How to Make a Holiday Dinner in a Small Kitchen

With these expert meal-prep strategies, the more the merrier

By Tanya A. Christian

What truly makes the holidays the most wonderful time of the year is the people we spend them with. But if you have a tiny kitchen and even tinier counter space, your instinct may be to avoid inviting loved ones over for a holiday meal. 

I get it. For more than a decade I entertained family and friends from a kitchen that was less than 50 square feet. And though I barely had enough counter space to place a 10-pound bird, that time in my tiny cucina taught me strategies to deliver a decadent dinner (I’m talking everything from oxtail and jerk chicken to rice and peas and lobster mac) with the room I had. Here are the tactics that kept me sane in the process.

Plan a Strategic Menu

Planning is always helpful, no matter your kitchen’s size, but it’s a non-negotiable when you have a small one. That means creating a menu with these points in mind: 

Streamline your offerings. The fewer dishes you have, the easier it will be to manage in the kitchen. Think about cooking one meat and two side dishes including a jazzed-up vegetable for guests. Two great sides are better than an easily forgettable five. Plus, it should give your attendees just enough options, even if they have dietary restrictions. 

Choose dishes cooked by different methods and served at different temperatures. Hope Korenstein, author of “Small Space Cooking: Simple, Quick, and Healthy Recipes for the Tiny Kitchen,” says that if the main dish is roasted in the oven, she’ll choose sides that are prepared on the stovetop or served at room temperature “That way, I know I’ll have enough space in my oven,” she says.

Opt for dishes that share ingredients. This will help cut down on the ingredients you’ll need to store in your fridge. “There are plenty of holiday recipes that require that same one thing,” says Perry Santanachote, a cook, recipe developer, and writer at Consumer Reports. A 1-pound bag of shrimp can be used in your appetizer’s seafood dip, served in a scampi sauce along with your main meal, and thrown into a mac and cheese prepared Cajun-style.

Include make-ahead foods that can be chilled or frozen and then reheated. Try to tackle these two days ahead of the event. This cuts down on the work—and the counter space you’ll need—the day of. Hint: “If you’re tight on fridge space, choose dishes that are easy to store flat and hearty enough to withstand a bit of cramming,” says Paul Hope, a classically trained chef and senior writer at CR. He suggests dishes like baked ziti, lasagna, or tins of cooked meats or roasts.

Consider dishes with prep-ahead ingredients, too. For instance, roasted vegetables are a must for my family meals. Chop them in advance and throw them into a plastic bag with the seasoning. On the day of your meal, you simply have to put them in the cooker (more on that later) and set them to roast.

Put Your Surfaces—Any Surface—to Work

When it comes to holiday cooking, any clear surface large enough to hold a dish should now be considered part of the kitchen or dining area. A coffee table, storage ottoman, media console—they’re all fair game.

Clear off your countertop. Move countertop appliances that you’re not using on the big day (blender, coffee maker, toaster) into a closet. Place drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the living room. This will maximize space for you to cook and prep. 

Consider investing in a kitchen cart. This was a lifesaver in my kitchen, providing extra room to prep dishes and store plates, frequently used pots and pans, and my small kitchen appliances. When the cooking was done, I would throw a tablecloth over the cart and serve dishes on top. 

Break out a small folding table. I store one under my bed and whip it out for extra prepping and serving room. It essentially extended my kitchen by 4 feet and made it easier to maneuver multiple dishes.

Clean as You Go

Washing and decluttering as I cook keeps me from feeling overwhelmed. It also means I’ll always have a clean utensil or bowl ready to use.

Enlist a helper. “Assigning someone with the sole task of washing my dishes as I cook is a must,” Santanachote says. “My husband doesn’t do much cooking but he’s always on top of clearing out the sink and dishwasher so I always have a clean tool, knife, pot, etc. to work with.”

