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How to have a stress-free Christmas

Tips for being super-organised and staying calm over the silly season.

For many Christmas means fun and excitement while for others it is a time of stress around buying gifts, providing food, the cost of it all and the inevitable weight gain from too much eating and drinking. Enjoying Christmas has become a challenge – to relax and have fun without coming out the other side looking like an overfed turkey! But with a little planning it is possible to survive the silly season and be fitter, healthier and more relaxed when it's all over.

There is no getting around the fact that for most of us, Christmas IS a lot of work; and if all the chores are left to the last minute, you are likely to be a wreck when it arrives. But if you can spread it over the 3-4 weeks leading up to Christmas, the preparation can be enjoyable and add to the Christmas spirit. The secret to a relaxing and enjoyable Christmas is planning. Take a few minutes, get a pen and paper and start now.

1. Plan your menu

  • Establish how many people you will be catering for and for which meals, e.g. Christmas dinner, Boxing Day lunch etc.
  • Find out if anyone has special dietary needs (vegetarian, allergies etc) or specific likes and dislikes (loves lamb, won't eat fish!).
  • Be clever – plan to have leftovers that can be used the next day as the basis of another meal.
  • Plan dishes that can be done in advance and frozen. The more you can do beforehand, the more you will enjoy the day.

2. Plan your table

  • Decide on your theme. Will you have traditional Christmas colours of red and green or go for a different look like silver and gold?
  • If you don't have the right tablecloths or decorations, investigate The Warehouse or $2 Shop – they are full of cheap and cheerful Christmas items that can work well. Or look into catering hire outlets – this can be a surprisingly inexpensive option if you're catering for a large group.
  • Candles and Christmas are synonymous. Silver spray or tinsel can turn basic candles into festive centrepieces or room decorations.
  • Don't forget the Christmas serviettes and bon bons – they add a festive touch to any table.

3. Plan your décor

  • Decide if you will have a Christmas tree. If you want a fresh tree, where will you get it from? Have you got enough decorations or is it time for some new ones? You may decide to have a traditional tree with traditional decorations or alternatively go for a designer tree with a theme like all silver or gold to match your table.
  • Invest in a Christmas wreath for a nice touch when guests arrive.

4. Write a timeline

  • Write a list of all the tasks involved in shopping, cooking and organising your Christmas. Remember to include other tasks such as writing Christmas cards, getting overseas gifts off on time etc.
  • Divide these into those tasks that can be done in advance and those that need to be done at the last minute. If there are too many last minute jobs, you may have to rethink your menu or allocate some to others.
  • Divide the tasks that can be done in advance over the 3-4 weeks leading up to Christmas. Remember, spreading the shopping over a few weeks will not seem so hard on the budget!
  • Place your list in a handy and visible place (e.g. on the fridge) and use it as your guide.

Examples of tasks

  • Buying Christmas tree
  • Ordering Christmas ham/turkey/salmon
  • Organising tablecloths and decorations
  • Buying and wrapping presents
  • Writing Christmas cards, sending overseas mail

The concept of a healthy Christmas may seem foreign; after all, traditional Christmas foods like roast pork with crackling, plum pudding with brandy butter, Christmas mince pies, shortbread and chocolate are not light on kilojoules or fat. The concept of Christmas 'treats', however, can be easily redefined. When we think of a 'treat' we tend to think of it as my dictionary defines it: "a source of special delight or pleasure". While chocolate, cakes and pastries may fit this description, so do many healthy foods. Foods like salmon, prawns, glazed ham on the bone, turkey, a succulent fillet of beef, nuts, berries, cherries, mangoes, melons, figs, fresh asparagus and avocadoes are "a source of special delight and pleasure" to most people and are foods that are every bit at home on a Christmas menu as the traditional fare that reflects our English heritage. Concentrate on these foods and you will have delighted and satisfied guests. Enjoy small portions of chocolate, cake and dessert as well, but as trimmings to these delicious foods, not as the main players.

