The dos and don'ts of cooking Christmas dinner

Dec 11, 2012 at 3:00 p.m. ET

Planning a big Christmas dinner can be a stressful affair if not done right. But with a few simple guidelines, you can enjoy a happy and scrumptious holiday evening.

Xmas family dinner

Don't leave all the cooking till the day of

Some things, such as stuffing and cooking the turkey, have to be done on the day of, but many other tasks can be taken care of in advance. Pies or tarts can be made the day before and then warmed up in the oven at dinnertime. Many side dishes and starters, such as soups and vegetables, can also be prepared ahead of time. Even the vegetables for salads can be cut up the day before and then dressed right before serving. So long as there's nothing in a dish that can go stale or soggy, you should be just fine getting an early start on many of your courses. Also keep in mind that the majority of grocery shopping can be done at least a couple of days in advance, so get that out of the way as soon as possible.

Do make a detailed list

You may think you can keep track of everything in your mind, but when the excitement of the day takes hold of you, remembering it all may not be as easy as you hoped. A few days before Christmas, make a detailed list of each and every step in your shopping, prepping and cooking process. That way you'll have a solid grasp of everything that needs to be done. It will also help give you a sense of control, because you can cross an item off the list with each small task you complete.

Don't try too many new dishes

It's understandable that you want to impress your friends and family with the delicious meal you've created for them, but if that desire has you scanning the web and flipping through cookbooks to find all kinds of new recipes, take a step back. Your goal may be to whip up new and exciting dishes, but if you take on too many snazzy recipes at once, you'll end up overwhelmed and frustrated. Cooking can be unpredictable, and you never know what can go wrong with a new recipe. So feel free to test out a new hors d'oeuvre or side dish, but make sure at least a few of the recipes are ones you feel comfortable with and can count on to go according to plan.

Do ask for help

Without a doubt, our most important piece of advice is to ask for help. Of course you want everyone to relax and enjoy themselves, but trying to do more than you can handle will leave you stressed. And if you're stressed, you won't be any fun to be around. The best way to make your holiday feast enjoyable for everyone is to delegate whenever possible. Simply giving each member of your family a small 15- to 30-minute task can shave over an hour off your work. And that extra hour can help you get the rest of your work done at a comfortable pace. Young kids can polish silverware and set the table, while older kids can handle some of the food prep, such as scrubbing potatoes or chopping vegetables. Adult family members or friends can stay nearby to assist you with random jobs you can't immediately handle on your own. As they say, "many hands make light work," so make your holiday an enjoyable one by working together.

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