Get outta here with your candy canes and eggnog whatever.
I unabashedly love everything about the holiday season. I deck my halls like Buddy the Elf, watch the same 10 Christmas movies every year and load up my plate (er, plates) with traditional Christmas foods like it’s my last meal. As soon as my local grocery store sets out their annual stock of Christmas goodies, you can find me filling my cart like Julia Child on Supermarket Sweep. And in the United States, we’ve definitely got our favorites. According to a 2020 survey, turkey’s the star for 73% of us, with prime rib (69%), roast beef (66%), steak (65%), chicken (64%), roast pork (64%) and ham (62%) also popular contenders. For sides, we love sweet potatoes (61%), macaroni and cheese (61%), scalloped potatoes (61%), green beans (58%) and of course, some kind of cheese (57%).
Christmas dinner traditions around the world often look a little different, in accordance with a rich variety of cultures. In Italy, seven fishes often grace their table and Puerto Rican and Filipino nochebuena celebrations often center around a whole roast suckling pig called lechon, while Sweden serves an array of pickled herring, cured salmon, meatballs, paté and sides called the julbord. And in Japan, the colonel comes to dinner with KFC fried chicken as a traditional merry meal. Venezuelans often wrap up hallecas, a sort of tamale nestled in banana leaves, which doubles as a family activity. And because it’s summer in Australia on Christmas, they’ll often throw some shrimp or other seafood on the barbie.
If you’re looking to fill your table with favorites this holiday season, allow me to share my highly opinionated, completely unscientific Christmas food list, in order from the treats I’ll pile high at the buffet table to those I’ll happily let the next person enjoy instead. When you’re done here, we’ve got lots more Christmas ideas where these came from.
Chocolate and Peppermint
Peppermint bark. Peppermint hot cocoa. Mint chocolate chip ice cream. If there’s a better combination than chocolate and peppermint, it’s never tickled my tastebuds. When you use this mint chocolate cookie dough recipe as the base for this year’s gingerbread house, you’ll finally understand the whole Hansel and Gretel situation.
At my house, it just isn’t Christmas until we roll out my great grandma’s cut-out cookies. The recipe famously calls for “between 2 and 12 cups of flour, or until the dough looks right,” and I almost broke my mixer trying to recreate it one year. Don’t be like me: Use this Good Housekeeping Test Kitchen-approved recipe instead.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Please, don’t bring me the figgy pudding. Sticky toffee is the real treat at my table. This British export consists of a warm, richly moist date cake drizzled with a decadent toffee-pecan sauce and topped with a big dollop of fresh whipped cream. Make like Charles Dickens and add this to your Christmas dessert table.
Baked brie is creamy, gooey, a little funky and tastes great with apples, pomegranates and spread on tiny toasts. At my house, I have to beat my not-so-little brother to the brie wheel or I won’t get any for myself. This simple, festive tart made with the star of the cheese tray at least attempts portion control.
The slightly sweet, spice-studded flavor of gingerbread tastes like the holiday season. But to me, biting the head off a man-shaped cookie is a little creepy for the most wonderful time of the year. These gingerbread wands are both easier than rolling and cutting and less reminiscent of cannibalism. You can also use this recipe for the classic shape cookie, if you like that sort of thing.
Roast Beef Tenderloin
At the end of The Grinch, the title character carves a many-limbed “roast beast” as the guest of honor. My mouth starts to salivate every time I watch him passing that platter. There’s just no more appropriate dish for a big holiday feast than a showstopper of a roast.
Chocolate bark looks fancy but couldn’t be easier. That’s my kind of treat: Maximum reward, minimal effort. You can’t go wrong with the peppermint classic (see slide one), but switching it up with different chocolate flavors and mix-ins keeps things personalized. It also makes a great, affordable gift.
Mashed potatoes are great and all, but mashed sweet potatoes? That’s my carb choice, every time. They’ve got the creamy goodness of the traditional mash, with about a hundred times more flavor and nutrition. Add a little rosemary and sprinkle the whole shebang with roasted pecans and watch everyone head back for seconds.
I love a gingerbread cookie, and we already know chocolate wins my heart every time. What I do not love is fiddly decoration. These mocha men solve that problem because they need nary a sprinkle; just a quick dunk in melted chocolate makes them ready for the ‘gram.
We love the way this glazed ham looks and the funky things it takes to cook. Glaze your ham with (yes!) root beer and serve this main with zero fear. I really like this Christmas ham, but not as much as I like yams.
I wait all year for stuffing season, but it wasn’t until I began making my own that I really fell for the stuff. Ditch the box and really go for it: Tear your own bread, chop some veggies, toss some fresh herbs in there. Mine’s cornbread-based, but your mileage may (and should!) vary according to your whims. Some years, I’m tempted to skip the turkey altogether and fill up on this stuff.