Breakfast/brunch

  • Bowl of mixed berries with crème frâiche or yoghurt
  • Poached or fresh pears, peaches, nectarines, apricots or apple with waffles or pancakes and Greek yoghurt
  • Grilled mushrooms, tomatoes and asparagus with multigrain toast
  • A toasted bagel with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and grilled tomatoes
  • Vegetable frittatas made in muffin tins
  • Fresh fruit salad with lemon yoghurt and toasted almonds
  • Bircher muesli topped with mango and blueberries

Light meal/supper

  • Fresh asparagus rolls
  • Green salad with smoked salmon, hard-boiled egg, cold potato slices, semi-dried tomatoes, capers and green beans; dress with balsamic vinegar and olive oil
  • Sliced ham on the bone with seeded mustard, ciabatta bread, avocado, tomato slices and red onion
  • Greek salad of cucumber, feta, tomato and olives
  • Roast vegetable salad made from leftover roast vegetables, feta, cooked green beans and toasted pumpkin seeds
  • Bruschetta topped with rocket, pear slices, blue cheese and walnuts

Main meal

  • Roast turkey, lamb, beef fillet or pork (one is sufficient – too much choice often confuses the enjoyment)
  • Whole baked salmon – stuff with lemon slices, dill and almonds and bake in foil on the BBQ or in the oven; serve with a bowl of light sour cream mixed with horseradish
  • BBQ meats – kebabs, steak, lamb cutlets or lean gourmet sausages
  • Seafood and fish – grilled, barbecued or baked (keep these simple to enjoy their delicate flavours)

Delicious side dishes

  • Medley of roast vegetables; drizzle with honey or maple syrup and balsamic vinegar
  • Roast vegetable salad – potato, pumpkin, kumara, yams, parsnip, beetroot, baby onions can all be roasted in advance, then cut up and dressed to make a salad; toasted pumpkin seeds make a delicious garnish
  • Vegetable kebabs – thread pieces of kumara, courgette, mushrooms, pineapple, red onion and cherry tomatoes onto skewers and barbecue
  • Corn on the cob – barbecue in its husk or wrapped in foil

Dessert

  • Fresh fruit and marshmallow kebabs – kids love these
  • Pavlova or meringue crushed and mixed with lemon yoghurt, blueberries and walnuts and served in individual glass bowls
  • Mango jelly garnished with fresh raspberries, strawberries and blueberries
  • Ice cream Christmas pudding made by mixing brandy-soaked dried fruit in softened light ice cream and then freezing in a pudding bowl

Snacks/nibbles

  • Bowls of roasted nuts, muscatels and figs
  • Chocolate-covered strawberries – mix of white chocolate, dark chocolate and plain strawberries
  • Smoked salmon fillet with crackers or ciabatta bread slices, extra-light cream cheese, lemon slices and fresh dill
  • Hummus or salsa with vegetable sticks
  • Bread cases filled with a mixture of cottage cheese, feta, spinach and chopped sun-dried tomato
  • Mini pikelets topped with extra-light cream cheese, smoked salmon slices and capers

