Make-Ahead Holiday Meal Ideas

A buffet-style menu reduces stress and offers delicious taste

By Annie Thomas, AKT Nourish

Our favorite season is upon us here at AKT NOURISH, and food plans have long since been in place. The autumn repertoire of whole, fresh ingredients in soups, power salads, small plates, and comforting entrees remind us that seasonal foods nourish our palate as well as our heart and soul.

As a working wife, mom, and grandma of nine, the holiday months quickly become a swirl of activity as unpredictable as the falling leaves. Planning and preparing for entertaining family and friends is always a challenge.

Our favorite food strategy calls for a “kitchen buffet” gathering of family and friends where absolutely everything is prepared ahead of time, leaving us free to relax and enjoy the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year’s kitchen buffet menu is a variation on a well-practiced theme of seasonal simplicity.

Appetizer delights.

Holiday meals are all about eating and gathering. To start your festive celebration off, consider some of these easy-serve menu options that have worked well for us.

Wedges of brie or cremeux, creamy gorgonzola, English stilton, and cave-aged cheddar cheeses with slices of Asian pears, grapes, and walnuts may be ladened on a large wooden cheese board.

Olives marinated with rosemary can be served in an earthenware dish with crushed red pepper and an antique milk glass bowl of sweet bread-and-butter pickles from an overabundant cucumber harvest.

The main entree.

We choose a large, local, pasture-raised, antibiotic-free turkey from one of the many farms in our area. The butcher butterflies the whole breast (removes the breast from the bones and other parts of the turkey in a whole piece), leaving the skin intact. The day before our gathering, I pounded out the breast and stuffed it with a combination of our restaurant-baked multigrain croissants, Italian sausage, dried cherries, pistachios, and fresh herbs. After a quick roll, the turkey breast is tied with kitchen twine before roasting. You can cook the remaining parts of the turkey as you wish. I suggest you serve the entree with a warm cider gravy.

Side dishes.

Soups, salads, and sides all complement the meal, and these delicious options may be prepared ahead of time to allow you to enjoy time with your guests.

Butternut squash and apple soup. For a simple, delicious side dish, we created a pot of this soup (recipe included).

Earthy mushrooms. Flash sautéed in good olive oil with garlic, sea salt, and pepper and sprinkled with fresh chives, these are an amazing addition to the holiday meal. Mushrooms can be sautéed up to three days in advance and refreshed with additional olive oil, salt and pepper if needed.

Roasted rainbow carrots and parsnips. Lightly drizzled with local honey mixed with a pinch of cumin and dusted with fresh-grated orange zest, these are a delightful healthy option for your feast.

Leafy green salad.  Topping this with caramelized balsamic onions and crumbly blue cheese will round out the flavors nicely.

Baskets of fresh rolls and bread. Don’t forget to include a small pot of homemade sour cherry jam and offer a roasted pumpkin butter.

Potato au Gratin. Instead of mashed potatoes, this dish satisfies the potato craving yet allows you to prepare it in advance of the meal, freeing up your time to spend with your loved ones (recipe included).


Of course every holiday meal needs a dessert. However, so many people today have dietary restrictions for one reason or another. If you have a family member or friend who needs food that is gluten-free, then we suggest the pumpkin and cream cheese bread recipe we have shared, or you may try one of the other options we have shared if there are no special dietary needs.

Gluten-free pumpkin and cream cheese bread. You and your guests will enjoy the tastes of the season – pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and more – with this delicious option (recipe included).

Bread pudding cups. A tasty and easy to prepare ahead of time option for your guests to enjoy.

Pecan crumble. This delicious treat also completes the meal, offering a true sampling of the season with a twist on the traditional pecan pie (recipe included).

This Thanksgiving, create a simple but deeply satisfying meal that pays homage to traditional favorite flavors while embracing fresh, seasonal, whole food ingredients. Whether the gathering is a sit-down dinner or a help yourself and mingle event, the host and hostess can be a guest at their own party when everything is accomplished in advance.

We’ve included a few of our favorite recipes from similar holiday gatherings for you to try and enjoy. The staff here at AKT Nourish understands time is valuable, so advance preparation will enable you to enjoy the simplest and most relaxing time with friends and family.

About the Chef:

Annie Thomas is the chef/owner of AKT Nourish in historic Haymarket. Nourish is in its fifth year as one of the area’s only scratch kitchens. Before opening her first restaurant, Annie was a personal chef and art instructor. She is most thankful for her husband, four sons, her family, nine grandchildren, and her Nourish staff. The AKT Nourish staff is always available to prepare these or other recipes for holiday gatherings, whether it’s a dinner for 50 or a dish to bring to the office potluck. Call us at 703-754-6170 or email us at You may also find more information on our website


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