There’s more to it than a re-purposed Thanksgiving menu. Unlike the Turkey Day meal, Christmas dinner is much more flexible. Some people even have it on Christmas Eve. And while many do repeat turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, plenty don’t.
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Here, we’ve provided some tips for planning your Christmas Day meal and rounded up some of our favorite recipes for the holidays, from cocktails to cookies (of course), and from glazed ham to lamb (and meat-free options). Plus, tips for doing it on a budget.
If you want to keep it casual, consider hosting a holiday brunch potluck, at-home happy hour, or low-key Christmas party (theme optional but always encouraged). But if it’s the big Christmas dinner you’re tackling, just keep scrolling.
Christmas Dinner Cooking Tips
Even if you don’t touch turkey, there is a lot of overlap between pulling off Christmas dinner and pulling off Thanksgiving—they’re both fairly epic meals, after all. So they require some measure of planning.
1. Consider Your Oven Space
Don’t plan a menu that requires too many oven-roasted, braised, or baked dishes, unless you can do several of them ahead of time. Like pie, or practically any other Christmas dessert. If you can make it in advance, you should; one less thing to worry about on the holiday itself.
For the remaining dishes you’ll need to make at the same time, consider alternative methods—if you want to bake fresh bread, roast vegetables, and need to warm your ham, consider cooking one of these things on the stovetop, on a grill, via sous vide, slow cooker, or Instant Pot.
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The smartest way to cook Christmas dinner.
2. Check Your Dish Situation
Once your menu is set, make sure you have proper serving dishes and utensils for everything on it. Depending on how you’re going to cook your meat, you might want to invest in a large roasting pan if you don’t already have one.
Cuisinart Chef's Classic Stainless Steel 16-Inch Roasting Pan with Rack, $39.99 on Amazon
Large enough to roast a 20 pound turkey or a big hunk of pork or beef.
And large platters and bowls are necessary, as well as a gravy boat and other items. If you’re in the market for something new, get some ideas from our Special Occasion Dishes and Linens article.
3. Add Something Light and Bright
Still feel like there’s something missing from the menu? With all the heavy meat and potatoes probably present, you need something to balance it out. A salad will do the trick. But make it a seasonal salad with some fall or winter fruit, like this pear and spinach salad.
Or, you may want something pickled, like these pickled carrots and shallots, or a Southern chow chow, to cut through the fatty nature of the other foods. Consider this the light, bright tinsel that adds the perfect finishing touch.
4. Don’t Forget About Appetizers
You’ll want some small nibbles to keep your guests happy and out of your hair while you finish up in the kitchen, so check out our 12 Easy Holiday Party Starters for some ideas. But also…
5. Don’t Shun Shortcuts
Yes, it would be amazing to make literally everything from scratch, but it’s perfectly okay not to, and sometimes going the store-bought route really saves your sanity. No time to perfect your pie crust? Buy it, or opt for an easier (and likely tastier) press-in Graham Cracker Crust recipe instead. Or buy dessert outright, either from a mail order bakery or at Trader Joe’s.
And you can definitely outsource most of the aforementioned appetizers, either to friends (more on that below), or by buying high-quality items at the store. Simply stocking up on some good cheese, olives, and marcona almonds to arrange on a platter will more than suffice.
Or avoid the store entirely and order your dinner ingredients online.
6. Ask For & Accept Help
Even if you don’t want to go full-on potluck, don’t be afraid to ask friends and family to bring certain dishes, whether they’re things you don’t personally love (green bean casserole, perhaps) or just don’t have time for (from homemade Parker House rolls your hardcore baker cousin could knock out in no time to any easy appetizer you want to assign).
And if someone asks you what they can bring, tell them what you really need, whether that’s new napkins or a simple side salad, or even some extra serving dishes. Otherwise you’re just going to get another bottle of wine (which might not be so bad).
