4 Hacks for Prepping a Holiday Meal During a Pandemic

Your holiday gatherings may be smaller this year, but it doesn't mean they can't be just as special.
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While the COVID-19 pandemic might have dampened your plans for a show-stopping feast, the holidays are still something worth celebrating and making extra special. Even though you may be hosting a much smaller crowd this year, there's no reason not to make it a meal to remember.

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"The year of 2020 has helped emphasize the importance of the most basic things, like spending time with loved ones, going for a walk outside and having food to put on the table," Brigid Titgemeier, RDN, LD, a functional medicine registered dietitian and founder of My Food Is Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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"Try to continue with that mindset of gratitude as you shift into the holiday season in order to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed."

The great thing about the holidays is that you don't have to shoulder the burden of planning alone, and there are plenty of ways to stay connected outside of Zoom parties.

This year, 56 percent of people are celebrating only with immediate family and 90 percent of people are planning special activities, like planning car parades and doing extra decorating, to keep their spirits up, a Simple Mills survey of more than 1,000 people found.

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But with long lines at the grocery store and meat shortages looming, you might have to modify your dishes. So heed these RD-recommended tips to make things work this holiday season.

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.​​

1. Make a Rough Menu

You should always try to plan your holiday dishes about four weeks before the actual get-together, especially in a pandemic, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, CDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of ​Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table.

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This gives you enough time to get all of the ingredients you need and actually experiment with some of the recipes. Keep in mind that you're hosting a much smaller group this year, so cut yourself some slack and prepare simpler dishes.

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, try to incorporate a few of the dishes you're considering making for your evening family dinner. "This will help you see whether you get buy-in from the family and will help you feel more confident making the recipe over the holidays since you already made it before," Titgemeier says.

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She also suggests finding sheet-pan and one-pot recipes, which cut down on dish washing. "This would be the extent of cooking many easy recipes. Try to find a side dish or main that can be a one-sheet meal, like this root vegetable medley recipe," Titgemeier says.

2. Get Creative With Ingredients

When it comes to recipe planning, Taub-Dix recommends thinking outside of the box and using non-perishable ingredients that you can easily stock in your pantry and fridge.

There's no harm in buying fresh, but those ingredients don't last long, so sticking to foods you know you can keep for weeks at a time will save you trips to the grocery — and cash from wasted food.

"I like to stock up on Almond Breeze's original unsweetened almond milk because it is shelf-stable and will last in your pantry for up to a year," she says. "I use it to make soups, stews and baked goods. That's one ingredient I don't have to think about at all. It's perfect as a substitute for making holiday desserts because it has a very mild flavor."

Other stockable items Taub-Dix recommends are chicken or vegetable broth, canned beans (which you can use for side dishes and mains) and frozen fruits (such as cherries, strawberries and blueberries for pies).

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"Purchasing pumpkin in a can is a great way to add the pumpkin flavor without feeling the need to purchase an actual pumpkin and go through the hassle of baking and pureeing the pumpkin. You can use any pumpkin recipe, including this Paleo pumpkin mousse with almond walnut crust," Titgemeier suggests.

Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT, a dietitian and personal trainer in New York, says she likes to sautée frozen French-cut green beans with a little butter, dried cranberries and walnuts for a crowd-pleasing and healthy side dish. And instead of straight-up traditional cranberry sauce, her mom will add some canned crushed pineapple and spices to infuse other flavors.

Don't dismiss other foods in the frozen food aisle; there are plenty of convenience food gems that deserve a place on your holiday table.

"Trader Joe's has a delicious frozen cauliflower mash that is made from mashed cauliflower, milk, water, cream, butter and spices," Titgemeier says. "It's low in fat and carbohydrates. This is a great option on its own for those who are trying to make a more nutritious choice, or it can be blended into mashed potatoes for a 50/50 blend."

If cauliflower isn't your thing, Trader Joe's also has a frozen sweet potato mash that Titgemeimer also recommends.

In general, if you want to prepare a healthier holiday dish, consider using low-carb flours like almond or coconut, Titgemeier says.

"Flours made from nuts versus grains help to decrease the overall glycemic impact of the foods you are cooking or baking." You can easily store flours in glass Mason jars in your pantry to keep them fresh.

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3. Store Make-Ahead Dishes in Your Freezer

Titgemeier will make desserts like apple crisp in advance and freeze it, saving her time in the kitchen on the day of the dinner.

"You can use your freezer for meats, vegetables and sauces that you make in advance. This can make your life so much easier," she says.

Even if you're all about rolling up your sleeves to make a pie crust from scratch, you can still appreciate pre-made pie crusts.

"Goya makes empanada dough that pulls double duty as mini pie crusts. I never met a refrigerator biscuit I didn't like!" Rodriguez says. Rodriguez also relies on pre-cooked noodles and frozen, pre-cubed butternut squash to cut prep time for her signature Thanksgiving lasagna.

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4. Shop Smart With Meat

Earlier in the pandemic, there were shortages for beef, chicken and pork due to virus outbreaks in meatpacking processing plants. And while many plants have re-opened, the rising infection rates in the Midwest, where many of these plants are, could signal another shortage in the fall into the holidays.

Fortunately, you don't have to worry about missing meat in your holiday meals if you plan ahead and keep things small and simple. For example, Taub-Dix likes to make mini meatloaf with ground turkey, but if there's a low supply of meat, she will load it up with veggies and beans, which makes the dish hearty and filling.

"Pulses, chickpeas and lentils are inexpensive and easy to store. They provide protein, calcium, fiber and a host of other important nutrients," she says.

Consider Skipping the Whole Turkey

Instead of buying a whole turkey for Thanksgiving, "why not consider turkey breasts?" Taub-Dix suggests. "If most of your family likes white meat, just cut [the breasts] into parts and roast them."

Store Ground Beef in the Freezer

If you're prepping beef, Rodriguez suggests storing ground beef in vacuum-sealed packages in your freezer.

"It lends itself to many comforting meals that can be pulled together with other shelf-stable ingredients. Consider it an opportunity to experiment and find a new favorite. I often use this handy cheat sheet from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association before heading to the butcher counter," she says.

Buy Local

You should also consider buying local meats, Titgemeier says. "Meat shortages are happening on a large scale due to the deficiencies that exist within our large, industrialized factory farming system and issues with working conditions in slaughterhouses," she explains.

"But there isn't a shortage of animals on the farms. Consider finding a local farm selling turkey and other meats you may need and purchasing directly from them."

Order Online

She also recommends ordering from ButcherBox, which is an online monthly membership that delivers a box of high-quality meats that are humanely raised.

"Their beef is grass-fed and grass-finished. They also offer a turkey box that you can order online and have sent to you, whether you're a member or not."

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