Going it alone

kittymoonbeamJanuary 2, 2014

My mom is recovering from a hospital stay and I didn't want her doing any hard work or exhausting herself. I jumped in and did the entire family Christmas and New Years meals myself. Usually for myself, I make plain food that does not need much time to prepare. But for the family and to make mom happy, I did the full traditional dinners. When the time came to finally eat, I just felt wiped out. I sat down for 40 minutes and just stared at my plate while people talked. After putting everything away and washing up, I was so tired that I wanted to go straight to bed.

I made a roast turkey, dressing, cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy,stuffed mushrooms, green beans, young peas in the pods, carrots with a glaze, Japanese yams, fruit salad, green salad,and I bought bread and a pie the previous day. I usually bake the bread and pie fresh but not this year .

For New Years, it was about the same thing except that we has bbq chicken breasts and thighs and squash instead of the yams and only carrots and peas and no green beans. Where do you put all the pots and how do you keep it all hot at the same time when you have 3 different veggies to serve? Do you put it all in the oven in covered dishes? I usually do the pie and cakes and the bread and sometimes a special vegetable from a magazine or cookbook. Everyone was pleased with the food and I think it was good because it was fresh from the farmers market but I really was wiped out doing it all myself this time.

Am I just a wimp or are there things I could have done to make it easier on myself like chopping things the day before, etc.?

This post was edited by kittymoonbeam on Thu, Jan 2, 14 at 3:28

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I forgot to say that I really do like cooking even though I make simple things for myself most of the time. It just felt like suddenly the kitchen space was all used up with food eveywhere and with the table service set out, I was unable to use that surface like I do when it's just me or with some friends. The turkey was in the oven and all the counters were full of rolls and pie and everything else. I guess what I need is a sideboard if I'm going to do this more often.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 3:25AM
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I think it's just something you get used to doing. You have to work out the space you have to be the best it can be for you. And, with practice, you get a lot quicker at it too and it's all round less stressful. Sounds like you were stressed to bursting. Well done for having done such a great job!

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 3:52AM
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How wonderful of you to do all the cooking for your mom and family. Somehow it all just comes together. Nice of you to make it the same as it has been in the past, nice to not have the meals any different then it was in the past. Don't fret the small things of the meal. You did a wonderful job for the family. Yes, you were tired but wasn't it worth it? You can sleep anytime after the holiday. Maybe for future holidays some family members will assist you but if not just do what you did this holiday and enjoy the family traditions and all.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 6:41AM
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Seriously, you made the entire dinner yourself? You didn't say how many were in the group having this delicious dinner. But even if I just have 10-12 at my house for Thanksgiving, the rest of the family each bring a dish or the turkey or wine/beer, etc. I could not begin to do the entire holiday dinner alone and at Christmas we all asked what we could bring to the dinner at my sister's house on Christmas Eve. My younger sister's man-friend made a delicious rum cake!

Two suggestions: 1) do as much ahead as you can, up to a week ahead and 2) give your family members ahead of time an item or two they should bring to the meal. Don't ask them to "bring something" - tell them a bottle of wine, dinner rolls, a green salad, an apple pie, etc. Even the teen/20somethings can pick up extra ice!

For myself, I decided in the future if I host Thanksgiving, I'm going to treat myself to a professional house cleaning a day or two before the actual dinner! It wears me out to cook, set the tables, decorate, clean house, AND work full time.


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 7:00AM
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I always helped my mother and mother-in-law and I learned a lot from them, but when it was my turn, as Frank Senatra sang - "I Did It My Way" - having learned what I could eliminate, alter, or update.

While it's fresh in your mind, write down a timeline -- things that went well and problem areas to use them as a reference the next time. Think about ways you can solve the problems. Check on-line and popular magazines for preparation and cooking timelines and menus to give you some new ideas for holiday meals.

--Do as much ahead as possible - including the meat, mashed potatoes, and breads. They all reheat well. If you don't carve the whole turkey at the table, you may want to go to a bone-in turkey breast instead of a whole turkey. It will take up less space in the oven (if you bake it in a self-basting oven bag, it will fit in a 9x13-inch cake pan, lasagna pan, or a small roaster). If my older brother is attending, I'll roast a couple turkey wings for him, but everyone else likes breast meat.