Useful holiday foods that can be bought well in advance

  • Mixed dried fruit – for Christmas cakes and puddings.
  • Dried apricots, prunes and figs – perfect as a snack or nibble. Great on platters or soaked for a dried fruit compote.
  • Olives – lovely on their own with drinks, on platters or in salads.
  • Sun-dried tomatoes – these are great on their own, on bruschetta or ciabatta bread (eg with light cream cheese and avocado) or added to a salad.
  • Jars of artichokes – these can jazz up a salad or antipasto platter. They are great also on pizza or bruschetta.
  • Capers – these are particularly nice with salmon or in niçoise-type salads. Mixed with a jar of pasta sauce, they make a delicious and simple sauce for pasta.
  • Cranberry sauce/mint jelly/redcurrant jelly/horseradish cream, gourmet chutneys, quince paste, turkey glazes – these are great to have on hand to jazz up meats, sandwiches or barbecues.
  • Fillet of beef, racks of lamb and gourmet sausages – pop some in the freezer, they can be easily pulled out if unexpected guests arrive.
  • Gourmet salad dressings – team up with a ready-to-go supermarket salad for an easy meal or accompaniment.
  • Cans or pottles of smoked oysters or mussels – ideal for nibbles platters.
  • Vacuum-packed bacon and smoked chicken – can be easily used as the basis of pasta and rice dishes, pizzas and salads.
  • Ice cream and frozen yoghurt – keep in the freezer and add to fresh berries for an unbeatable summer dessert.
  • Frozen berries – fresh blueberries are often expensive and hard to come by. A handful of frozen blueberries added to fresh strawberries are both decorative and delicious.
  • Biscotti – they are delicious with a cup of tea or as a simple dessert with fresh fruit.
  • Keep it simple – there's no need to have a turkey AND a ham or a roast. One type of meat or fish with a few flavoursome, interesting side dishes will make a simpler, more enjoyable – and less stressful – meal.
  • Enjoy seasonal fruit and vegetables – use them to bulk out desserts, salads and nibbles platters. Salads with bread and leftover cold meats make ideal lunches or evening meals. Have a small quantity of meat and then fill your plate with vegetables and salads.
  • Cook your roast vegetables separately from the meat – a light brush with oil or an oil spray is all they need to become crisp and delicious. Garlic and rosemary tossed through before cooking boosts flavour and appeal.
  • Buy lean meats and trim off any fat before cooking and eating. Remove skin from chicken and turkey.
  • Skim off the fat from meat juices before you make gravy; cooling the juices first helps or use a gravy powder as a base and use the water you have cooked the vegetables in (like pea water) as the liquid. A little brandy, cranberry, mustard, mint jelly or redcurrant sauce will give extra zing.
  • Try custard or brandy custard and low-fat ice cream with Christmas pudding rather than brandy butter and rich creams  and ice creams.
  • Have ice cream OR cream, not both. Sorbets, Greek yoghurt and frozen yoghurt are good alternatives.
  • Stock up on healthier food items and treats. Shortbread, for example, is laden with fat while biscotti have very little.
  • Choose crackers wisely: the fat content can vary hugely. Water crackers and crispbreads are lower-fat options.
  • Make Christmas mince pies with filo pastry instead of traditional high-fat shortcrust, flaky or puff pastry. If using shortcrust, use a very thin layer only and leave the pies open. Check the label of the fruit mince and choose one without suet (pure fat).
  • Alternate alcoholic drinks with water or diet soft drinks – this way you keep hydrated and are less likely to drink too much.
  • Avoid over-eating at Christmas parties by eating something healthy before you go. This way you are less likely to be tempted by the rich cheeses, savouries and chips – foods that are easy to over-consume when you are hungry and drinking alcohol.
  • If you are providing the platters for parties, include plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • Use mashed avocado, hummus, extra-light cream cheese, mustards and relishes as spreads on bread instead of butter or high-fat spreads.
  • Try chocolate-dipped strawberries or cherries as an alternative to chocolate – you get all the enjoyment of chocolate in a much healthier package.
  • Sit down to eat and eat your food slowly – it takes time for the brain to register fullness.
  • Enjoy exercise – a walk, swim or game of tennis will do wonders for the body and soul. Wake yourself up by playing with the children or organising a social game of cricket, croquet or rounders.
  • Above all, do NOT feel guilty about having treats on Christmas Day. It is only one day and you can always make up for it by having lighter meals on Boxing Day.

The secret to a stress-free festive meal is to keep it simple. No-one wants to be slaving away in the kitchen while everyone else is having fun! Here are two menu ideas which work well for groups; both work well with everything piled on to large platters so everyone can help themselves:

1. Ham

Choose a free-range ham if you can, and glaze with a mix of marmalade and mustard. Serve hot with:

  • Warm potato salad: new potatoes, baby spinach, lite mayo, lemon juice, crispy bacon and parsley (make ahead and combine everything just before serving).
  • Green salad: a big bowl of leaves with herbs like mint and parsley added, dressed with a simple vinaigrette (assemble ahead, add dressing at the last minute).
  • Green vege salad: lightly-cooked asparagus, green beans, peas (fresh or frozen), sliced courgettes, canned butter beans (drained) and rocket leaves. Toss together with a dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, salt and chilli flakes or black pepper (can be made ahead and refrigerated).
  • Accompaniments: relishes or chutneys, mustard, mayonnaise and crusty bread rolls.

2. Lamb racks or steaks

For a modern, summer variation on the traditional roast, rub lamb racks or leg steaks with a spice rub like cumin, paprika and pepper then barbecue until medium-rare. Serve with:

  • Orzo pasta salad: use orzo or other small pasta; add lemon zest, black olives, fresh chilli, sun-dried tomatoes and chilli flakes. Dress with a lemony vinaigrette (make and assemble ahead and refrigerate).
  • Roast vege salad: roast kumara, pumpkin, red capsicums and eggplant until soft and caramelised. Dress with balsamic vinegar and a little olive oil (make ahead and refrigerate).
  • Tomato and mozzarella salad: lay sliced, ripe tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on a platter. Sprinkle with basil leaves, salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
  • Green salad: see menu 1 above.
  • Accompaniments: fruity chutney or relish, caramelised onions and heads of roasted garlic.

There is no need to go into a spin when you are asked to bring a plate. These suggestions are simple and delicious – have the makings on hand and the rest is plain sailing.

