Ten Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday Dinner

(Photo credits: Olivia Smith and Photo Pin)

Celebrating the holidays can be a stressful and disconsolate time for those who aren’t stationed near extended families. From experience, I know that when Thanksgiving comes around, it can be a hard time for us all. Our first holiday away from my family was a tough one. Due to closeness in proximity, we traveled to my in-law’s house that first year. I had mixed feelings during this time. I was grateful that we had family we were able to go to, but also homesick because they weren’t my family.

My husband’s side of the family did a wonderful job in making our first Thanksgiving feel like home to us. However, I just couldn’t get over the homesickness that I felt. That first year of being away taught me some valuable lessons. It was on the drive back to our base when I realized that I had two choices. Choice number one, I could continue to wallow and sulk in my depression year after year. Or I could pick choice number two, which was to accept the situation for what it is and learn how to live this new military lifestyle. After thinking long and hard about it, I chose the latter.

I was determined to change my frame of thinking and our second year being away from home proved to be different then our first. I called my mother up that year and made sure to copy down every single holiday recipe that she had ever made. We even went to my in-law’s house for Thanksgiving again. I made a contribution to dinner that night, my mama’s recipe for sweet potato casserole. Even though home was 17 hours away, making that dish helped chase away the homesickness that crept up that evening. It worked like a charm J.

9 years and 2 children later, I am no longer homesick during the holidays. My husband and I have learned the joys of creating our own family traditions every year, while also mixing in some of our family’s traditions as well. If we find ourselves here at the base for the holidays, we always make sure to invite other Airmen and their families over for dinner. We have hosted holiday cooking classes for spouses who are away from their families and even catered an entire Thanksgiving dinner to a family who had their first child the day before Thanksgiving.

Here are ten tips I have learned over the years that can ease the stress of making a holiday dinner. If you should find yourself celebrating Thanksgiving at your current duty station, use these tips as a guideline to make your next dinner a stress-free one:

Ten Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday Dinner

1) Make your dinner/dessert menu ahead of time, a few weeks in advance if possible.

-There is nothing worse than searching for recipes days before the big dinner.Making the menu in advance will cut down on this stress.

2) Make your ingredients list (based on your menu), a week or two in advance and purchase the items on the list that you are able to.

-Purchasing non-perishable items such as evaporated milk, gravy mix, brown sugar, etc. can save on time in the long run.

3) Make your dinner pot-luck style and ask others who will be attending to bring a dish of some sort.

-Enlist some of the guests in bringing their favorite dish or dessert.This will not only save you less time in the kitchen, but also give them a chance to contribute to dinner as well.

4) Bake your pies a few weeks in advance and freeze them.

-Pies such as sweet potato, pumpkin, and pecan can all be frozen a week or two before the big dinner.Make them as directed, let them cool to room temperature, wrap them tight with saran wrap and aluminum foil, label, then place in freezer.To defrost, take the pies out the evening before Thanksgiving and sit them on the counter.Unwrap before eating.

5) Prep your ingredients a few days before the dinner.

-Chop up all the veggies you need, place them in a container or ziplock bag… making sure to label which dish they are for.Then store in the fridge until ready to use.Follow this same tip for ingredients such as flour, cornstarch, breadcrumbs, etc.Measure them out, label, and store

6) Make your dishes ahead of time

-Making some dishes ahead of time can save you lots of time in the kitchen. Recipes such as homemade cranberry sauce and stuffing can be made a day or two before the holiday.

7) Clean out your fridge a day or two in advance.

-It’s important to make room for all the leftovers that may accumulate. Making room in the refrigerator a few days before hand can save the frustration of trying to make room after the fact.

8) If children are coming to dinner, plan some activities for them for the evening.

-Planning activities and games for them to play can help keep them occupied during cooking time and may help avoid any meltdowns from sheer boredom.

9) Utilize other appliances to cook dinner.

-Have a Crock-Pot or pressure cooker? Consider using those to make your recipes for the big day. Save the free oven space for the recipes that absolutely cannot be made in any other appliance.

10) When in doubt, purchase it at the grocery store.

-Didn’t have time to bake those pies or make that cake? Take a trip to your local grocery store or commissary and buy them… and give yourself a break.

If this is your first Thanksgiving dinner, here is a no-fail recipe for a traditional side dish that we make every year. It is my mother’s recipe for Candied Yams/Sweet Potatoes and has been in our family for quite some time. Happy Holidays everyone!

Candied Yams/Sweet Potatoes

(serves 6-9)


4 or 5 fresh sweet potatoes skinned and chopped (or 4 cups canned sweet potatoes/yams)

Half a stick of butter, chopped

2/4 cups of sugar

Ground Cinnamon

Half a bag of mini-marshmallows


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Mix the sugar with the chopped sweet potatoes and place in a greased casserole dish. Take the chopped butter and place the pieces all around the casserole. Take your ground cinnamon and sprinkle as much as you want (I usually just eyeball it).
  3. Bake for 45 minutes. Take the dish out of the oven and sprinkle the mini-marshmallows on top. Bake the dish again and take it out when the marshmallows start to brown. Serve with the rest of the Thanksgiving dinner.

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