--Alternative cooking/warming sources: turkey roaster, slow cookers, induction or regular hot plates, camp stoves, toaster ovens, bbq grills, Sterno heated chaffing dishes and foil buffet serving pans, warming trays, even large electric griddles can be used for a heating/warming source (I had a friend who placed her foil-wrapped dinner rolls on her electric griddle on a low temperature to warm them - top side first, then she flipped them to the bottom side).

I have a large Thermal Cooker and several Wonder Ovens I've made, and I can use them for passive cooking as well as keeping food hot for long periods of time. I can serve 4 different kinds of hot soup/stew/chili for a large New Year's Eve Soup & Bread Supper, and not have any of them on the stove (except for the initial 20-30-minute heating to bring them up to temperature) or plugged into an electric outlet.

--I have 3-tiered servers for desserts, and a 5-tier buffet set (got it at Sam's Club for around $20) so everything doesn't have to be on one level, which helps when space is at a minimum. Bring in extra banquet tables, card tables, or other serviceable tables. My grandmother always used her ironing board for pies - perfect width for pie plates, and placed it against a wall. She even made ironing board covers to go with the holiday to cover it.

--Include others. You don't need to be in charge of everything from soup to nuts. Most guests are happy to contribute something to help ease the burden. But keep in mind if they will need an oven/refrigerator/freezer, electric outlet (slow-cooker), etc.

--Update and trim the menu so it's not so work intensive. We've all but eliminated cooked vegetables from our menu (still have to have mashed potatoes), and have included more fresh fruit and fruit-based dishes, and less heavy fattening desserts. I also think people make more food than is necessary, even if you do like to use the leftovers. I only have one side-by-side refrigerator/freezer, so I have to keep that space in mind when preparing any and all big meals.


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 8:47AM
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I hear you loud and clear. For years, I've worn myself out "going it alone" on special occasion meals that everyone else enjoyed but I was too exhausted to appreciate. For me, the solution has been to do as much food preparation as possible ahead of time, preferably the things that create messes. For example, make ahead gravy is a godsend. I try to souschef ingredients and prep mess-generating dishes the day before so that I can clean up thoroughly afterward. Starting the day of the party with a perfectly clean kitchen is a real energizer. With practice and planning, you can get everything under control and then go put your feet up for a well-deserved rest before guests arrive.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 9:54AM
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Good for you for looking out for your Mom. Your menu sounds delicious too.

I have nearly always made the traditional holiday meals myself, from Easter to Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's Day. Guests can be anywhere from 10 to 40.

This year we had three "Christmas" celebrations. One was at my son in law's, who lives three hours away and everyone brought something. The second was with my family, about 30 people, it was at the town hall and everyone brought a dish to pass, I provide the main dish and dessert. The third was yesterday with my girls and their families and I made everything.

I've found that baked goods can be made a day ahead, I baked cheese rolls and made the cheesecake and the peanut butter pie the day before, as well as the pie crust for banana cream pie. I did assemble the banana cream the morning of the meal so the bananas didn't turn black.

I made hoppin john the day before as well and sweet and sour greens two days before because my husband is from Tennessee and says you can't overcook greens, LOL. I had the steak marinating and stuffed and rolled it the night before so it was ready to pop into the oven. The mashed potatoes got done first thing in the morning and were put into the crockpot to stay warm, and the gravy was made a day ahead of time from beef stock which I'd canned the day before that. I just kept some in the fridge for gravy and didn't can it.

I have a big Nesco roaster, a small Nesco and a crockpot. While the steak was baking, the potatoes were in the crockpot and the greens were in the small Nesco. The gravy and the green beans were in containers in the big Nesco and the rolls got wrapped in foil and put on top of those for warming. The hoppin John was in the microwave and the pies were in my "second refrigerator", which is my garage. It's Michigan and it's plenty cold, the only problem is that it might freeze. All cold drinks are also kept there.

I have a very old freezer-on-the-top 17 CF refrigerator, so I just don't have usable space to spare, if it's not cold enough in the garage I use coolers for things like drinks and meat.