7. Get a Head Start on Christmas Day
Or whatever day you’re actually making dinner; you can do several tasks in the early a.m. to make the dwindling hours before dinner less stressful. In the morning (before or after presents), assemble and bake any casserole side dishes so you only need to reheat them at dinner time. You could do this while you make breakfast. Five or fewer hours beforehand, mix and refrigerate any batch cocktails if you’re serving them, set up the drinks station, set the table, and do as much of the hors d’oeuvres as you can: wash and prep the crudités, slice the cheeses, and make the dips.
And if you only have so much money to spend, see our guide to Christmas Dinner on a Budget.
Setting the Scene
Your house is likely decorated beautifully already, but make sure the festive warmth extends to the table itself. A simple runner and a seasonal centerpiece with some candles or fairy lights flickering is all you need, but adding special dishes and serving pieces is next-level.
14-Inch Deck the Halls Centerpiece, $45 on FTD
One or two of these (depending on the size of your table) and you're all set.
If you’re a wannabe Martha and are all for making things extra special, we’ve got tips for you too! Here are some projects you can take on to really wow your guests:
- How to Make Homemade Candy Canes
- How to Make Edible Wreaths
- How to Make DIY Liqueur
- How to Make DIY Digestifs for After Dinner
- Easy Holiday Food Hacks to Make Your Menu Magical
- Christmas Candy Recipes to Give as Gifts
If you’re still looking for just the right addition to your menu, may we suggest some of our favorite Christmas recipes?
The dark, cold nights of the newly turned Winter Solstice are the perfect times to break out this drink. It’s a very sophisticated blend of crème de cacao, brandy, and heavy cream. Shake with ice, then pour into a chilled glass, and top with a fresh grating of nutmeg. Get our Brandy Alexander recipe.
The sparkling, festive Christmas markets of Germany were the inspiration for this rich and fortifying recipe. You heat dry red wine with brandy, and infuse it with lemon and orange peel, cloves, cardamom, and cinnamon, then sweeten discretely with sugar. Get our German Mulled Wine recipe.
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For a cold take on mulled wine, this festive sangria can’t be beat. With fresh cranberries, tart green apples, a warmly spiced simple syrup, ruby-red cranberry juice, and plenty of booze (port wine, Tempranillo rosé, and Cointreau), it’s guaranteed to make things merry. Get our Cranberry Sangria recipe.
A cocktail from Cold War times, this is a blend of vodka and ginger beer, garnished with a lime wedge. It’s simple and refreshing, a welcome, ginger-flavored corrective to the creamy heaviness of a holiday drink like eggnog. Serve it in the traditional frosty copper mug! Get our Moscow Mule recipe.
Eggnog is the fuel that runs holiday parties, but how often is it really good? We’ve got nothing against a good-quality, non–sugary commercial eggnog, but for a really special party or event, we make our own, using this old-fashioned, good-old spiked recipe that needs time to cure. Get our Best Eggnog recipe.
A beautifully glazed, seared-at-the-edges ham is a holiday centerpiece that only, perhaps, a turkey can vie with for sheer handsomeness. This recipe produces a gorgeous specimen. Please be careful, though, to buy the best ham your budget affords. Get our Honey-Mustard Glazed Ham recipe.
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If ham seems ho-hum, try roasting pork the Puerto Rican way: Pernil is a gorgeous hunk of crisp-skinned meat that absolutely deserves the spotlight, and the adobo and lime seasoning are a nice change of pace from sweet, syrupy glazes. Get the Puerto Rican Pernil recipe.
A slow-roasted prime rib roast is another top contender. It’s both easier and more delicious when you use the reverse-sear method for a perfectly rosy center and a crusty golden-brown exterior. Get our Prime Rib recipe.
Willing to put in a bit more work? A classic beef Wellington is a worthy endeavor and sure to wow with its golden pastry crust and decadent layers of pâté, mushroom duxelles, and prosciutto cradling the tenderloin (which more than lives up to its name). Get our Beef Wellington recipe.
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If you don’t do red meat but still like a layered drama (without a lot of actual fuss), this stuffed pork loin roast is for you. The stuffing includes fennel and apple, and the roast gets a rosemary rub. Get our Fennel-and-Prosciutto Stuffed Pork Loin Roast recipe.
