Just because we’re on our own for the holidays doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate with a Merry Little Solo Christmas Dinner! If you haven’t cooked elaborate meals for yourself before, never fear! It just takes a little planning.

This is the second in the Cook Yourself a Merry Little Solo Christmas Dinner series. In this post, we’ll cover basic considerations like your skill level, kitchen setup, and budget. 

Then the fun begins with planning the menu for your feast! To add a little ceremony, I’ve created a little menu template for you to download if you’d like to subscribe.

NOTE: This is a long post because I want to make sure that you have a fantastic time cooking your feast, especially if this is the first time you’ve ever done something like this. Please feel free to skip around.

With a little planning, your feast will be merry and bright

I hope you read the Cook Yourself a Merry Little Solo Christmas Dinner post from earlier this week and are excited to join in the fun! Before you rush off to the market or fill an Instacart, let’s consider a few things. I’m a project manager by day, and while I tend toward a more spontaneous life in my downtime, I can tell you that a little consideration and planning when it comes to these kinds of meals helps to ensure an enjoyable cooking experience (and a reasonable budget … if you want. It is the holidays, after all).

A few things to consider

Before you dive into your cookbook stash or Pinterest board, take a moment to consider your:

  • Cooking skills
  • Kitchen setup (counterspace, oven size, etc.)
  • Cooking equipment (your pots and pans, etc.)
  • Budget
  • Taste for leftovers
  • Time

Your cooking chops

If you’ve never really cooked before, welcome! You are going to have so much fun. However, you might not want to start with a soufflé. You can make a delicious and beautiful dinner using simple recipes. I encourage you to stick to the recipes you select. A good and tested recipe, faithfully executed, will produce a mouthwatering result. As you gain more experience, you will learn what to change up, and how to make something suit your taste.

My mom is a wonderful improvisational cook, but I never understood what she was doing, and I lost interest in cooking until I was in my late 20s. For me, learning how to cook meant learning how to carefully follow a recipe. Now that I’m more of a seasoned home cook, I improvise a lot in the kitchen, and it works because I learned the techniques and ingredients for good cooking.

If you’ve been at this for a while, I can’t wait to hear what you’re planning to make. 

And, if you’re somewhere in the middle, maybe take advantage of cooking without an audience to stretch your skills. 

Small kitchens require special planning
My tiny little stove. I don't have tons of counter space, so I dry my pots on the stove. Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

Your kitchen setup

What do you have to work with, in terms of space? How big is your stove? What kind of counterspace do you have? Do you have a dishwasher (if so, I am eternally jealous)? Keeping this in mind can help you avoid running out of room at a critical moment.

As you can see, my colorful kitchen is teeny tiny. While I feel happy every time I walk into it, I do still find myself sighing, thinking back to  my old spacious, if not as bright, East Somerville kitchen. Here, I need to consider space very carefully. I have an apartment stove and fridge, and I need to remember that when cooking. 

For my Thanksgiving feast, for example, I needed the oven for my main dish, and for my vegetables.  My cranberry orange chicken needed about thirty minutes in the oven, after browning the chicken and starting the sauce on the stove. I needed to roast my brussels sprouts for about an hour, but the corn only needed fifteen minutes or so. Even using quarter sheet pans, I couldn’t roast everything at once. The corn, though, could cook while the chicken rested and I ate my soup.

Speaking of the soup, I made that the day before, meaning that I could use a small pot to heat up a serving on the big day, leaving room for browning the chicken and making the pomme purée.  Planning around my tiny kitchen meant that I had fun, instead of freaking out.

Remind me to tell you sometime about how I got all this Le Creuset. Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

Your cooking equipment (pots and pans, etc.)

Do you have what you need to cook what you want to cook? If not, would you be able to get it? This seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget, especially when something is buried deep in a recipe. You can get around some things (e.g., a fat separator, while hugely convenient, isn’t required—you can skim fat off with a spoon), others are more fundamental (e.g., I learned that I needed to invest in quarter-sheet pans after trying to pop a half sheet of veggies into the oven to roast not long after I moved here—thankfully I had a baking dish that worked in that pinch, but otherwise, I would have been out of luck).

Your budget

How much do you want to spend on your feast? Have your budget in mind before you start looking at recipes. You can have caviar, lobster with truffles (I can’t—allergic—but you can), filet mignon, and the best champagne, absolutely, but you don’t need to spend that kind of money to cook something special. I have made New Year’s feasts when I’ve been dead broke; indeed I started doing this when I was dead broke, because I couldn’t afford to go out. I just had to be very selective about my ingredients.

This year, I may well splurge on filet mignon—I’m still finalizing my menu, and I have my eye on a recipe—but for feasts past, I’ve done a lot of braising with humbler cuts or foregone meat altogether (I was a longtime vegetarian). I still watch how many spices I buy and consider when else I may use something before shelling out ten bucks for something I’m going to use a quarter of a teaspoon of once.