Turkey and Gravy
Many households swear by ham, lamb or another protein for Christmas dinner since it follows Thanksgiving so closely. But I still love a turkey centerpiece. Others (like my husband) consider the majestic bird too boring. If your turkey is bland too, you clearly haven’t tried this one that has herbs for days.
Sticky, tooth-achingly sweet and chock full o’ nuts, pecan pie is too rich to enjoy more than a few times a year. But when it rolls around, you bet I’m eating a large slice. This one combines the classic pecans with hazelnuts and walnuts for an even tastier twist. Serve it a la mode; you deserve it.
As a kid, I couldn’t understand why my mom always resisted making thumbprint cookies. Rolling dough between your hands, sticking your thumb right in the center, dusting with powdered sugar – it made the best mess. Now that I have to clean my own kitchen, I understand why she didn’t want to still keep digging sugar out of the grout a week later. They’re not in my top five cookie choices, but still worth the cleanup.
In the cranberry category, nothing beats homemade. If your family serves cranberry sauce at Christmas as well as Thanksgiving, level up for the second round with this zippy orange-apricot cranberry compote. Or just go for the homemade version both times. It’s that much better and it doubles as a glorious kitchen aromatic.
Even during the holiday season, you really shouldn’t eat candy all day long. That’s where these slightly spicy, slightly sweet roasted carrots come in. They go perfectly alongside your holiday main and even the kids won’t be grinches about eating their veggies.
The holiday season is a marathon, not a sprint, so you’re going to need some nutrition in your diet. Adding browned butter to Brussels sprouts brings out their naturally nutty sweetness. Toss in some sliced almonds and golden raisins and it’s practically a dessert. Your body will thank you.
Green Bean Casserole
For me, green bean casserole is like that one ornament that you made as a kid that looks a little rough. It’s not good exactly, but because it’s my grandma’s favorite, Christmas wouldn’t taste right without it. Our version adds cheddar and parmesan for a more modern (and in my opinion, way tastier) twist on ol’ reliable.
You’ll rarely find me bad-mouthing potatoes, but like I said before, strategy matters. That said, it’s not every day you get to create a little crater in a mound of spuds and fill it with gravy like your own personal volcano. Really go all out with these easy, garlicky taters that will repel vampires while you’re at it.
The charcuterie platter makes an appearance at many holiday gatherings, and here’s where you’ll find my one appeal to moderation. I love a snack dinner as much as the next person, but you’ve got to pace yourself. All those delectably salty meats and velvety cheeses will fill you up faster than you can say “Eat, papa! Eat!” Pace yourselves, revelers.
As far as I’m concerned, dinner rolls serve one purpose: soaking up extra gravy. While that’s still an important role (sorry), there are more important items on the table. But if you can’t skip rolls entirely, go for these buttery rosemary rolls that blow the canned kind right out of the running.
My family’s Christmas appetizer station has featured a wooden bowl of mixed nuts every holiday since time began, and I’m of two minds. Point: Cracking each one creates automatic portion control. Counterpoint: Who wants to waste time on plain nuts when there’s something much more exciting right over there? Adding a little spice solves that problem.
I love the festive, nutmeg-forward scent of eggnog. Splash a little rum or bourbon in there and we can all see how it became a classic. But a mug of eggs, cream, milk and sugar makes me feel like a long winter’s nap after just a couple sips. Every year, I end up tossing most of the carton. If your stomach has more stamina than mine, here’s a virtually foolproof method to make your own.
Why the traditionally dense, brick-like fruitcake even still exists is totally beyond me. It requires superhuman strength to chew through, requires at least three cups of wassail to wash down and at this point, makes a better punchline than dessert. Instead, take the dried fruit you would use for baking that bludgeoning weapon and use it in these tasty slice-and-bake cookies instead.
Assorted Box of Chocolates
Forrest Gump was right: Boxes of assorted chocolates aren’t for the faint of heart. Only some of them come with an answer key, and even those are a bit of a gamble. You could get a delicious peanut butter truffle, or end up with the ever-polarizing coconut creme. At least with the cookie tray, I know what I’m getting into.
Look, I love a salad for lunch during the work-week. I even toss one together when I’ve had a particularly decadent eating schedule lately. The day after Christmas, this vegan Caesar salad will be precisely what the doctor ordered. But on the day itself? I’m filling my platter with all of the decadent goodies.
Candy canes make great ornaments for your tree. They look cute as a garnish for your drink. And the red-and-white stripes even work as a makeup trend or attire. But to me, they’re just not worth it. If it isn’t dipped in chocolate, I’m using it as a decoration instead.
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