You have lots of options, one of which would be bringing some evergreen cuttings or interesting branches to decorate your table.

Are you a bargain hunter, combing T.J. Maxx and Tuesday Morning?

Don't get lulled into feeling you are saving a lot of money and later discover you have actually spent more that you intended. These stores are a treasure trove if you have a sharp eye and a discerning wallet.

To sum it up, pick the way you would like your dinner to unfold, and then plan your table accordingly.

One phrase magically enhances everything: lots and lots of candles.

In recent years, I have strayed away from our traditional holiday dinner, much to the delight of my husband and sons but to the horror of my extended family.

Our tradition, since I was a child, was to make the same exact meal for Thanksgiving as we do for Christmas.

I began dreading and actually resenting making Christmas dinner as both meals usually happened at my home.

I realized I do not want to make two identical turkey dinners within 30 days of each other, darn it!

So I have broken out of my mold, but have frustrated and befuddled a few relatives.

Remember, it is important to make your own traditions and memories in your own household.

If you want something easy so you can all sleep late, work at the Rescue Mission, open your gifts and relax, make Italian food ahead of time and freeze it.

Maybe try a brunch this year and invite some close friends as well as your family.

Perhaps make the big meal hail from a different country each year.

Just make it yours and have a wonderful, organized, and happy, happy time with those you love.

Laura Wilson, owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She answers questions in The News-Sentinel every other Tuesday. Have a question for Laura? Submit it to clarson@news-sentinel.com or call 461-8284. We’ll pass on questions to Laura. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.