Mastering the Holiday Meal

The stakes are high, and so is the pressure—but it doesn't need to feel this way. With our thoughtful planning and prep (and these crowd-pleasing recipes), you can pull off an impressive feast without getting stuck in the kitchen during all the fun. Here's how to orchestrate a seamless evening, from first bites to sweet endings.

By Michelle Shih
Photos by Aya Brackett

1. Serve Simple Starters

Your goal is to welcome guests with nibbles and drinks, not fill them up or get them too lubricated before the main event. A single, showstopping cheese (in this case, a gooey baked Brie) and colorful crudités with a three-ingredient dip are plenty. Keep the cocktail hour to just that, one hour, and then call everyone to the dinner table.

Yogurt Dip with Crudités & chips

In our lightened-up version of a ranch dip, Greek yogurt substitutes for sour cream, and a sprinkle of za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice mix, adds zip. Vegetable chips, baby fennel, endive, and blanched purple cauliflower and broccolini are a fresh twist on the usual carrot and celery sticks.

Baked brie with boozy fruit

Ground pecans rolled into store-bought puff pastry offer a nutty note to this mouthwatering appetizer. Sliced baguette and tart apple wedges, along with a compote of port-wine-plumped raisins and dried figs, apricots, and pears, balance out the buttery richness.

What to Pour

Food is the focus of the holiday meal, so don't overthink drinks:

Put it in a pitcher

To play host instead of bartender, make a nonalcoholic punch and set out spirits so adults can spike it, if desired. If your group loves cocktails, designate a house mixologist (or consider the self-serve bar setup on page 130).

Serve both red and white

Give guests their choice by placing one food-friendly bottle of each (say, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a robust Malbec or Merlot) on the dinner table.

End on an herbal note

Finish with a bittersweet digestif, such as amaro. We like Averna and Fernet.

2. Choose your Main Dish

If you want a bold centerpiece, make a crown roast. For a wallet-friendly alternative to traditional tenderloin, a beef bottom round is flavorful and, with our preparation, very tender. As a quicker option, salt-roasted jumbo shrimp are ready in just 30 minutes. The clincher is that they all cook in the oven, leaving your stove top free for making your sides.

Get ahead of the game

Order meat or shrimp a week before your party. These items are generally readily available, but you don't want to be driving around town in a panic if your local store runs out. You can also do mail-order: For lamb, we like D'Artagnan (; for head-on wild Gulf shrimp, Louisiana Crawfish Co. (

Plan on leftovers

Roasts are great for big gatherings, and for more than one meal; buy a piece that's larger than you need and you'll have enough for a breakfast hash or sandwiches the next day. Similarly, leftover shrimp can be cut up and tossed in an omelet, or even fried rice.

Crown roast of lamb with pilaf stuffing

This traditional dish is the undisputed star of the dining table. Ask your butcher to french the bones for a clean lollipop look, and—if you're willing to pay a bit more per pound—to truss the ribs together. (Step one, done.) In the pilaf, bulgur replaces the usual vermicelli, adding a satisfying chewy texture.

Salt-Roasted Prawns

Packing hot salt around shellfish before roasting keeps them juicy. Lemon wedges, which are tossed with the salt mix, spend time in the oven, too. After cooking, squeeze them into melted butter and float slices of red-finger pepper on top.

Roast Beef with shallots

It's delicious cold, warm, or anywhere in between, so you can make it early in the day and serve it at room temperature. To ensure tenderness, we recommend cooking it rare, then slicing it thinly across the grain.

3. Add Flavorful Sides

All of these one-skillet recipes can cook on the stove while the main dish is roasting, which means no jockeying for space and time in the oven. Each one spotlights a single ingredient dressed up in flavors that complement any protein, whether it's your traditional turkey or ham or one of our entrées.

Map things out

A day or two pre-party, handwrite dish names on slips of paper, and place them in platters and bowls to designate what will go where. Choosing serving utensils and setting your table in advance will also prevent last-minute scrambling.

Pan-seared mushrooms with cream and dill

A touch of sherry vinegar cuts the creaminess of this dish, which goes especially well with beef or lamb.

Braised Green Beans with tomatoes

Slicing them in half on the bias allows them to drink up the tomato-infused liquid as they simmer.

Miso-and-honey-glazed carrots

If you grew up eating them cooked in butter and sugar, try this honey-glazed recipe, which gets a salty, umami edge from miso and brightness from Meyer lemons.

Sautéed spinach with pepitas and sesame seeds

Garlic, ginger, and a splash of vinegar spice up these quick-sautéed greens, which go beautifully with the salt-baked prawns.

4. Save Room for Dessert

End the evening with a flourish—in this case, an impressive, wintry sweet that you can pull together with ease. Pick a recipe that can be completed at least a day in advance, so there's no dashing to the kitchen between courses. After the meal, invite guests to hang out in front of the fire with an après-dinner drink while you add any final touches.

Nail the final details

Before guests arrive, arrange dessert plates, silverware, and coffee cups on a side table or buffet. Refill the water and grounds in the coffeemaker after you finish the morning pot; that way, after dinner, you can just flip the switch as you clear the main plates.

Don't rush to the finish

Nothing signals that a party's over like the host starting the dishes (it's like the lights coming on at the end of a school dance). Stack everything in the sink and soak it in hot water and soap—out of sight, out of mind—and relax. You can put away food after everyone leaves, too.

Lemony snow pudding with tarragon crème anglaise

Imagine biting into a cloud—that's what this “snow,” made with fluffy meringue set lightly with gelatin and flavored with lemon, tastes like. To serve, float scoops of it on pools of creamy vanilla-tarragon sauce.

Eggnog semifreddo genoise cake with meringue frosting

This knockout is not for the novice, but imagine the standing ovation you'll get when you slice into it. To create the vertically striped interior, nutmeg-and-rum-scented semifreddo is spread onto the cake layers. Then one layer is rolled and set on its side in the center of a plate, and more layers are wrapped around it.

Pear-Cranberry Tart

Wow guests with a custardy treat scattered with slices of sweet, firm Bosc pears and jewel-like cranberries. The press-in crust is as easy as—no, easier than—pie.

For recipes, see page 145 of the full December 2016 issue of Martha Stewart Living in the app.

Art Direction by Katie Field; Prop Styling by Tanya Graff; Food Styling by Greg Lofts and Laura Rege.