Then, of course, there is the crown roast of pork, which you might imagine on a table at “Downton Abbey.” Despite its old-fashioned nature, it’s admittedly impressive, and it tastes wonderful too. Get your butcher to tie it together and most of the hard work is done for you. Get our Crown Roast of Pork recipe.
If you’re a lamb fam, this is your go-to, and putting it together is a snap. Gremolata, a mixture of parsley, garlic, and lemon zest, offers assertive fresh herb and citrus flavors. Get our Basic Boneless Roasted Leg of Lamb recipe.
But if the weather outside isn’t too frightful, take the main course cookery outdoors and it gets even better. A garlic and lemon rub with paprika, cumin, and coriander flavor this leg of lamb is cooked on a rotisserie spit until crispy and browned on the outside and juicy on the inside. Put a tray of potatoes, onion, fennel, and olives underneath the meat while it rotates on the spit so that its drippings don’t go to waste. Get our Mediterranean Rotisserie Leg of Lamb with Potatoes, Fennel, and Olives recipe.
Last but not least (okay…maybe least, if only because we just got done eating all our Thanksgiving leftovers), there is the tried-and-true turkey option. Check out our best turkey recipes for more interesting takes on the traditional roast bird, or keep it classic and get our Easy Brined Turkey recipe with Cream Gravy.
Whether you’re having a completely plant-based Christmas or just need a satisfying dish that can serve as a main for vegetarian and vegan guests, this vegan lasagna with roasted eggplant and lentils under a non-dairy bechamel is a homey and hearty option. Get the Eggplant Lasagna recipe.
If dairy isn’t an issue (check with your vegetarian guests, of course!), this winter greens lasagna with cheese and heavy cream is another great choice that’s easy to put together even if you’re also tackling a meaty main course. Get our Winter Greens Lasagna recipe.
This showstopping veggie centerpiece from Shelly Westerhausen is a wonderful new way to cook tofu, and happens to be the perfect color for Christmas dinner. The firm tofu is roasted in a pistachio crust and topped with a red pepper sauce. Even though tomatoes aren’t in season, they’re roasted too, which will make them taste better than they have any right to during winter. Get the Pistachio Crusted Tofu with Red Chimichurri recipe.
This is sort of like a vegan version of spiral sliced ham…and it’s as delicious as it is gorgeous. The crunchy walnuts and juicy pomegranate seeds should not be skipped. Get the Maple Hasselback Butternut Squash recipe.
What’s the easiest (not cheapest) way to make a meal fancier? Add truffles or truffle oil. Rich and earthy oil from white truffles folds into fingerling potatoes for a umami-packed side dish. Get our Truffled Fingerling Smashed Potatoes recipe.
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This side dish won’t get any beauty pageant awards, but tell us your rating after you taste the cheesiness and feel the fluffy texture in your mouth. We give it five stars. Get our Broccoli-Parmesan Casserole recipe.
You will barely notice the fresh escarole and feathery frisée greens because the poached pear and pungent blue cheese will take all the attention. No complaints here. It’s a salad that people won’t push to the side of their plates. Get our Poached Pear and Blue Cheese Salad recipe.
Sure, a marshmallow-topped, nicely browned sweet potato is a must-make for Thanksgiving, but what about Christmas? It’s easy to assemble in advance, looks cool, and goes remarkably well with a glazed ham as well, of course, as the traditional turkey. The main consideration: how good it tastes. Get our Sweet Potato Casserole recipe.
Butternut squash soup is a fall and winter staple. This recipe is a refinement: It’s not only delicious, with a hint of tart, Granny Smith apple that balances the squash’s sweetness, but it’s exceptionally easy to make. (Spoiler alert: You roast the squash whole, then peel and seed when it’s at maximum easiness.) Get our Roasted Butternut Squash Soup recipe.
