Every year before heading into the holiday season surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve I open up a document labeled the “Holiday Plan” but what I really call in my heart the “Spreadsheet of Joy.” How can a plan be joy filled? For me a little planning goes a long way to help me create the kind of holiday season I want to give my family, while at the same time a season that will ALSO bless me and give me rest I need in the midst of all the craziness during the busy days.

Planning ahead means I can approach the holidays with less stress, be out of the kitchen a bit more and around my family during the actually holiday, and it helps me spread the cost of the large meals over several weeks and buy things when they are on sale saving my grocery budget.

The initial set up takes a little bit of thought to plan out, but once the initial plan is written out I only tweak it a bit year to year. Keep it simple and familiar. Make yourself a cup of tea and let’s dive into the 5 steps I use to plan out the holiday season.

Feel free to do each step one at a time. I added one a year until I had it all finished. Taking baby steps in planning helped me actually finish the plan and make it doable for me.

1. Make a list of meals and events you will need food for, writing a menu for each.

When I first sit down, I think about how many large meals I am hosting, or any event that I may need to bring an item to share. In my case, all the large meals are hosted at my house. This year that will be Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas morning and just the immediate family for New Year’s Eve nibbles. I often hold a Christmas cookie decorating open house event, but have decided that we will be skipping it this year, so I do not have to plan for that.

Once you have decided on the holidays you need to cook for, write up a menu for each meal. After the first year, this is the easiest part. Why? Let’s be real, your family really is expecting pretty much the same meal every year, so why change it up too much? If I want to mix it up and go crazy, I’ll try a new type of salad I’ll make that year or on a twist on a side dish that not everyone is too invested in anyway. I like to check with my family, especially on years I may be feeling too stretched to make a full blow-out meal, and ask what are the important components they would like have to make the holiday feel special. For my kids, mashed potatoes are a definite (I only make them at Thanksgiving), gravy, my gluten free stuffing and homemade cranberry orange sauce seem to be the big items. Cooking a brined fresh turkey is what happens now, though in the past we have done a vegan stuffed pumpkin as the big meal centerpiece. If you need help plan your Thanksgiving meal, here’s a packet from a gluten and dairy free class I taught a few years ago.

Indicate on your menu any meals that can be made ahead of time and frozen. For example, stuffing and Stuffing Bread are things I always make ahead and freeze.

For Thanksgiving this year I’m making:

Cardamom Almond Muffins or Gluten and Dairy Free Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls (to have with breakfast while we watch the parade)



Roasting Garlic, Sage and Stuffing made with Gluten Free Stuffing Bread

Mashed Potatoes with Herbs

Salad (haven’t picked one yet)

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Green Beans with Almonds

Orange Cranberry Sauce

Impossible Pumpkin Pie


For Christmas Eve night we are having:

Our Christmas Eve dinner is rooted in the traditional Swedish meal my grandmother served, which was very heavy on white starchy carbs and light on veggies. I think grandma would approve of the the added color and veggies to our feast! 

Potato Pudding (traditional dish from my Swedish grandparents with side pork on half and portabello mushrooms on half)

Swedish Meatballs

Salad (haven’t picked one yet but leaning toward one with roasted vegetables, pom ariels, and maple candied pecans on leafy greens)

Vegetable (whatever looks tasty the day or two before)

Lingonberry Sauce

Cranberry Relish

Rice Pudding

Swedish “Rye” Bread

Cookies (see list below)


For Christmas morning:

Homemade Turkey Sausage

Fruit (usually berries, grapes or other fruit. I’ll buy what is on sale that week)

Caramel Pecan French Toast Casserole


For New Year’s Eve:

