woman in kitchen

Author: Alice Henneman, MS, RD

"Ponder well on this point: the pleasant hours of our life are all connected by a more or less tangible link, with some memory of the table."
~ Charles Pierre Monselet, French author (1825-1888)

Gathering round the table for a special meal with family and friends can be a source of joy and feed both body and soul. Cooking late into the night before your meal, however, can greatly diminish the pleasures of the table. Cooking too far ahead can decrease the quality and safety of your food.

Here are some tips to put the focus back on family and friends rather than frenzied (and possibly unsafe) food preparation.

1. Limit the number of foods you serve to a few favorites, so you have less to prepare.

For example, do you need two (or more) desserts? Remember: desserts spelled backwards is S-T-R-E-S-S-E-D.

2. Unless food will be frozen, it's safest and will provide the best quality product to start preparing most perishable foods no more than a day before a meal.

For example:

  • Assemble a vegetable casserole a day in advance, refrigerate and then bake the day of your dinner. Plan 15 to 20 minutes additional heating time for the refrigerated cold casserole. Heat until it's hot and steamy throughout (165 degrees F as measured by a food thermometer).

  • Cut washed fruits and vegetables within a day of your meal for salads and relish trays. (NOTE: Wash fruits and vegetables under cool running tap water.) Store all CUT fruits and vegetables covered, such as in storage containers or one-time use plastic bags in the refrigerator. Store fresh-cut produce above raw meat, poultry and fish and below cooked items. Avoid leaving cut and/or peeled fruit and vegetables at room temperature for more than two hours. This includes the TOTAL of preparation time and serving time.

  • Keep cut fruits, such as apples, pears, bananas and peaches, from turning brown by coating them with an acidic juice such as lemon, orange or pineapple juice. Or use a commercial anti-darkening preparation with fruits, such as Fruit-Fresh ®.

    FOLLOW THE MANUFACTURER'S DIRECTIONS FOR TIMING AND METHOD OF APPLICATION. Cover and refrigerate cut fruit until ready to serve. (NOTE: Bananas don't keep as long as the other fruits mentioned — cut close to serving time.)

  • Non-perishable foods such as cakes and cookies can be prepared a few days in advance and still will taste good. Or, they can be frozen for longer storage. For more information on freezing baked goods, such as pies, cookies, cakes, etc. visit HERE

3. Special tips for handling meat

  • As a general rule-of-thumb, purchase fresh raw meat, poultry or seafood no more than 1 to 2 days before your holiday meal. Freeze for longer storage. These foods may taste freshest if cooked the day of your meal.

  • If you have frozen your meat, poultry or seafood, plan time for safe thawing in your refrigerator. Allow approximately 24 hours for each 5 pounds of weight. For turkey, make sure you remove the bag containing the neck and giblets from the body cavities.

  • To prevent cross-contamination, thaw or store a package of raw meat, poultry or seafood on a plate on a lower shelf of your refrigerator to prevent its juices from dripping on other foods.

  • If you prepare meat or poultry the day before your meal, divide it into small portions. Then refrigerate in loosely covered shallow containers within 2 hours of cooking — limit depth of meat, etc. to about 2 inches. You can place loosely covered foods in the refrigerator while still warm; cover tightly when food is completely cooled. On the day of your meal, cover the meat with foil and reheat in a 325 - 350°F oven to an internal temperature of 165°F until meat is steaming hot throughout. Add a bit of broth, water or gravy to help keep meat moist.

Related Article: How to Cook a Turkey the Day Before Serving It

4. Preparing pumpkin pie ahead of time:

  • Pumpkin pie is especially popular around the holidays. A pumpkin pie is a form of custard and must be kept in the refrigerator at 40 degrees F or cooler. Foods which contain eggs, milk, and a high moisture content must be kept refrigerated, as bacteria love to grow in these foods. Avoid letting a pumpkin pie set at room temperature for more than TWO hours. That means it shouldn't sit out more than TWO hours total including after its baked and while waiting to be served.
  • (NOTE: Some commercial pumpkin pies that are purchased at room temperature may later need to be refrigerated. Check the label on commercially baked pies for storage requirements. Don't buy pies stored at room temperature if label directions are unclear or missing.)

  • If you'd like to get a head start on preparing your pumpkin pie, it's easiest and safest to freeze just your shaped and unbaked pie crust in a freezer- or oven-safe pie pan. Or, purchase an unbaked frozen pie crust already in a pie pan. Then, add the pumpkin filling, mixed according to directions, to the frozen crust just before baking. It takes just a few minutes to mix together the ingredients.

  • Unless the directions with your frozen pie crust recommend otherwise, place a baking sheet in your oven and pre-heat your oven to the baking temperature given in your pie recipe. Then place your pie on the hot baking sheet and bake your pie as usual the day of your meal. To save additional time, buy a pie filling with the spices already added, especially if you must buy extra spices just for your pie.
  • Instead of making a baked pumpkin pie, consider making a form of pumpkin pie that can be frozen, such as this Ice Cream Pumpkin Pie Recipe.

5. Peeling potatoes the day before cooking

While some nutrients are lost if potatoes are peeled in advance, this is a time-saving step when you have little time to prepare a special meal.  Cooks Illustrated experimented with how far in advance you could peel potatoes and store them in cold water in the refrigerator. They concluded you shouldn't peel potatoes more than 24 hours ahead of time if you plan to mash them and no more than 12 hours in advance if you plan to fry them.

6. Save time by setting your table the day before your holiday meal.

Also, set out all food preparation and service utensils. Or, assign children or others to set the table before you eat.