This bread can go before, during, or after the meal. One taste of this moist, dark bread lets you know the holiday celebrations are on. This is a classic, easier to make than cookies or a fruitcake, and far more versatile. Serve it for breakfast with some good, strong coffee, for dessert after a light dinner (don’t forget the whipped cream!), and even as part of a holiday dinner basket of mixed breads. Get our Gingerbread Loaf recipe.
Dessert (OK, Mostly Cookies)
It’s good to gild the lily every now and again. So when we were left with a gallon of surplus eggnog while recipe-testing our Best Eggnog, we decided to update classic cheesecake by adding a gingersnap crust and a good slug of nog. Get our Eggnog Cheesecake recipe.
Now here’s a show-stopper. Can it get more seasonal than a cake that looks like a fluffy blanket of sweet snow? No. That’s the answer. Don’t use the regular coconut you see in most supermarkets. Spring for the good stuff. It really matters here. The three-layer cake will go great with a nice cocoa, hot apple cider, coffee, or after-dinner drink. Get our Christmas Coconut Cake recipe.
Related Reading: More Great Christmas Desserts That Aren’t Cookies
These cookies (literally “pepper nuts”) have been baked in some form since late Medieval days. They’re firm, spiced with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, black pepper, and allspice, with honey, almonds and candied peel—essentially the most precious things available to bakers hundreds of year ago. They’re crisp and crumbly, insulated by a thick coating of powdered sugar. Get our Pfeffernüsse recipe.
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A delightful way to display your Christmas cookies.
Here they are, the cookies as essential to Christmas as the glass of milk left out for Santa on the night of December 24th. Leave out a plate of these buttery, gently crisp cookies in the shape of stockings and snowmen, and they’ll disappear, all right. Get our Christmas Sugar Cookies recipe.
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These buttery hand-shaped cookies don’t just stand out at the cookie swap for their appearance, they’re also delicious. The dough contains lots of butter, like we said, but also powdered sugar and a mix of almond and vanilla extracts. Get our Candy Cane Cookies recipe.
Lacy, crisp, and delicate, Florentines are also seriously rich, with plenty of orange zest to balance out the chocolate and buttery caramel-nut flavors. They’re actually easy to make—just melt together sugar, butter, corn syrup, and cream, and mix in flour and almonds: No creaming necessary! Get our Florentines recipe.
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“Icebox” because, once you make and shape the dough into logs or rectangular planks, all you need to do is slice a few off when the mood strikes you (or as the holiday cookie swap looms) and bake. This is a foundation recipe that you can alter in various ways. Get our Icebox Sugar Cookies recipe.
Instead of having to shape and fill individual thumbprint cookies, this ingenious shortcut version simplifies the process by baking logs of dough with a trough of jam down the center. After a quick bake, just slice the logs into cookies and they’re ready for a holiday cookie plate. Get our Split-Second Cookies recipe.
A cross between brownie and cookie, these rich cocoa beauties get their fractured tops by being rolling in white powdered sugar before baking. It creates a dramatic look on top of deep, fudgy, cake-like centers. Get our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies recipe.
The sweet, warm, spiced notes of gingerbread cookies say “holiday” regardless of whether you decorate these human-shaped cookies or leave them au naturel. Heads, legs, and arms are all up for grabs with these holiday favorites. Get our Gingerbread Cookies recipe.
Extra-gingery, molasses-sweetened cookies are sandwiched around a lemon cream that gets a triple dose of lemon from zest, juice, and extract. Make them for a fancy holiday cookie plate, a dinner party, or a lovely host gift. Get our Gingersnap Sandwich Cookies with Lemon Filling recipe.
They look difficult to make, but these two-tone cookies are actually pretty easy. Start with one batch of vanilla cookie dough, add chocolate to half of it, form four long, square logs, layer the dough into a checkerboard pattern, and slice. Get our Checkerboard Cookies recipe.
For even more holiday tips, tricks, recipes, and ideas, visit our Holiday Headquarters.
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— Article first created by John Birdsall in 2015; updated by Amy Sowder, Jessica Gentile, and Jen Wheeler.
Header image courtesy of victoriabee / RooM / Getty Images