The holiday season is a time for feasting and getting together. Super-fun activities — until they aren’t.
Hosting a holiday meal can quickly become an overwhelming task that requires spending all day toiling away in the kitchen (not to mention doing all those dishes afterward). And hosting visiting family or friends for the first time in 20 months may have you fretting over the quality of your guest bed and linens.
To help tame those stressors, we turned to a local chef, an event planner and two Airbnb hosts for easier meal ideas, outdoor-dining tips and simple ways to make overnight guests feel welcome. Even if you have limited space or basic cooking skills, these ideas can help you stay merry amid the holiday pressure.
A one-pan feast
No question, the centerpiece of every celebration is food. Chef Megan Barone has more than a decade of experience cooking professionally, and she worked as “the sample lady” at Trader Joe’s, that haven for foodies with tight schedules and budgets.
“I do easy, no matter what, even as a professional chef,” says Barone, who owns Mixtape Pasta, a fresh-cut pasta pop-up in Seattle. “No shame, I cut corners all the time if I can, if I’m super busy and I’m running out of time.”
Thanksgiving is Barone’s favorite holiday, and her No. 1 tip is this: “Just roast a chicken. It’s so much faster and easier.”
Use a cast iron skillet, she says. Put down a bed of autumn root vegetables (potatoes, leeks, parsnips, turnips, delicata squash). There’s no need to peel anything, just cut them into even, 2-inch chunks.
Salt and pepper the chicken inside and out, no additional oil needed. You can spatchcock (flatten out) the bird or truss it; either way, roast it on top of the vegetables. Put the pan in the oven at 425–450 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the chicken. The thermometer should read 165 degrees in the breast.
If turkey is a non-negotiable part of your holiday feast, you can do the same treatment with a skin-on turkey breast.
Once you take everything out of the pan, use the leftover oil from the rendered fat to saute or wilt some greens with garlic, balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.
“You do everything in one pan,” Barone says. “It’s so effective. People think you’re amazing and you’re a genius, but it’s just one pan and it’s 45 minutes.”
And don’t be too proud to use packaged mixes. “I’m a person who isn’t afraid of using the boxed stuffing mix. You just have to ‘zhuzh’ it up,” Barone says. Add diced apples, she suggests, or substitute the water with a little broth. Or toss the seasoning packet and add fresh herbs instead.
For vegan friends, a great entree option is stuffed delicata squash, “mainly because you don’t have to peel it and it’s a perfect little boat for stuffing,” Barone says. You can fill it with rice or some of that boxed stuffing mix with added cranberries and nuts. Roast the squash in a pan at 400 degrees for 45 minutes until it’s tender.
Keeping things mostly outside
Maybe not everyone in your party is vaccinated yet, or you’re just not ready to crowd into a room with people you don’t live with. If you want to keep things mostly outdoors, the first thing you have to consider, of course, is location.
“In Seattle, you don’t have much choice but to have something covered,” says Christine Brown, founder and owner of Rainy Day Picnics.
That might mean a park pavilion or home pergola to shelter you from the elements. It also will likely require a warm and welcoming fire pit and plenty of cozy throw blankets.
For her business, Brown purchased Alvantor bubble tents; the large one can fit 10 to 12 people. “It was perfect,” Brown says. “You’re literally in your own bubble. It’s a really intimate, cozy experience.”
Brown puts a tarp on the ground, then layers on rugs, blankets and pillows. Fall tree branches and other natural elements work as centerpieces on simple, low wood tables. Then Brown throws in pops of color like lemon yellow and fuschia. “Just try to brighten the gray skies in Seattle,” she says.
Brown started Rainy Day Picnics in October 2020 while on furlough from her job as an Alaska Airlines flight attendant.
“It’s been really fun,” she says. “It was inspired by COVID. I just thought about what I could do to bring people together safely. Eating food with friends: The thing that brings me pure joy.
“That, and I have a lot of pillows.”
Hosting like a pro
The key to knowing — really knowing — whether your guests are truly comfortable is to try out the guest quarters yourself.
Amy Rowe slept in the basement apartment of her Burien home for three months while the upstairs was being renovated. “So I learned a lot about what I needed,” she says.
She also knows what her guests appreciate, thanks to three and a half years of experience hosting hundreds of visitors in that apartment through Airbnb. To make her guests comfortable, she provides a reading light, a massive TV, fast and reliable Wi-Fi (very important!), games and a coffee maker. Sometimes, she leaves fresh eggs from her chickens. And then there’s the 3-year-old corgi named Tucker who lives in the home.
“I think people who are traveling miss their dogs. Having a corgi on site is beneficial,” Rowe says.
Jeremy Doyle hosts guests through Airbnb in the lower-level apartment of his home south of Rainier Beach, in unincorporated King County. He provides a Sleep Number bed in his rental, allows visitors to use the hot tub and built a deck for guest use.
Unless you’re planning to host all the time, you might want to stick with the basics: “Just having the little touches,” Doyle says. “If you think about what would make the space special, it could be something small. Flowers. Toiletries. The ability to make coffee, tea. I try to cover those little things.”
At this point, Rowe has the turn-over process down to an hour. Wipe everything down. Strip the bed and change the linens. Put out fresh flowers. Fluff the sofa cushions. Fold down the corners of the toilet paper. Turn the heat and lights on. Vacuum your way out the door. Bonus: Listen to an audiobook while you’re working.
“You just have a method,” Rowe says. “I’ve done it hundreds of times. It’s easy. Clean it up, get it ready, make it pretty.”
Is hosting overnight guests worth it?
“Oh yeah, 10 out of 10,” Rowe says. “It blows me away how good the experience has been.”
Her best tip for hosting? “Get a corgi,” Rowe says. “That is the way to go.”