Take the stress out of Christmas

A little planning can go a long way

feet in wool socks warming by...

Even if you're not the sort of person who has bought all the Christmas presents by Halloween and written all the Christmas cards by Bonfire Night, it's still possible to make the festive season more manageable with a little bit of planning. Knowing that you have the best homemade gravy in the world sitting in your freezer means one less thing to worry about on a busy day.

1 Get organised
Decide what you want to cook and eat on each day. Then decide which things you're going to make from scratch and which things you want to buy. These links might help:
Tips that save you time (including cooking the turkey overnight)
Christmas tips from bloggers

Don't forget to plan what to do with the leftovers – turkey can be turned into a great risotto (use a chicken risotto recipe) and ham can reappear as pea and ham soup. Assuming there's any left over after the sandwiches, that is.

Once you have made the food decisions, look again and see if you have given yourself too much to do. Because if so...

2 Delegate
This won't just help you, it's also the antidote to the cabin fever that can infect the house over the festive season. Giving people specific tasks means that everyone who really wants help gets a chance. Give them plenty of warning of who's doing what so that they can plan.

Drinks: Appoint a bar person to look after all the drinks, whether it's ordering/collecting wine, beer and ice, choosing and making a selection of cocktails (including a non-alcoholic one), and lining up a selection of hot drinks including hot toddies to keep the cold out. They'll also need to make sure you have enough glasses/cups/mugs. And wash up!

Cooking: Do you have a puddings expert in your midst? Or a baker who could come up with fresh bread or cinnamon buns? Would someone's signature dish make a great Christmas Eve supper?

Get a prep drone: All professional kitchens have someone who peels and chops all the vegetables, washes salads and trims meat and fish, often away from the main kitchen. Getting someone to do this for you (ideally with some background music and a nice drink) using a good knife and a chopping board on the table (maybe cover it with newspaper first) to free up space in the kitchen.

Music: There's bound to be someone among your family and friends who can put together a Christmas playlist that includes something for everyone. Give them the task and let them get on with it.

Decorating: Let the creative members of the group loose on the Christmas box and see what they come up with. The same people/person might take on the task of table decoration too.

Clearing up: Deciding in advance who's going to clear the table and take care of the washing up can avoid clashes just after the meal. Just don't ask the prep drone to do this as well!

3 Your freezer is your best friend
All the items in this list can be made at home (or bought) and kept in the freezer for at least a month. Remember to label carefully as they can end up looking similar when frozen.

• Make the gravy and freeze it

Roast potatoes can be par-boiled then frozen. Then on the day, defrost completely and roast in the usual way. This will save you about half an hour but perhaps more importantly, it saves space on the hob, means less steam in the kitchen and cuts down on the washing up a little.

Yorkshire puddings can also be made ahead and frozen. Cook them almost all the way, then cool and freeze. On the day, defrost, and pop them in a hot over for 10-15 minutes just before serving.

• Side dishes such as red cabbage can be made ahead and frozen (add a teaspoonful of ground cinnamon to make it more more festive). Reduce the cooking time by five minutes before cooling and freezing otherwise it can get overdone when you reheat. Add a little apple juice or red wine to moisten it a little before reheating.

• If you like making your own mince pies, remember that they can be frozen too – just pop them into the freezer at the stage when you'd put them into the oven.

• If you don't like shop-bought pastry, make your own and freeze.

And your fridge...
• Most peeled and chopped veg will keep in the fridge overnight covered in clingfilm

Pommes dauphinoise can be made ahead and will keep for two or three days in the fridge

4 Take the easy route
Not everything has to be handmade to exacting standards. Just decide what you enjoy doing and cooking and prioritise those things. Not all meals have to be served on the table either – what about a buffet-style (or smorgasbord) approach to some meals – including breakfast, for example. Just put out plates of smoked salmon, ham, cheese, tomato, slices of melon, and rolls or croissants, and let everyone help themselves. If you have a small kitchen, it might be worth unplugging the toaster and putting that in the middle of the table too, allowing everyone to make their own toast. Just make sure your drinks expert (see 2 above) is on hand to make fresh tea and coffee.

5 Clear some space
It's harder to move around your own home if there are extra people around the place. Pack away as much clutter as possible (maybe using the space freed up when you fetch the Christmas decorations from their storage place). Make sure all the laundry is washed, dried and put away and that you have plenty of sheets, towels and tea towels.

Use space differently – can you set up a bar, a kitchen prep area, a games room, a cool dark room for relaxing or having a private chat? Can you use the garage or shed differently? Can the greenhouse or shed become a cold storage area (watch out in case it freezes overnight). Can you use the barbecue like a fire-pit and serve hot drinks around it?

And finally:
Roast potatoes always take longer than you think, so give yourself at least 20 minutes of wiggle room. If you're running late, cut them in half and place the cut side down in the roasting tin.

• You can't have too much loo paper. Buy as much as you think you need, then buy some more. The same often applies to ice cubes, washing-up liquid, batteries and sticky tape.

• A new pair of thick oven gloves can make things far safer in the kitchen.

• If you plan to do everything at the last minute, then these tips and recipes might help.

• Remember that it doesn't matter if it isn't perfect. As long as everyone gets a few nice things to eat and drink, they'll be happy. Or merry. Or both.

More festive food ideas:
Christmas menus: Festive food for everyone
Christmas cooking for one or two
Festive cocktails, hot drinks and party food
How to have a Scandinavian-style Christmas
What to do with a supermarket lobster
Christmas baking and dessert recipes

Make Christmas easier on yourself:
The ultimate Christmas countdown
Quick and easy last-minute Christmas