Picture this: I'm 16 weeks pregnant, already sporting a basketball belly, and standing over a hot stove stirring risotto. For an hour. Because it's Christmas Eve, I'm feeding 12, and I had to triple the recipe. The kitchen is sweltering, I can't possibly drink enough water to stay hydrated, and I desperately want to call the meal off and serve toast for dinner.
But I don't, because … holidays.
I will never make as much risotto as I did last year, but generally speaking, I can get on board with making more elaborate meals for special occasions. It's the meals that surround them that absolutely must be easy. In fact, I take my role in streamlining weeknight meals during the holidays so seriously that my mom and I start planning those auxiliary dinners weeks ahead of time.
For my family, this planning is key. With 12 people sharing one house between Christmas and New Year's, things can quickly dissolve into kitchen chaos. Relying on simple cooking techniques and making a schedule for meals — which includes who's responsible for cooking and who's on cleanup duty — helps make the holiday break enjoyable and relaxing for all of us.
Here are my favorite ways to make it happen.
I keep breakfast simple.
Think make-ahead breakfast casseroles stashed in the freezer, overnight oats, yogurt and granola, make-ahead muffins, or even boxed cereal with milk. It needs to be easy for everyone to serve themselves in the morning to help the day get off to a peaceful start. It also helps to have lots of coffee on hand.
I break out the slow cooker.
Whether we're making chili, black bean soup, or a big pork roast, we use the slow cooker to eat well on busy days. (It's also a great way to avoid the pre-dinner kitchen frenzy since the meal is ready and waiting.) I like to double whatever recipe I'm making to either feed a crowd initially or to have another meal ready and waiting in the freezer for the following week.
I go big with a salad.
I like to roast a batch of vegetables, shred cheese, and make a simple dressing ahead of time, and then quickly toss it all together with shredded romaine lettuce and white beans come mealtime. It's light yet filling, and can easily be deconstructed and served to little kids — or to those with food allergies.
A Mini Guide to Roasting Vegetables
I rely on my local Italian deli.
Pans of lasagna, tomato pie, and baked ziti are family favorites — especially when the local Italian deli makes them. We order ahead and stash them in the freezer. (Well, except for the tomato pie; we eat that as soon as possible.)
I freeze a bunch of soup.
My mom always makes escarole soup (similar to this one) around the holidays, but since it freezes so well, she makes it before any of us are even in the same time zone. It's the perfect thing to have on hand for comforting lunches or dinners when we run out of time to cook.
Tips for Freezing Soup
I play to everyone's strengths.
My husband loves to make pizza for a crowd, so we assign him a night when he's in charge of dinner. The rest of us clear out of the kitchen and leave him to it because cooking is no fun when you're fighting for kitchen space with your entire extended family.
When in doubt, I make eggs.
If we get home late and need a last-minute dinner, we scramble up a skillet of eggs with shredded cheese and salsa on the side. Sometimes there are tortillas, sometimes there's toast, but either way, my whole family is satisfied and happy.
Read more: 20 Delicious Ways to Eat Eggs for Dinner
What are your best weeknight strategies for everyday meals during the hectic holiday season?