Nibbles

  • Cream cheese with chilli sauce and coriander: Turn a tub of light cream cheese onto a platter. Smother with chilli sauce and top with chopped coriander. Surround with rice crackers for a delicious appetiser/snack.
  • Mini oatcakes with quince paste and blue cheese: Buy a packet of Nairn's mini oatcakes, some quince paste (from deli section of supermarket) and a wedge of blue cheese. Arrange on a platter with a bunch of red grapes.
  • Smoked salmon and light cream cheese on French stick or ready-to-go blinis (mini pikelets found in supermarket frozen food section): Spread slices of French stick or blinis with light cream cheese and smoked salmon slices. Arrange on a platter and garnish with sprigs of dill.

Salads

  • Bean salad: Drain and mix together cans of 4 bean mix, chickpeas and whole kernel sweet corn. Add chopped spring onions, halved cherry tomatoes and fresh chopped mint or coriander. Toss with French or Italian dressing for an easy and colourful salad.
  • Coleslaw: Buy some pre-cut supermarket coleslaw and jazz it up by adding red apple slices, sultanas and chopped red and green pepper. Squeeze a little lemon juice over before mixing with light mayonnaise.
  • Rocket with pears and walnuts: Fill a wide salad bowl with fresh rocket, top with sliced pear, thinly sliced red onion and walnuts. Sprinkle with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil just before serving. For a luxury touch, add crumbled blue cheese.

Desserts

  • Fruit kebabs: Thread chunks of melon, pineapple, kiwifruit and strawberries onto skewers. Add pink and white marshmallows for a festive touch.
  • Chocolate strawberries: Melt chocolate on low heat in the microwave or in a bowl over boiling water. Dip strawberries so that they are half covered and allow to cool on wax paper. You will be a very welcome guest when you turn up with these!
  • Trifle: Make a dead easy trifle by buying a jam sponge roll, a litre of custard and a can of fruit salad. Layer them in a glass bowl and top with fresh berries. Try our simple, healthy HFG trifle recipe.

Many people these days have allergies. If any of your guests have special food needs you'll need to make sure these needs are catered for in your menu. If you have no idea what to do, talk to the allergy sufferer; they will no doubt be happy to help out and have lots of suggestions. These hints may help:

Vegetarians

  • Find out if they are lacto-ovo vegetarians (will eat milk and eggs but not meat) or vegans (do not eat any products of animal origin). Some people who don't eat meat are happy to eat fish, so it's worth finding out exactly.
  • Plan a meat alternative – tofu or nut croquettes served with cranberry sauce work well for both vegans and lacto-ovo vegetarians.
  • It you don't want to cook something separate, you shouldn't have any trouble picking up a nut roast or other ready-to-go festive option from your supermarket or health food store. But bear in mind that some vegetarians love meat substitutes while others don't enjoy food that looks and tastes like meat. Check first to avoid an unhappy guest!
  • Cook extra vegetables – remember to cook these separately from the meat.
  • Check that your Christmas pudding and fruit mince pies do not contain suet. This is an animal fat traditionally found in fruit mince.

Guests with coeliac disease

People with coeliac disease cannot eat anything made with flour or other wheat products. This means bread, pasta, couscous, cake, pudding, mince pies or gravy thickened with flour.

  • Thicken gravy with a corn-based cornflour instead of flour (check the label).
  • Avoid salads based on pasta or couscous.
  • Make an ice cream Christmas pudding rather than traditional.
  • A flourless orange or chocolate cake with fresh berries or traditional pavlova (ensure cornflour used is corn-based) makes a delicious festive dessert.

Guests with diabetes

Check to see if their diabetes is type 1 or type 2. People with type 1 diabetes often like to know what is in the food on offer. This way they can plan and account for what they eat and match insulin levels accordingly. People with type 2 diabetes need plenty of healthy choices. Their menu should not be too high in kilojoules and fat and should have plenty of fibre. Be sure to:

  • Have plenty of vegetables, salads and fruit.
  • Ensure all meat and poultry is lean and serve small portions.
  • Have diet drinks on hand as options to juice or alcohol.
  • Have high-fibre bread.

Shop smart for the holiday season

Don't leave shopping until the last minute. Fighting for the car park, the last minute hike in prices, the endless queues and the sheer size of your list will not help pre-Christmas stress levels! By using your time to plan and stocking up on less perishable items well in advance, you will be able to relax and enjoy the build-up to Christmas while others scrabble over last minute deals.

First published: Dec 2007



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