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How to keep your cool in the kitchen during the holidays

Tips, tricks and tools to lessen stress when cooking for a crowd this holiday season.

low-stress-holiday-dinner-ideas

Feel totally zen no matter how hectic things actually are.

knape / E+ / Getty Images
This story is part of Holiday Survival Guide 2019, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.

Keeping your cool in the kitchen during the holidays is equal parts mental preparation and having the right tools on hand to get the job done. Anyone who's ever cooked a holiday meal knows how stressful it can be. It's a delicate balancing act that involves ensuring the mains, sides and desserts are cooked and timed correctly, all while navigating (often sticky) family interactions. Throw in the fact that you're cooking dishes you don't normally make every day and it's enough to send even the most laid-back of home cooks into a holiday-induced emotional spiral.

Here are a few tips that will help you keep your sanity intact this holiday season. 

1. Set boundaries

As the old saying goes, "Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth." Take control of the situation. If you have an opinionated family member that's known for putting their two cents in when it comes to your cooking or a slippery loved one that's prone to stealing bites of ingredients off the cutting board, it's crucial for your own sanity that you set some boundaries before you start preparing your holiday meal. You're in charge, so be clear on what you need help with and what you don't. 

2. Have snacks and activities on hand

Make sure there are tasty snacks and fun activities (for example, board games, binge-worthy TV or a sports game to watch) in another room to keep people busy and out of the food prep area. Your loved ones will be less inclined to linger in the kitchen when there are bacon cheddar mini quiches or chorizo and olive flatbread squares in another room.

bacon-cheddar-mini-quiche-recipe-chowhound

Appetizers double as a diversion to keep the kitchen clear.

Chowhound

3. Give everyone a job

If your loved ones insist on lending a hand, give everyone a specific task or responsibility. Whether that's folding napkins, chopping veggies or running to the store to get a last minute ingredient, giving out specific tasks will help move the process along while keeping well meaning "helpers" out of your hair. 

4. Use a food processor

Looking for a way to speed up holiday meal prep? Enter your new best friend: the food processor. Nothing slices, dices and purees as quickly and seamlessly as a food processor -- and yes, that includes your family members (no matter how much your Aunt Brenda claims she's the best at chopping onions).

braun-food-processor-amazon
Amazon

This Braun 12 cup food processor ($163) is ultra quiet and comes with seven attachment blades, including a juicer -- perfect for kickstarting that post-holiday detox with homemade fruit and veggie juices (after you enjoy your perfectly sliced scalloped potatoes, of course).


5. Make use of your Instant Pot

instant-pot

The Swiss army knife of appliances. 

Instant Pot

There's a reason why this Swiss army knife of an appliance has achieved cult-like popularity. The Instant Pot Duo ($79 at Amazon) is a 7-in-1 programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, steamer and yogurt maker that can also be used to sauté and keep food warm. Its extreme multifunctionality is perfect for freeing up valuable burner space while preparing a large holiday meal. Use the pressure cooking function to make everything from gravy and mashed potatoes to other mouthwatering dishes like peach cobbler and pulled ham in a fraction of the time. If you're short on oven space, you can even use your Instant Pot to cook a turkey

When it comes to holiday cooking, timing is everything. The Instant Pot's warming function will keep foods at the right temperature until they're ready to be served.

Read more: Turn your Instant Pot into an air fryer with the Mealthy CrispLid

6. Cook sides in the slow cooker

Everyone loves a good holiday side dish, but finding enough burner and oven space to properly time and cook all of your favorites can be a logistical nightmare. The solution: Use a slow cooker (or two) to prepare side dishes. Whether you're using your Instant Pot or a stand alone device like this Hamilton Beach portable 6-quart digital programmable slow cooker ($32 at Amazon), a Crock-Pot is perfect for making holiday favorites like sweet potato casserole and stuffing, or even party-ready appetizers and warm drinks. A slow cooker is also handy when it comes time to make soup with all that leftover turkey or your ham bone.

slow-cooker-mulled-cider-recipe

Your slow cooker is also great for crowd-pleasing, self-serve cocktails

Chowhound

7. Add a portable cooktop

Take it a step further and really free up some burner space with a portable cooktop, like this Cusimax portable electric stove with 1800W infrared double burner ($79 at Amazon). Not only do you get extra burner space for cooking and warming food, the compact design allows you to position it anywhere in your kitchen that's near an outlet. Unlike hot plate burners of yore, infrared burners only take a few seconds to heat up and are compatible with coated frying pans and cookware made of aluminum, copper, cast iron and glass.

portable-burner-amazon

Increase your burner space with a portable electric cooktop.

Amazon

8. Invest in a stand mixer

Stressed over getting your potatoes or yams just right? Get silky soft mashed potatoes every single time by using a stand mixer. This KitchenAid Artisan tilt-head stand mixer ($280 at Amazon) will work wonders on holiday treats like potatoes, yams and pumpkin pie fillings. Use your stand mixer as is or invest in one of the many attachments -- like the ice cream maker -- and wow your guests with homemade pie a la mode. It's indispensable for holiday cookies too.

kitchenaid-stand-mixer-header

Indispensable fore holiday baking but good for so much more.

Walmart

Read more on Chowhound: Unexpected uses for your stand mixer

9.  Deep fry your turkey

Don't knock it until you've tried it. If you're concerned about having enough time to cook a turkey, consider deep frying it. This Masterbuilt XL stainless steel deep fryer ($122 at Amazon) can cook a 20 lb turkey in ¼ of the time of oven roasting. Not only will your turkey taste delicious, using a deep fryer frees up room in the oven for desserts and sides.

turkey-fryer-amazon

Deep fried turkey you can make indoors.

Amazon

10. Have a plan for your leftovers

A fridge full of uneaten leftovers leads to anxiety. Don't let the turkey carcass linger for days on end. Instead, come up with a contingency plan on how you're going to use the leftovers before you start cooking. This could involve setting aside a certain amount of leftovers to repurpose into other meals (think: Delicious bone broth made in your Instant Pot or these crispy turkey enchiladas) and divvying up the rest between loved ones. Having some extra food containers on hand (that you won't need back) -- like these bento style meal-prep containers with lids ($20) on Amazon will make dealing with leftovers easier.

leftover-turkey-enchilada-recipe

You'll be glad to have leftovers when you know what delicious things you're going to make with them.

Chowhound

11. Take a moment for yourself

Self-care is important, especially during the holidays. Even if you love cooking, make sure to take a moment to catch your breath. This could mean scheduling some time to exercise before you start preparing food or simply going for a walk around the block once the turkey is in the oven. 

12. Focus on what's important

Striving for perfection can easily suck the joy out of the holiday cooking season. Unless you're used to cooking for large groups of people, preparing a holiday meal is going to be a challenge and may even involve a few hiccups along the way. Don't dwell on it. It doesn't matter if your Brussels sprouts aren't perfect or your pie is store-bought. What the holidays are really about is spending time with people you care about. 

This story was written by Simone Paget.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.