Holiday Meal Planning Tips and Recipes for Healthy & Happy Gatherings

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Ahh, the holidays — a time for fun, festivities, and… stress? The holidays can, and should, be a time to focus on what we have in common and what we want to celebrate together. But what happens when our friends and family members have different diets and food preferences, and we’re in charge of holiday meal planning?

What if you’re vegan? Or you eat a whole food, plant-based diet free of processed food, oil, and sugar, and your friend is gluten-free; your sister is Paleo; your nephew is allergic to nuts, and your in-laws love sausages and donuts?

The sources of stress can go far beyond food, of course. One of the things about family is, well, we can’t choose them. Holiday gatherings can bring together people with widely different political and social views. It can be enough to make you want to skip the holidays entirely.

But, don’t despair.

You can bring people together over a shared meal and shared values — whether you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, or just want to share time with friends and family.

In this article, we’ll focus on planning and preparing delicious and healthy holiday food, while also looking at how to extend those strategies to present a loving and welcoming table for all your guests.

8 Holiday Meal Planning Tips to Bring Your Guests Together

Even if the thought of hosting a holiday meal intimidates you, a bit of advance planning can ease your stress and create a better experience for everyone.

I’ve been to gatherings where the food was great, but the hosts were so stressed about getting everything perfect, nobody was enjoying themselves. And I’ve also attended plenty of parties where the food was so-so, but the vibe was relaxed and fun. Luckily, with these holiday meal planning tips and recipes, you can take some of the pressure off yourself while also maximizing both the food quality and festive atmosphere.

1. Consider your guests.

Considering your guests’ tastes, lifestyles, and allergies can go a long way towards having a pleasant experience at a holiday gathering. Hopefully, your guests will communicate their needs upfront. But if they don’t, or you don’t already know their preferences, ask before the gathering, so you can prepare.

With your invitation, consider asking these two questions:

  1. Do you have any dietary restrictions? (Allergies, sensitivities, religious or ethical considerations, etc.)
  2. What are your food preferences? (We can’t promise, but we’ll do our best to serve food you’ll enjoy eating.)


2. You don’t have to please everyone.

While it’s helpful to know about your guests’ dietary preferences, and considerate to do your best to accommodate them, you don’t have to twist yourself into knots trying to please everyone. Don’t undermine your own health and well-being while worrying about everyone else. There are a couple of ways you can simplify a meal so that everyone can have something they want to eat.

First, consider making “neutral” dishes. It’s always easier to add an ingredient to a dish than remove it once it’s already in. If you have your heart set on that wild rice salad with dried cranberries and toasted pecans, but a couple of your guests are allergic to nuts, go ahead and make the salad without the nuts, and serve them in a separate bowl on the side.

Second, don’t be shy about asking someone with a particular dietary preference or restriction to bring a dish that they will enjoy. Many vegans, for example, love to contribute something to omnivorous gatherings (and are often used to doing so!). And gluten-free eaters may happily bring some gluten-free stuffing for themselves or even to share with the whole crew. Keep in mind that most folks who have dietary restrictions appreciate the heads-up that the menu may not include enough dishes for them, so they can come prepared.


3. Think outside the box.

Holiday meals often have meat like turkey, ham, or goose as the centerpiece. But you don’t need to feel obligated to prepare something just because it’s traditional — especially if it doesn’t align with your values or diet. Consider starting a new tradition when you’re the holiday host. You can serve up a plant-based, holiday centerpiece dish like Tofurky. Or take a more whole food approach with a luscious, whole grain risotto or mushroom Wellington.

You can also make a variety of holiday side dishes instead of an entree, so guests can try a bit of everything (this is also a great way to accommodate a range of tastes and dietary preferences!). Or mix it up completely and serve something unique! If meat-eating friends or family insist on having their animal-based foods, you might invite them to bring their own, or you could offer it as more of an optional topping.

4. Consider hosting a potluck.

Take the “please bring a dish” strategy global by making your holiday gathering a potluck. This can be an excellent choice if you’re hosting a large crowd with diverse diets. In this scenario, everyone now has options they can eat and enjoy — while also taking some of the pressure off you as the host.