I set the table the night before and always have a checklist of things that need to be done so I don't leave the sweet potatoes in the microwave or the fruit salad in the garage. This year's "casualty" was the fruit salad mother brought. She stuck it in the garage and it wasn't on my "list", so we both forgot it. (shrug)

Many things freeze well, including unbaked cookie dough, so when I do 30 dozen cookies at Christmas I often make dough weeks in advance, portion it out and freeze it on sheet trays, then package in ziplock bags. That way I can take them out a dozen at a time and bake them as I want them.

Everyone helps clean up, kind of. My husband will wash dishes left after my dishwasher is full. My girls clean the table, scrape plates, pick up glasses and coffee cups. That way I get to spend time visiting instead of hours in the kitchen cleaning up.

At the end of the day I toss the tablecloth and napkins into the washer, have a cup of coffee and start planning the next time, what to do differently, what stays the same, while successes, failures and ideas are still fresh in my mind.


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 10:39AM
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I think this was all already said but here is my 2 cents.

Had you previously made all the dishes you made for the holidays? Never make something for the first time for guests. Practice ahead of time.

You decide the menu. You really needed three vegetables?

Do as much as possible ahead of time. Days ahead. Use crockpots to cook and reheat food.

Perhaps the stress of your moms illness was more than what you thought. Were you trying to make everything perfect? Don't. It unrealistic.

Don't give up!

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 11:23AM
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I think you did great, and it is perfectly understandable that you were exhausted. Who wouldn't have been?

Next time - hopefully not too soon! - I would streamline the menu a lot, and use deli/prepared foods for some of the sides (the salads, the veggies, etc). As mentioned, the protein can be cooked and carved ahead of time and reheated.

Remember, holiday meals are about getting together with family, the food is secondary.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 12:40PM
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It sounds like you did a wonderful job. That's a lot when you are only use to cooking for 1 or 2. Its no wonder you were pooped. Some good advice here!

My DH has a big family. So, the way it usually works is the host usually sets up and provides the main entree. The host then will list what is still needed to make dinner complete (example: we still need, appetizers, dessert, potatoes or rice side, 2 vegetable sides, bread and drinks). Everyone picks what they want to bring & lets the host know. If its already taken, you pick something else to bring.

Something new that has been instituted in the "BIG" dinners is that the younger generation clear the dishes and wash the dishes. This is great! All of my nieces & nephews are 12 & up - old enough to be participating towards the meal.

Hope this helps.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 1:14PM
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I've done the same thing for years and its getting harder on me. I'll be seventy in a week and the bod lets me know it. This year after doing Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, I was exhausted and aching. That will probably be the last time I do the "Big" ones by myself. Some people have more stamina, but I've been losing mine. Now watch, at the end of this year, I'll probably relent and do it all again.


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 2:05PM
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Thank You everyone for the encouagement. Mom was so happy and said she was even thinking of calling it off but worried about how the family would react to that. My aunt said that she was glad that our family dinner survived and of course was glad that my mom was in good spirits and enjoyed visiting with everyone and seeing the kids play.

I was so worn out but I'd do it all again. I didn't know I had it in me to be honest. I love that special pie ironing board! What a great country this is. I love everybody's traditions. I just tried to make what we usually have, nothing exotic and do it right. That was still an effort but it was worth it.

I remember once going to a friends and they just had many kinds of finger foods and drinks with the TV on. It was fun but I missed my family sit down meal. Some of these dear people we only see a few times a year or maybe just once in a few years. It was so important to my mom to see everyone especially since she worried she might not recover. Thankfully, she is doing better every day now. I've been cooking for her and she says she likes it. I hope she's being truthful.

I have a real gratitude about what goes into these big dinners now and the people who go it alone. If anyone has any other ideas to share, I am enjoying reading them. It might be fun to do an Easter dinner since everyone enjoyed these last two dinners. I would like to do it again really well and have some energy left over for conversation.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 4:45PM
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Hi Kitty,
I didn't realize that you lived in our area! What a great daughter you are!
Congratulations on putting on some beautiful meals, however i know the exhaustion factor is a big one. I want to echo everyone's suggestion that you assign different guests a specific dish and/or purchase some items premade.
I will reckon that your mother and guests loved being together, the food was secondary. Traditions are important, however pick and choose what foods have to be on the table.
Yesterday we hosted nearly 50 guests for an annual party. I work mostly full time and our lives are full. I was reluctant to host this year. DH begged me to hire a caterer, however the cost on a holiday was insane! Instead I opted to bring-in from a few places- creating a menu that had something for everyone. Many of our closest friends offered to bring a something and I didn't refuse! I know what they're good at making and I requested a specific dish. That took a huge weight off of my shoulders. I also asked my cleaning lady to help me serve and clean up. I've done parties without help, but one of this size required assistance. My friends and family are great, but I would have never left the kitchen. This way I did have an opportunity to visit with most of the guests.
I'm tired today, but content that everyone had a great time, good food and conversation. I have leftovers, but not too many. Success!