Leftovers and food waste

Cooking for one generally means having at least some food left over, even if you’ve halved a recipe. Food waste is a big problem (and something that I have yet to overcome), and something to consider as you plan. A whole turkey probably isn’t the best idea. Neither are dishes that have to be eaten straight away (if you’re making a pasta sauce, cook individual servings of pasta. Don’t plan for leftovers for most fish dishes).

Can you freeze your leftovers? My freezer is small (and rather full at the moment), so I have to be careful to plan for things I want to eat for a day or two, or use the leftovers in other ways. I’m still working on this, and if you have found something that helps, please pass it on in the comments.

Your time

How much time you want to spend cooking? Some dishes take less time than others. Some can be made ahead (and are indeed even tastier the next day), giving you some flexibility, while others must be served immediately. Think about how much time you want to spend over your stove and chopping, and try to mix it up a bit with dishes to help with timing. For example, I usually take advantage of the fact that I like simple salads with puckery vinaigrettes or walnut oil and fleur de sel, and relatively simple vegetable dishes, and spend time on other parts of my meal.

Have a general idea in mind about when you want to eat, too. It’s just you, so if things take longer, so you won’t have a table full of starving guests waiting on you. Still, you might not want to be eating at midnight.

My cookbook and magazine collection. Some I purchased after my travels, but I was in love with French food before I ever traveled to France. Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

Now the fun begins! Plan your Merry Little Solo Christmas Dinner!

Now that you’ve done a little thinking, the fun part begins!

The home culinary world is your oyster.

Do you have a recipe that you’ve been dying to try? A favorite cookbook with a dish you love but haven’t made in years? A decadent dessert that you don’t make because it’s naughty?

Now’s the time.

Get out your cookbooks and cooking magazines. Read those cooking blogs, and pour over your Pinterest boards. Make a list of what tantalizes you.

If you’re a new cook, think about something you enjoyed eating. Search for that. Here, Pinterest is a huge help.

Still stuck? Leave a comment, and we’ll see what we can do.

How many courses?

How many courses do you want to have? My festive meals tend to have seven: appetizer, soup, main, vegetable, salad (yes, toward the end), cheese, and dessert. I usually avoid a fish course, not because I don’t like fish, but because it needs to be eaten straight away, posing timing challenges, and because, well … even with a window open, my whole place is going to smell like fish. Instead, I often incorporate some kind of fish into my appetizer (e.g., smoked trout rillettes, boquerones, or the like).

Your ideal feast might look very different from this—awesome! Please tell us all about it. 

If you are a new cook, mastering a main course and vegetable is absolutely amazing. Relish it.

Deciding on your main course and your vegetable can help to guide the rest of your meal. For example, if you are going to have a roast chicken and potatoes, with maple Dijon brussels sprouts, you probably don’t want a cauliflower soup (though Dorie Greenspan’s from Around My French Table is to die for). Instead, you might want to have a lemony carrot soup with dill (my recipe, coming up in the next post in the series!).

Store bought, as they say, is fine (for some things)

Do you enjoy baking bread? Yeast breads can be fairly simple to make (I like this one from Food52. It freezes very well). While a homemade bread soothes the soul, purchasing a small loaf of something special is more than fine if you don’t have time or you don’t enjoy baking.

Don’t forget (narrator: I didn’t forget) dessert!

What sweet treat will you eat? Many desserts can and should be made ahead, especially chocolate treats. May I suggest a decadent cake (this one keeps nicely, justifying making a full recipe)? For Thanksgiving, I made pots de crème, because I could halve the recipe. If you’re anything like me, you want to watch how many sweets you have on hand after the big day, but that cake is worth an exception.

A quick note about specialty ingredients and a backup plan

Think about what you have on hand already, and what specialty ingredients your recipes call for. Especially this year, when many of us are shopping online for groceries, or trying to limit our trips to the market, it’s a good idea to try and make sure that your entire meal isn’t hinging on a hard-to-find item.

Many dishes have a similar, but not exact, set of ingredients, and being able to have a backup plan if something is out of stock can help avert disappointment. 

Kitchen table
The leaves of this old table fold out for dining, but only the base is suitable for chopping. I do wish I had more counter space! The "What If?" card is a prompt I left for myself to encourage me to dream about possibilities for my life (no one's coming over, so I've got little notes for myself all over the place). Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

A Merry Little Freebie for your menu

Once you’ve settled on your dishes for dinner (depending upon what you decided, you can switch things up if need be, but it’s still good to have a plan), write out your menu. 

I’ve created a customizable menu for you to add a touch  of ceremony to your meal.

For this and other free wonders and sundries, please subscribe below! 

Next up: your shopping list and a recipe

With that, it will be time to plan your shopping, and then let the cooking begin! We’ll cover shopping and cooking in the next post, along with the recipe for lemony carrot soup with dill.