To facilitate the process, you could ask attendees to add what they plan to make to a shared document. Or if you don’t want to manage the process so closely and are ok with the “luck” part of potluck, assign types of dishes (mains, salads, sides, desserts) based on the first letter of the guests’ last names or some other randomization scheme. Then, ask your invitees to post a note on the dish they bring listing the ingredients, also noting if the recipe doesn’t meet the dietary needs of someone who will be attending.


5. Don’t take things personally.

Try not to take it personally if your friend or family member doesn’t eat all the food you made. Each person needs to be in integrity with their own health and values; it’s not an insult to your cooking. Instead, try focusing on what they did like or were able to eat, or the non-food aspects of the holiday gathering like the conversation, decorations, sports games, holiday songs, or whatever else you’re sharing.


6. Focus on building bonds.

If you’re chomping on kale with resentment in your heart, you’re not doing your health any favors. The two Vitamin Gs (Gratitude and Generosity) are arguably as important as fiber and phytonutrients.

A lot of research shows that positive feelings and moods are health-promoting. The holidays may be a good time to relax your own dietary rules — for the sake of goodwill with your family and friends. For example, if you typically avoid oil or certain processed foods, a holiday meal with family can be an instance where you can stretch a little if you can do so without damaging your well-being or your integrity.

After all, the holidays are about spending time with loved ones and building fond memories. And sometimes that means being flexible and practicing compassion towards others — especially where there are differences. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise your values or your health. It just means that the holidays are an excellent time to be particularly thoughtful and generous.


7. Discuss topics that may unite, rather than divide.

Here are some ideas you can use for your holiday event:

  • Ask about what’s going on in people’s lives.
  • Talk about hobbies and interests.
  • Ask about the best things that have happened in the last year, or about your hopes and dreams for your life in the year to come.
  • Ask for recommendations for favorite TV shows, movies, music, podcasts, and books (including cookbooks!).
  • Have each person to say three things they are grateful for.
  • When possible, focus on gratitude, humility, and being thankful for having food to share, as well as things like family, friends, and a home.

8. Remember that it doesn’t have to be all about the food.

Because our gatherings and celebrations typically include food, we have a tendency to make food the centerpiece of the whole experience. If you play a word association game and say “Thanksgiving,” what will people say in response? Probably “turkey,” “stuffing,” and “cranberry sauce.” The historical and spiritual significance of the holiday typically takes a back seat. Some people even call it “Turkey Day,” which is unfortunate for many reasons, including that it ignores the central idea of giving thanks.

While food is a pleasurable aspect of holiday gatherings, it doesn’t have to be the make-or-break element of the whole experience. Include rituals that highlight the meaning of the holiday. Focus on togetherness, on building memories, and on weaving community together. And try to leave any judgment behind with the understanding that not everyone will have the same dietary preferences as you or even the other guests.

Ideas to Consider for Easy, Stress-Free Holiday Meal Planning

  1. Send invitations early. People can get very busy around the holidays.
  2. Plan your holiday menu well in advance and prepare what you can ahead of time (certain dishes freeze well, and no one will know you didn’t make it that morning!).
  3. Do as much of the grocery shopping as makes sense — things like spices, grains, legumes, and frozen ingredients — earlier rather than later (you know what grocery stores and markets are like right before a holiday).
  4. Then save your produce-buying for a few days before your gathering, but before the selection is picked over.
  5. Plan a schedule for when to serve food.
  6. Clean the house before the gathering. As you clean, play music you love, and focus on making your home welcoming and calm.
  7. Set the table early — perhaps even the day before.
  8. Alcohol is often an expected part of holiday gatherings. If you don’t have anyone wanting support in recovery, you may want to consider serving both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (like mocktails) for kids, drivers, and those who prefer not to imbibe. However, if you don’t want to serve alcohol, consider asking guests to bring their own or not bring it at all (and let them know it will be a sober celebration).
  9. Choose festive and relaxing background music ahead of time.
  10. Delegate tasks, including grocery shopping, chopping and prepping food, dishes, and clean-up, and setting the table, to willing friends and family members. Make it part of the experience that everyone shares.
Click for Holiday Menu Ideas: Healthy Holiday Recipes for a Festive Feast

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