Sunday, September 30, 2012

Preparing for ... Preparing for Holiday Meals (yes, you read that right!)

My original recipe Dreamsicle Cake
My previous blog was about preparing in advance for your favorite holiday meals and homemade treats. I’ve already added something special to my freezer for a December dinner. But, while perusing the contents of my refrigerators (I have two), my freezers (a small deep freeze plus the two that are part of my fridges), and my pantry, I saw a problem.

Someone has stored old, freezer burnt, and expired stuff inside those spaces! Can you believe that? So now I’ll need to clean out all the junk to have room for my soon-to-be prepared-early holiday foods!

So, today’s blog is a challenge. If it’s been a while, clean the yuck out of your refrigerator, freezer, pantry, and cabinets. Toss all the old, bad, and questionable stuff. Organize what’s left and clear a space for what’s to come. You’ll feel good, and you’ll be ready to create some special foods to save for the coming holiday season!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Holiday Meals: Three Tips for Preparing in Advance for the Tastiest Christmas Season Ever!

Think it’s too early to start planning your holiday menus? Well, think again! If you’re anything like me, you daydream about creating special holiday dinners or parties, but you never seem to to pull it all together and make those daydreams a reality. Your time is limited, and you tend to rely on last-minute, store-bought goodies and fast food for much of the month!

One year, as a newlywed living far away from both sides of the family, I planned meals ahead and served "Christmas around the World" dinners for my husband and myself over the course of Christmas week. I was young, energetic, and full of ideas—I even learned how to make wiener schnitzel for our German meal! Other meals were based on Greek, Italian, and Mexican cooking. I had married a man who knew his way around a kitchen, and those special meals were joint efforts that made the holiday memorable for us.

Then came kids, obligations, and more responsibilities. Advance planning fell by the wayside. These years, I start the season with a list of family favorites that I intend to make, but many times when January arrives, I haven't made more than half of them. Sometimes by the time I want to make a special treat, the key ingredient has already been snatched from the store shelves! I'm flying through the season by the seat of my pants and letting myself down in the process.

It bothers me that I haven’t made Christmas cut-out cookies since my adult children were little. Thinking about that recently, I realized that I’ve been overlooking a simple solution! I do not have to rush through December, living on fast food, one batch of my homemade double decker fudge, and memories of yesteryear’s home-cooked meals.

There are three things I can do to ensure happy tummies and taste buds this year:

  • Stock up on ingredients - I’m going to organize my recipes, make sure I have the staple items in my pantry, and create a list of the non-staple ingredients (such as cherry chips) and keep that list in my purse. As I come across those items, I’m going to buy them and stock the pantry so that when I’m ready to bake, I don't have to make a panicked rush to store after store to track down a hard-to-find item. Making those purchases now (or as soon as items become available) will give me peace of mind and will also free up my December budget.
  • Buy and store frozen entrees, appetizers, and desserts - While I’m planning to serve up some good home-cooked holiday meals, let’s be realistic. It will be a busy month. I’m glad I can rely on some frozen faves from the store. Instead of spending the money later, when money is typically tighter and items become harder to find, I'm going to plan ahead and shop in advance. We love Nancy’s deli spirals and Lawler’s mini cheesecakes for parties, so I’ll get those. Our traditional Christmas breakfast is monkey bread, which Bridgford makes so I don’t have to, and theirs is ready in less than three minutes! Win! Then, I’ll contemplate sales on the rich variety of frozen casseroles and slow cooker meals and add a few of those to my deep freeze. Finally, I’ll watch the sales on meats and stock up on those that I’ll need for my favorite main dishes.
  • Bake and freeze - Why didn’t I think of this sooner??? Those special dishes and desserts that I rarely find time to make in December? Many can be prepared in advance and frozen for later! Those Christmas cut-out cookies I mentioned can be baked and frozen without icing. I could make some today and thaw them out in December, whip up some icing and decorate them, and voila! Quick and easy and yet home-made! For a successful freeze, follow directions for wrapping and freezing cookies. Betty Crocker's website says baked cookies and cookie dough will keep for 2 months, but I’ve seen other sites say up to 6 months is good for pre-baked. Un-iced cakes will also freeze well. Get those holiday desserts made early, and don’t sweat the Christmas rush! 

I’ll be doing some other cooking/freezing as well. A favorite but time-consuming side dish is my sweet & sour green beans and carrots (with apples, onions, and bacon) made on the stove top. That will be going in the deep freeze too. The USDA offers a fact sheet here about frozen food safety. Not everything freezes well. I checked my old Once-a-Month Cooking book for advice, but you can review this list compiled by the National Center for Home Food Preservation. 

The chill of autumn is in the air. December will be here before we know it! What are you doing to get ready?