With the holidays approaching, I think it’s a good time to talk about menu planning. Not menu planning as in “what do I serve as my side dishes?” Rather, the logistical challenges of menu planning when you are having houseguests staying for multiple days.
Nowadays it isn’t uncommon for relatives to live pretty far from each other. In our case, we live in England, my parents live in Germany (American + German) and Ryan’s parents live in the Midwest US (American). Even within a single country, however, you might have relatives living far enough apart that they stay for several days at Christmas, Easter or another time of year.
Here are some first things to consider:
Know Your Guests. Like us, my parents love coffee (actually, I think they drink more coffee than we do), so when they are coming we stock up. Ryan’s parents don’t drink coffee, but Ryan’s dad loves Doctor Pepper, so we stock up on that. We also know what kinds of snacks everyone likes.
Most importantly, though, we know that when my parents come we can end up sending a lot of time out of the house and when we get home we might not all be equally hungry. So, we might end up eating leftovers where everyone can help himself at different times, as hunger requires.
Know Your Kitchen. This is our fridge:
That’s a TEA-spoon that I’m holding up to the freezer. The freezer is about the size of 2 shoeboxes. Yeah, that took some getting used to when we moved to the UK. It’s pretty common here for refrigerators to fit under the counter (worktop) like American dishwashers do. And it looks like they have dishwashers in most kitchens, but those are washing machines. Anyway, I digress….
You may have special needs in your kitchen. Maybe you have a really small fridge so you can only have so many items in there at a time. Or maybe making pancakes for everyone would make your smoke detector wake the neighbors. Think of these quirks when you plan your meals so you are not going to be in an awkward position when your guests are there.
Know Yourself. What kind of host(ess) do you really want to be? Me? Well, I like to make people feel special and wanted. But I also like to enjoy my houseguests’ company. I would rather spend two hours watching Home Alone again than making an additional fancy meal on my guests last day. I also need breaks, so I like to have leftovers for later in the visit when things are getting more casual.
And I HATE washing dishes. That is the #1 chore I hate the most. So, I like to factor that in too. (We don’t have a dishwasher. Again, not having one is more common in the UK than US.)
And, Think Like a Restaurant. I am definitely NOT suggesting you be a short-order cook for each guest. No, I’m talking about the economics here. Try to pick meals that use a lot of the same ingredients to cut down on your shopping and help your budget.
Have you ever noticed that a restaurant will have something, let’s say tomatoes, in several dishes? That isn’t just because the chef likes them. It’s cost effective to buy in bulk and use the item up. So although carrot could add some color to a salad, if you already need tomatoes for hamburgers it would make more sense to add red tomatoes to your salad than orange carrots.
Ok, let’s get to the planning. Here’s how I planned last Christmas. It worked well.
Step 1: Gather some index cards…
Personally, I love excel. Seriously. One year my students gave me an I HEART Spreadsheets mug. It’s that bad. But, as much as I think excel would do a great job here, this is one of those times when hard copies are easier.
…and a pen (or 6).
Not only do I love excel, but I also live by color-coding. I find color-coding really keeps me more organized and helps me identify things faster. So, when I did this for the first time I grabbed several colors: one for each meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and one for snacks and one for drinks. In my pictures you’ll see I used: blue for breakfast, red for lunch, green for dinner, pink for dessert, brown for snacks and orange for drinks.
Step 2: Count the days your guests will be with you.
In my case, my parents were coming for Christmas from December 23rd until December 28th. That’s 6 days, not 5: remember to count Day 1 ;-)
Step 2½: Count the meals your guests will have with you.
Will they arrive before lunch or will they only be with you for dinner? Will they depart before lunch or after dinner? It’s important to have the right number of meals planned.
At this point, I wrote breakfast, breakfast, breakfast, lunch, lunch, lunch, etc. on my cards. I also added a card for beverages and a card for snacks.
I only wrote down dates on cards that had special meals (e.g., meals with friends) so that I could shuffle things around later if I wanted to, for example, in case I’d have two chicken meals on one day.
Step 3: Write down your meal ideas.
If only it were that easy, right? Maybe my strategy will help. Here’s what I did.
First, I decided what our “fancy holiday meal” would be (this year it was a ham recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking). I also called my mom and discussed what she thought would make good side dishes because we wanted to make the meal together. We always have our “fancy holiday meal” on Christmas Eve.
I knew my guests and myself, so I knew we didn’t need two fancy meals (one for Christmas Eve and one for Christmas Day). We never have energy to make a big meal on Christmas Day after we’ve made a big one on Christmas Eve. And, besides, the leftovers are so tasty!
Likewise, I knew we only needed one dessert. In our case, we were only 4 adults, so one dessert would be fine for 2 days.
So, for Christmas Day lunch and dinner I wrote “leftovers” on my cards.
Next, I considered which days we would be out having meals with other people (we were invited as a family to share two other meals with others). On the cards for these meals I just wrote “meal with friends” and knew that meant I could skip it in my plans. It’s always so nice to have
fewer dirty dishes time with friends. I also figured we would be
out at an after Christmas-sale after the shops reopened on the 27th.
So that lunch became “lunch out” and that dinner became “dinner out or
leftovers.” Again, I knew from experience that we aren’t very hungry for real
food when we return from shopping, but we are in the mood for snacking.
Ok, now it started getting trickier. How to fill up all of those other cards? First, I tried to use common sense. Am I really going to want to cook a lunch on Christmas Eve right before that big dinner? No. So, that meant I needed a meal on the 23rd that would give good leftovers for lunch on the 24th.
I knew I wanted to make a particular pasta salad at some point because it had capers and my dad likes those. I’ve made it before and it tastes better the next day (bonus) and there are always a lot of leftovers (extra bonus). But that salad requires a lot of prep, and it was also important to me to spend time with my guests, so I didn’t want to do another meal (beside my big one) that required me to be in the kitchen for an extended period of time. It made sense, therefore, to make that big pasta salad for the lunch on the day the guests arrived (so I could prep before they arrived). This was also a good idea because if their flight had been late, I could have just held the pasta salad (it can be made ahead, extra-extra bonus).
This still left me with a few other meals. My solution was to go with my tried-and-true standards that I make all the time. Crockpot meals would be another good option. Or Frozen pizza. Obviously, our freezer was deisgned with frozen pizza in mind and we don’t have a crockpot, so I went with salmon, chicken, etc. By using index cards I could move the meals around so I had a good balance so we didn’t have poultry too many times in a row.
Finally, I wrote down my ideas for breakfast, which in our case was eggs and more eggs. On each card I wrote down how many eggs I would need – which helped me know I needed to buy 4 dozen (there were also a lot eggs in Julia’s ham sauce).
So, on each card I ended up having a name of what we were having and notes about what I needed to buy. When I was done, I transferred the “to buy” items to my shopping list, keeping a tally of things like eggs that required a set quantity.
Here are some final considerations:
When you do this, it’s important to factor in leftovers for several reasons. First, leftovers can take up valuable fridge-space. Second, you can use them as an easy meal on a day when you know you won’t be in the mood to cook. Third, if something comes up (another invitation somewhere, extended shopping trip, etc). and you do not make a meal you had planned or not eating leftovers, you want it to be something you are willing to eat after the guests go home.
Also, allow yourself to take shortcuts. If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, shopped at a restaurant supply store or seen one of those reality TV restaurant shows, you’ve gotta know that restaurants take shortcuts. Or, if you don’t like the sound of that, they outsource. In my case, I figured the ham was the enough work, so I <gasp> bought a dessert for Christmas Eve.
My final tip is to look up the phone numbers and holiday opening times of your local grocery store(s) and have those ready when you need them.