Or take breaks after prepping each dish. This is essential if you’re going it alone. Clean dirty utensils and reorganize the kitchen. If you’re done with the mixing bowl you just used, put it away, along with any ingredients you no longer need.

Use Small Kitchen Appliances

Growing up, my family used our toaster oven more than we did our range oven, cooking up everything from lasagna to macaroni pie (read: baked macaroni for my non-West Indian friends). So you better believe that when it comes time to host big meals, I put my countertop cookers to work. These appliances free up space in the oven and help keep track of cooking times and control my dish temperatures. “Toaster ovens, air fryers, and microwaves can all cook and reheat, meaning you don’t have to rely on your stove for everything,” Hope says. 

Use the toaster oven for side dishes that need to be baked. “Reheat casseroles or roast vegetables if you run out of space in your main oven,” says Tara Casaregola, the program leader for toaster oven testing. “You can also use it if you just need a different cooking temperature.” 

Crisp up vegetables in an air fryer. Brussels sprouts and asparagus are a no-brainer for the air fryer, but if the basket is deep enough (one of the many perks of my Gourmia GAF686), consider preparing a whole roasted cauliflower. Instead of the 2 hours it could typically take in the oven, you can get it on the table in as little as 40 minutes.

Heat up low and slow meats in a multi-cooker. I don’t eat this myself, but my dad has always been happy with the oxtail I’ve made using my Crockpot. This method is great for braised meats, and you can also use it for dips and New Year’s Eve black-eyed peas.

Opt for Disposable When Possible

I try to make environmentally correct choices throughout the whole year, but when I entertain during the holidays, I can’t help but rely on disposable platters, plates, and utensils. It’s especially helpful when you don’t have room to store the reusable kind. 

Consider recycled or compostable materials. Korenstein is a fan of compostable bamboo when having friends over. “They are a little nicer and sturdier than paper and involve less guilt than plastic. Obviously, there’s also less washing up at the end.” 

Reuse when you can. Foil pans are my friend. They make it easy to keep dishes hot when placed atop a Sterno. These can be cleaned, reused, and easily stacked and stored. (And if things get too messy, they can be easily rinsed and recycled.)

Cheat a Little

Even if you want to cook everything on your own, it’s not necessary because guests are almost always willing to help. “People like feeling helpful, and they’re sympathetic if you have to cook in a small kitchen,” Hope says.

Answer strategically when someone asks “What can I bring?” Respond with items that will make it easier for you to cook what’s most important to you, Hope says. For instance, if you’re excited about making a rib roast and sides but can’t tend to dessert, ask the guest to bring one.

Consider store-bought desserts and appetizers. You can never go wrong with chips and dip, which can easily be picked up at the store. And if you’re feeling a little fancy, consider a shrimp cocktail party platter, which tends to be a crowd-pleaser. On the other side of dinner, store-bought pies work just fine. After all, you don’t win a prize for making everything yourself.

Small Kitchen Appliances to Help You Pull Off Your Next Holiday Meal

Not enough room in your oven? Don’t fret. These countertop cookers will make hosting your next holiday meal that much easier.

Gourmia GAF686 Digital

With a measured capacity of 4.3 quarts, the Gourmia GAF686 makes it easy to cook up a batch of brussels sprouts or roast a whole head of cauliflower. At the end of the night, you’ll love that the nonstick basket on this top performer is a cinch to clean.

Crock-Pot Cook & Carry SCCPVS600ECP-S

Homemade dips, black-eyed peas, and braised meats are just a few things you can make in this CR Recommended slow cooker. And if you decide to take the party elsewhere after dinner, this 6 qt Crockpot with a locking lid can go, too.

Breville Smart Oven Air Convection BOV900BSSUSC

The generously sized Breville Smart Oven Air Convection BOV900BSSUSC takes countertop cooking to a whole new level with options for air-frying, roasting, dehydrating, and slow-cooking—all of which will come in handy when preparing dishes for a crowd.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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