Smoked Salmon

Almond Crackers


mango slices

hummus with veggies


Sparking apple, pear and/or pomegranate juices

Cookies or tea breads from the freezer that may be left over from holiday baking


3. Make a shopping list

Once I have the menus planned, I make a shopping list for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas. Sort the perishables to the bottom of the list, leaving the items you can buy sooner at the top. Every week when making your grocery list for that week, buy a couple of non-perishable items from the shopping list for the holidays. This means not only can I buy canned pumpkin or pecans when they are on sale, it means that by the time Thanksgiving week rolls around I only need to get my fresh items for the meal. I find this saves my a lot of money and time during the busiest shopping days at the grocery store. I put the items with a copy of the menu and grocery list on a shelf saved for just this purpose, one for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas so I don’t accidentally use the ingredients ahead of time. If you don’t have a shelf or cupboard space to store the non-perishables, try putting the items into a labeled storage box under a bed or other spot out of the way.

3. Make a list of cookies or any other baking you would like to make for the holidays.

My family is big time into cookies at Christmas. No need to make all the cookies possible, though, just the ones that resonate for your and your family. Again, I check with my family to see what cookies they would like. There have even been years we picked one or two kinds, baked them as a family and called it good. This year I am baking Russian Tea Cakes (or Mexican Wedding Cakes or Snow Ball Cookies, whatever your family calls them), Chocolate Crinkles, Sugar Cookie Cutouts, pumpkin cookies, Snickerdoodles, and gingersnaps.

Some other gluten and dairy free cookies and treats to choose from:


Candy Cane Cookies


Pecan Tassies

Lemon Shortbread

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies

Ginger Snap Biscotti


Cranberry Upside-down Cake

Pumpkin Streusel Bars

Almond Bark

Dark Chocolate Walnut Ginger Biscotti


4. Make a list of meals to freeze ahead of time to eat on the busy days.

One other thing I like to plan for are meals I can freeze to serve during the weeks around the holidays. I have two kids that don’t live here now (of at college or doing the whole grownup thing) coming home during breaks, and a high school student who has orchestra concerts, piano recitals and other activities we need to get to. Having meals I can just pull out of the freezer and warm or meals I can simply set in the morning in a slow cooker really helps take the stress off of me. I usually make 3 to 4 extra meals to have on hand for each of those weeks. Repeats are ok! I often put 2 batches of White Chicken Chili into the freezer, one for Thanksgiving Week and one for Christmas Week because everyone in my family likes it, it cooks simply in a slow cooker and can be served with different sides depending on how we are feeling that day.

A few gluten and dairy free freezer recipes to choose from, or freeze your family’s favorites.

This year I am making a total of 12 extra meals, 3 for Thanksgiving week, and the rest to be served during the weeks around Christmas and New Years. This year I am making 2 batches Pumpkin Chili, 2 batches White Chicken Chili, Chicken Thai Pizzas, Pumpkin Enchilada Casserole (made with leftover turkey from Thanksgiving on the weekend after Thanksgiving), Apple Cranberry Pork Chops, Twice Baked Spinach Mushroom Garlic Stuffed Potatoes (half potatoes, half sweet potatoes), 2 batches Salmon Sweet Potato Cakes, Turkey Shepherd’s Pie with Cauliflower Puree, and Sesame Chicken with Broccoli or Bok Choy (served over cauliflower “rice”).


5. Get out the calendar and plug things in.

Now comes the fun part. 😉 After I have my list of cookies and make ahead meals I want to make, I see how many weeks I have before the holidays hit. I spread out what I bake over each weekend leading into the holidays, doing just a bit of prep each week. Make sure to label the meals and treats you are freezing to be saved for the holidays so they are not used ahead of time. For reference, my plan for this year looks like this:



Of course, a calendar is also a great place to mark down any plans you have with your family. Plug in any school concerts, family game nights, runs to look at Christmas lights or the day you’ll decorate the tree. Most of my baking is planned on the weekends not only because I am off work, but because my kids can help make cookies as well. Baking time together is one way we spend time preparing for the holidays together every year.

Let me know if you have any questions about this. I hope this helps you spread your cooking time out so you can have peace filled time with your family as well. What traditions are important to your family during the holidays?