Simple Hits: A Guide to Tasty Holiday Recipes for Busy People

Photos of mac and cheese, cooked spinach, and baked carrots against an orange background.

Growing up, my mother was an outstanding cook and baker. Every birthday and holiday was cloaked in the comforting smells of freshly-baked pound cakes, the creamiest of casseroles, and the most succulent salmon dishes. Everyone had a seat at our holiday tables – friends, family, and strangers who needed a place to call home for the day. 

Unfortunately, when my mother began to develop memory loss, recipes were also lost and the house quieted with fewer and fewer family gatherings. Once she was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (the leading form of the deadly disease for people under the age of 60), we treated the holidays just like any other day because I didn’t believe I could recreate my mother’s magic. 

Eventually, I remembered a few of the recipes she’d taught me before I left for college. Now, as my parents’ full-time caregiver, I don’t have much time or energy to spend trying to recreate elaborate meals, but I do have a catalog of quick and easy go-tos to help make the seasons bright.

Quick Peach Cobbler

The first time I made this dessert was in high school for my cooking class. Our assignment was to bake and bring in recipes our families make for the holidays or other special events. While I wanted to make my mother’s famous Precious Poundcake, that was too labor intensive, so she showed me how to make the Quick Peach Cobbler instead, though we hadn’t made it for the holidays at the time. Since then, it’s become a Christmastime staple.

Ingredients: Three packs of graham crackers, one box of vanilla cake mix, brown sugar, salted butter, vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, and two large cans of peaches in heavy syrup. Whipped cream and ice cream are optional. This may be made vegan or vegetarian by using plant-based butter and whipped topping or ice cream.

Instructions: Preheat oven to 350º. Crumble graham crackers. Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add half of the dry ingredients into a foil baking tin or glass casserole dish. Pour peaches into a separate bowl. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Pour peaches over dry ingredients in a foil tin or casserole dish. Crumble cold butter with the remaining dry ingredients. Bake in oven until topping is golden brown. Let cool for 15 minutes. Top with whipped cream or ice cream. 

Extra Cheesy Macaroni & Cheese

Once, when one of my dearest childhood friends came to visit, we ate a whole casserole dish of my mother’s macaroni & cheese cold… with our hands. We were 12 at the time and that stuff was delicious! Imagine what it tastes like warmed up, eaten with a fork?

Ingredients: One bag of elbow macaroni noodles. Two large bags of shredded cheese of your choice (cheddar and jack recommended). Three large eggs. One cup of buttermilk. One cup of 2% milk. Salt and pepper.

Instructions: Preheat oven to 400º. Boil macaroni in a pot for eight minutes or until it reaches the level of preferred tenderness. Rinse macaroni in a colander. Add macaroni to a mixing bowl. Add eggs, buttermilk, milk, and one bag of shredded cheese to the bowl and fold until thoroughly mixed. Add salt and pepper to taste. Coat the casserole dish with cooking spray or vegetable oil. Pour mixture into casserole dish. Add one bag of shredded cheese to the top of the mixture so that it covers the noodles completely. Bake for 40 minutes or until the top is bubbling and golden brown. Serve with a meal or eat as an entree!

Seasoned Greens

Traditionally, my family has always enjoyed collard greens for the holidays. We even had a friend who came to our house for Thanksgiving specifically to get a to-go portion of collard greens. It’s also a yearly tradition in a lot of Southern households to make collard greens as a symbol of prosperity for the New Year. However, I like to play around with different kinds of green veggies, from collards to kale, canned green beans to fresh – there are so many options that don’t require a lot of work!

Ingredients: Any leafy green or green bean, a turkey leg (you may also use turkey bacon), chicken stock, white or yellow onion, salt, and pepper. This may also be made vegetarian or vegan by not using meat products.

Instructions: Add turkey leg or turkey bacon and a white or yellow onion to a pot of chicken stock. Fresh vegetables from the produce department or farmer’s market should be cleaned thoroughly in a salt and ice water bath. Remove stems. Add greens to pot and boil until greens cook down and are tender to the touch. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot!

Glazed Carrots

One year the store was all out of sweet potatoes. I was so heartbroken until I remembered that cooked carrots taste an awful lot like sweet potatoes! Here is a quick little recipe to give you all the holiday feels!

Ingredients: Carrots of any color or size (baby carrots recommended), brown sugar, vanilla extract or flavoring, salted butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Instructions: Preheat oven to 400º. Cover a baking sheet in aluminum foil. Coat foil in cooking spray or butter. Spread carrots across the baking sheet. Crumble cold butter with brown sugar, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Spread mixture over carrots. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until you can easily penetrate the carrot with a fork.

Bonus: Baked Chicken

When I began caring for my mother, I took over cooking for my family. I kept looking for shortcuts that would make the process easy and tasty. So, one fall day, I remembered that salad dressings like balsamic vinaigrette also make great marinades. While marinating meat sounds fancy, it really is just about the simplest thing you can do to prepare a main course.

Ingredients: Your preferred cut of chicken (I use drumsticks), two bottles of your salad dressing or marinade of choice.

Instructions: Preheat the oven to 400º. Cover a baking sheet with two sheets of aluminum foil – one for the length, one for the width – being sure to cover the edges. Coat the foiled baking sheet with half a bottle of dressing or marinade. Place chicken on the baking sheet. Pour the remaining dressing or marinade over the chicken until completely covered. Bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until a fork successfully goes through the largest piece of chicken without force. 

Thanksgiving should be a time you can relax and enjoy time with your people. Simple recipes will help you set a warm, cozy tone for the day without breaking the bank or exhausting your mind and body. All of these recipes can be made in advance, giving you plenty of time to rest, space to breathe, and room to care for loved ones and yourself. 

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