How to plan your Christmas menu

Host holiday meals without breaking the bank (or your back)

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Christmas dinner doesn’t need to be stressful or expensive. Just follow these tips to keep your holiday meal under control and well organized.

As if it's not stressful enough to have your mother-in-law in town, everyone's expecting a killer feast this Christmas. First, breathe. You can provide a delicious meal this holiday season without making yourself (or the rest of your family) crazy.

Makin' a list, checkin' it twice

Make a list of the dishes you need to make. Be sure to include everyone's not-Christmas-without-it favorites. If you're like most of us, your list is intimidatingly long. Don't sweat it.

Go back through the list and ask yourself what items you really need. Sure, you want to include a green bean dish because everything's so fattening. But do you need it? If no one's attached to that item, ditch it. If you're worried about having healthy options, you can always make a quick salad. (You can even cheat using pre-cut salad mix.)

Once you've stricken the items you can live without, figure out what you can delegate. We assure you, if you call your sister and tell her you need her to make the pecan pie because hers is better than yours, she'll be so flattered she won't realize you just gave her a job!

Pre-made food isn't always bad

We know the holidays are about making all your faves from scratch, but there are some exceptions. The turkey or ham you plan to cook isn't just time-consuming, it takes up a lot of oven space and really gets in the way of the rest of your cooking.

Chances are, a local restaurant can make it just as well (if not better) than you can and may even let you pick it up mostly cooked the day before, meaning the bird is only in the oven for an hour or two.

You can also find a local boutique bakery where you can buy rolls, pies, cookies and cakes. Unlike buying frozen pies or grocery store bakery pies that have been there for days, these breads and pastries taste just like homemade (if not better).

Once you've decided what items you'll be purchasing from a vendor, make sure you call at least two or three weeks in advance to place your order. Make sure you understand the rules on when you're allowed to pick it up (in most cases, the later the better).

Do things differently

Sure, it's fun to have all your family favorites, but maybe you should mix it up. Feed your family a casserole this year and then head down to the local homeless shelter and volunteer to feed others. The pumpkin pie you make isn't nearly as good as the one you serve to someone else.

More on Christmas entertaining

Fresh takes on holiday table decor
10 Ways to simplify party prep
8 Ways to organize your kitchen for better entertaining

Heather Barnett is a freelance writer and foodie whose work has been featured in blogs, websites, magazines, and TV and radio ads. She spends her free time relaxing with her soulmate, Keith; her dog, Mosby "The Fly Slayer;" and Felix the Fish. You can follow her on Twitter @HireHeather.