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12 Time-Saving Tips for Holiday Cooking and Entertaining

The holiday season means more time in the kitchen. So we checked in with the pros in our Better Homes & Gardens® Test Kitchen for tips on easing the hosting and entertaining duties. Their keep-it-simple strategies and do-ahead tricks will help you beat the stress of getting the big dinner done and on the table.

1. Rethink the Bird

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If your family is more into side dishes and desserts, consider downsizing the bird. Thawing and roasting a large turkey can take a lot of time and fridge space. Consider roasting two large chickens or a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey to be more efficient. (Always use an instant-read thermometer to ensure your bird is cooked properly.)

2. ID the Dishes

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To avoid a last-minute frenzy when getting food on the table, select and set out serving dishes and spoons in advance. Use slips of paper or index cards to label what goes in or on them. The day of the meal, you—and guests lending a hand—will know exactly what goes where. Tip: Have extra serving spoons on hand for guests who decide to bring a dish but forgot the spoon.

3. Peel Ahead

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Mashed potatoes are a holiday essential, but peeling them and cleaning up the mess cuts into valuable time the day of. Solution: Peel the spuds the day before, put them in a pot of cold water, and refrigerate up to one day. (Be sure the water covers all the potatoes so they don't turn brown.) Drain the water and add fresh before cooking.

4. Freeze Cookie Dough

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Your freezer is the unsung hero of the holidays. Start your "baking" well in advance by preparing and freezing cookie dough. It's then easy to have freshly baked cookies, in whatever quantity you need, for holiday get-togethers. Scoop dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet—no need to leave much space between the balls since this is just for freezing. Place pan in freezer until dough balls are totally frozen, then transfer the balls to large resealable plastic bags. Most drop cookies can be baked frozen, adding 2–4 minutes onto the bake time. For slice-and-bake cookies, roll dough into logs and freeze. Allow logs to soften enough to slice but so they're still chilled and firm. Bake as directed.

5. Clean the Fridge

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Before you start stocking up on groceries, tackle the mess in—or simply organize—the refrigerator. You'll need as much space as possible, so now is the time to get rid of expired or nearly empty bottles of condiments and suspicious containers of leftovers. As a backup, clean coolers so you can transfer some items to them the day of the meal. Depending on where you live, you may be able to use a porch or garage for cold storage for some items.

6. Divvy It Up

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Ask guests to bring one effortless item—a bottle of wine, bread from a bakery, or ice cream for the pie. It will lighten your load without you feeling like you're asking too much of them. Better yet, see No. 7.

7. Make It Potluck

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There's no reason to be shy about asking guests to contribute. Make the meal potluck, and have everyone bring a favorite side or dessert. Write the name of the dish on a tag (shaped to the occasion, such as leaves for Thanksgiving), and let guests indulge buffet-style. Learning the stories or traditions behind Aunt Maye's sweet potatoes and other favorites will be priceless.

8. Go for Bars

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Cookies get most of the love during the holidays, but bars tend to be faster and satisfy sweet cravings just as well. Instead of the usual squares, fancy the bars up by cutting them into triangles or diamonds. For triangles, cut the pan of bars into 2- or 2½ -inch squares, then cut each square in half diagonally. For diamonds, first make straight parallel cuts 1 to 1½ inches apart down the length of the pan. Then make diagonal cuts across the straight cuts 1 to 1½ inches apart. (If the bars are crumbly, stick to sturdy squares or rectangles.)

9. Make Foil Your Friend

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Line baking pans with foil so you can lift bars or fudge out for cutting or transferring to the freezer. This time-saving trick minimizes cleanup time and spares your pan from cut marks. To create the liner, flip the pan over. Shape the foil around the pan bottom, folding smoothly around corners (or cutting slits for a neat fit). Flip the pan back over, and place the fitted liner in it. Leave an inch or two of overhang to use as handles to lift the bars or fudge from pan.

10. Set It and Forget It

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Set your table several days or the weekend before the meal. It will give you time to tend to spotty glasses or wrinkled table linens—and you'll thank yourself the day of that it's all done. White plates are the winners for goes-with-everything ease. Plus, food just looks better on them. Add color and interest with a tablecloth, runner, or place mats.

11. Keep On-the-Go Food Hot

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If you're sharing hosting duties and the meal is at someone else's home, you'll need a transport plan for hot dishes. To save space and help keep foods hot, think layers—and lots of towels. Cover the dish with a lid or foil. Line a large storage tote with a thick towel, then place the hot casserole dish in the tub. Put a large cooling rack on top of the first dish, and place a dish on top of that. If needed, use rolled-up towels to prevent the dishes from moving around. Another strategy: Insulate covered hot dishes with newspaper, and wrap in a thick towel before placing in the towel-lined tote or a cardboard box. A laundry basket can make a handy tote, too.

12. Plan for Leftovers

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Who doesn't love being sent home with a few leftovers? Make sure you have containers on hand so you don't have to dig through a cupboard or drawer in search of missing lids, only to come up empty-handed. Have a stack or bag of disposable take-out containers handy so you can grab and fill. To really make an impression, embellish the containers with ribbon and seasonal tags. The goodies will double as a take-home gift.

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