Don't worry, you'll hit your stride, just make it easy and take shortcuts. Most of all, accept everyone's help!

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 7:51PM
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After doing exactly as you described first for Thanksgiving and then for Christmas for too many years, I finally found a solution. I am just egotistical enough that I'm not going to serve someone else's food, or let someone else in my kitchen, not even to clean up. They are guests, even if they are family.

I contacted the local Technical School with a Culinary Program, to see if they had any students who would like help me out with final prep, a bit of service and some of the clearing and cleaning up. For a very reasonable fee, suggested by the student, I got help, he wasn't alone on a holiday, and I made a new friend in food!

I know it sounds self-indulgent, but it's only a few times a year, and it's sooo worth the cost.


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 8:05PM
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I agree that as I get older, I am more exhausted after the "party is over"! As one of the posters suggested, a friend of mine hired a maid service a few days before Christmas to do a deep cleaning of the rooms on her main floor so that she didn't have to worry about that. When you have to clean, shop, do the prep work and cook, it is a lot of work! I usually host our Thanksgiving dinner and I do as much in advance as possible, use crock pots and nescos to cook and reheat, and I am not afraid to ask family to bring a dessert or side dish to pass. This year we had Thanksgiving dinner at my brother-in-law's house and each person made one of the side dishes or dessert - even the unmarried teens. So if something could be made in advance and warmed up, that worked. Others made their side dishes in the kitchen just before dinner was served. It was really fun to see everybody pitch in to make one dish to contribute to the dinner so not one person was burdened with the whole dinner.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 9:36PM
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You are quite a gal, to take all that on by yourself! How thoughtful of you!! Did anyone offer to help next year? If so, take them up on it! The reason we have so many different dishes at Thanksgiving is that everyone has their favorites. :-) The first year I hosted, I asked each person who offered to bring something what they'd like to bring. If they didn't have an opinion, I assigned them something. Now, it's their yearly assignment. Nobody wonders what to bring, they know. I just confirm. I don't mess around with Tradition on Thanksgiving. I love to cook and I love to experiment, but I don't do it at T'giving. It's the same thing every year, but for most of the items, it's the only time we make it, so people look forward to it.

I think that the most useful tip you have gotten so far is to sit down right now and make notes, while it's all fresh in your mind. Things like how long it took the bird to get done, where you staged the food and how, what could have gone more smoothly and what worked well. Each year, go back and look at your notes before you start and then add to them afterwards. You don't have to re-invent the wheel every year--it takes too much energy and time.

Preparing a timeline is also extremely helpful. For instance, I make turkey stock from wings (or an inexpensive pre-turkey!) a week or two in advance and freeze it. I make a roux for the gravy from flour and butter 3 days to a week in advance and keep it in the fridge. All the veg for the bottom of the roaster, the bird cavity, and the stuffing are prepped 2 days in advance and kept in labled containers. I blanch the fresh green beans the day before, then warm them up in browned butter while the turkey rests. The gravy comes together in a trice when the roux is already made--just strain the fat and veg out and have at it.

If you sit down and think about the dishes you want to make, it will become clear to you what can be done in advance to speed things along the 'day of' and make it easier for you.

When it comes time to clean up, I don't refuse help, either. I'm not that proud, and it makes the mothers/mothers in law feel good to be able to help. Everyone is different, so do what you are comfortable with. I find that there is something homey and old fashioned about having the moms and aunts in the kitchen working with me, chatting, laughing, and enjoying the process.

Best of luck next year!


    Bookmark   January 2, 2014 at 9:41PM
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