The only secret you need to know for successful holiday meal planning

(BPT) – You don’t need the juggling skills of a big-top performer in order to host a successful holiday gathering. Careful planning, time management and an eye for adding quick and easy ‘homemade’ touches will make your gathering one for the memory books, while still having plenty of time to enjoy the company of your guests. Don’t let poor planning leave you cooped up in a hot kitchen while everyone else revels in the joys of the season.

“The secret to holiday meal time-management is simple: Know where to spend and know where to save, without sacrificing the homemade taste” says Victoria Hudgins, an entertaining expert. “Reducing time spent on certain aspects of the meal can allow you to invest more in other areas. For example, instead of spending hours making a homemade dessert, consider a high-quality store-bought pie and some whipped topping to put your own special touches on at home and achieve the homemade look and taste.”

Victoria offers these tips on how to balance meal prep time:

Save on an already “homemade” dessert: The last course of the meal is your final chance to wow guests, but many of the most impressive holiday desserts are also the most time-consuming to prepare. You can serve an outstanding dessert with virtually no prep time and without losing the truly homemade taste, thanks to frozen brands like Marie Callender’s. Along with the homemade scent and flavor, Marie’s starts your ‘homemade’ pie for you, allowing time to add your own special touches such as sugar cookie cutouts placed on the pie before baking. For additional homemade elements, be sure to choose varieties that have those special touches you would add if you were doing the baking – like hand-picked apples and hand-placed chocolate curls.

What to do with the time you save: Invest in making a main course that will leave guests impressed and full. The extra hour you save on dessert prep could be just enough time to add flare to the turkey, holiday ham or even some knock-out steaks.

Save on appetizers: Appetizers set the tone for the meal, so they need to be appealing. On the other hand, you don’t want guests to fill up on them and have no room left for the main course. Keeping appetizers light and simple saves room in guests’ tummies and saves you time, too. Serve simple two-ingredient appetizers or even store-bought options to minimize prep time.

What to do with the time you save: Put the time-savings toward more sophisticated side dishes. Along with traditional family favorites like stuffing and mashed potatoes, try something new that might require a bit more prep and longer cooking time, such as a winter squash souffle.

Save on topping off your holidays dishes: No one wants to serve dull dishes, and you don’t have to spend a lot of time to add pizzazz. Simple touches, like adding Reddi-wip, can transform a variety of dishes. For example, basic eggnog gets a pop of mint flavor and festive color with Reddi-Wip peppermint chocolate egg nog. A whoosh of topping sprinkled with crushed peppermint candies creates a joyful touch on this jazzed-up holiday favorite. Best of all, adding this real cream goodness is just 15 calories.

What to do with the time you save: Add more pizzazz to holiday decorating. Create a stunning centerpiece for the table featuring holiday items like fresh pine branches, scented pine cones, pillar candles in holiday colors and even Christmas balls. Incorporate festive touches in table settings, such as napkin holders made from a single artificial poinsettia blossom and holiday ribbon, chair covers in holiday patterns, and place card holders made from pine cones.

Save on invitations. Instead of the time and money you would invest in choosing, preparing and mailing paper invitations, use e-invitations instead. It’s easy to find free online services that allow you to create and send digital invitations, and many even track responses and maintain an up-to-date guest list.

What to do with the time you save: Perfect your holiday playlist. Holiday music playing in the background can underscore the mood of your holiday event. With the time you’ve saved on invitations, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to peruse online playlists and find the perfect mix of holiday songs – traditional, instrumental, country or contemporary – to accompany the festivities.

“Getting ready for holiday guests doesn’t have to be stressful and time-consuming,” Hudgins says. “Substitutions like frozen desserts, additions such as whipped topping, and some smart time management can help you make the most of your prep time, so that you have more precious moments with those you love.”

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