IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

10 life-changing holiday kitchen hacks that will help you stress less, save time

This holiday season, consider giving yourself the gift of time. Dr. Fernstrom, NBC News' health editor, explains how you can save a lot of time on little tasks.
NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, left, and Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.
NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, left, and Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.Travis W Keyes

When it comes to self-care during the holiday season, what’s a better gift than time? With an already busy schedule, adding holiday cooking to the mix can be challenging.

The time savers that help me the most in the kitchen are the small things that add up. The first step is giving yourself permission to take some short cuts and take it easy on yourself!

Check out my favorite kitchen hacks. They go a long way to taking some holiday pressure off. It’s all about picking and choosing what works for you.

1. Create a self-serve bar with wine and beer

You don’t need a fully stocked bar to keep everyone happy. Keep it simple and festive. Start with one or two types of sparkling white wine, prosecco or champagne. Add one or two types of white and red wine to round it out. Include a regular beer, and a light version. And remember to have club soda, regular soda, and other drinks (regular and sugar-free) for those who don’t consume alcohol.

2. Buy ready-to-use chopped raw vegetables.

While it’s a little pricier, you’ll save a lot of prep time with ready to use onions, carrots, celery and any other vegetable. This is particularly helpful when you’re tackling a new or complicated recipe. After all, unlike a TV cooking show, your ingredients aren’t already sitting on the counter ready to go! This way, they can be.

3. Use boxed chicken, beef, or vegetable stock.

Look for low or reduced sodium products when you can, and add your own seasonings. Boxed stocks are a great base for soups, sauces, slow-cookers and instant pots. While the thought of a stock simmering on your stove for several hours is a good one, don’t feel that your dish is not “homemade” if you get a little pre-packaged head start.

4. Try some refrigerator dough – like crescent rolls.

Crescent rolls are the work horse for both sweet and savory treats. They’re also easier to handle than frozen puff pastry (that’s good too, if you prefer). For a delicious, easy and savory appetizer, roll up the crescent rolls with jarred pesto and grated Parmesan cheese. Or, turn the dough into a sweet dessert by spreading with Nutella or sprinkling a cinnamon-sugar mix. And don’t forget the perennial favorite, pigs in blankets!

5. Think about a boxed mix for cakes or cookies.

You can make this “semi-homemade” version of your favorite by jump starting with a mix. Add fruits, nuts, chips or other add-ins to make it your own. And decorating some refrigerated slice-and-bake cookies with your kids can create a warm holiday memory. No one will remember (or care) where the cookie dough came from!

6. Turn your holiday dinner into a buffet.

Even for smaller groups, setting out the food and allowing guests to serve themselves is a win-win for everyone. It’s more relaxed for you, and your guests get to freely choose their foods and serving size.

7. Consider a pot-luck gathering.

This is the best of both worlds. You cook one of your favorites and have your guests bring the rest. And organize your menu ahead of time, and make a specific request of what others should bring. Remember, it’s getting together that is the most important factor, so don’t feel like you’re less of a hostess if you don’t make everything.

8. Use disposable gloves as you cook.

Especially with raw chicken, meat and other items so easy to cross-contaminate, get a box of one-size disposable gloves to avoid the constant washing of your hands (the No. 1 food safety recommendation!). Simply remove the gloves and throw out.

9. Use your microwave oven for a quick prep.

While most of us use the microwave on “high” to reheat foods, simply lower the power intensity to soften garlic and melt butter or chocolate.

10. Clean as you go.

It’s not just for more cooking space, but you can re-use pots, pans, and bowls and avoid extra cleanup later. Or try an occasional heavy duty, disposable aluminum pan for roasts or messy baked foods.

The bottom line: Be inspired by holiday foods prepared and displayed on cooking shows and social media , but remember that it’s not a competition. Stick with as many food hacks as you can to make the holiday food scene enjoyable for you and your family.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.