Cooking Up A Distraction

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

September 11, 2009 5 min read

The smell of freshly roasted turkey still wafts through the kitchen as you carefully pipe a line of mashed potatoes around the edge of the green bean and mushroom casserole. The glazed carrots shimmer in a buttery sauce, anticipating a dusting of fresh parsley, and a bowl of whole cranberries -- cooked and chilled to perfection -- awaits a wreath of wafer-thin orange slices.

It's fun to add those last-minute personal touches to what you've prepared for Christmas dinner. But if you don't want help or to be interrupted as you go about completing your culinary masterpieces, experts say you should plan some activities in advance to keep your guests occupied and out of the kitchen until dinner is served.

Playing guessing games is one way, maintains Jill Spiegel, television personality and author of "How To Talk to Anyone About Anything!" "Guess What I'm Thinking" is a simple talking/connecting game, she says, one that adults and children can play together.

Someone in the group starts by saying, "I'm thinking of my favorite food (or color or animal or sport). Who can guess what I'm thinking?" Then each person takes a turn guessing. "Whoever gets it right becomes the 'Guess What I'm Thinking' leader in the next round," Spiegel explains.

"This game engages everyone and also helps people learn more about one another," contends Minneapolis-based Spiegel, who has been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today" show. "Children love simple guessing games, but it's also fun for adults. If it's only adults playing, you can broaden the topics to a favorite movie, band or book and give the genre as a hint."

Lots of other games also can make for suitable pre-dinner diversions, including holiday trivia contests, doing Christmas jigsaw puzzles and playing Christmas card games. Holiday DVDs and Blu-ray discs and seasonal television programs are also good choices. If the weather cooperates, your guests may want to arrive a bit early and go caroling around the neighborhood before sitting down to eat.

If your guests will include children or adults with disabilities, do some research before the gathering, urges Dr. Scott Barkin, executive director of the Block Institute, a facility that assists children and adults with special needs. Don't be afraid to ask about food allergies or preparation, seating and activities that might be too noisy or overstimulating.

"Questions will be appreciated by the family," Barkin says, but you will need to be "sensitive and tactful." Before asking questions, let your guests know that you want them to be a part of the holiday gathering and that you want to know what is most comfortable for them and their family, Barkin says. Planning ahead of time is key.

Susie Coelho, former host of HGTV's "Outer Spaces" and "Surprise Gardener" and a best-selling author and lifestyle contributor to "The View," "Today" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show," believes you can keep guests from being underfoot in the kitchen by appealing to their stomachs.

A chocolate fountain set up on the living room console could be a pre-dinner crowd pleaser, Coelho says, as will some light and fresh appetizers, such as grilled shrimp that's accompanied by a ponzu marinade. "This can be grilled and then served cold or at room temperature," she says. She also recommends a cheese platter, one "with little signs that turn people on to various new cheeses" that also includes fresh fruits -- such as apples, Concord grapes and Asian pears.

Make the appetizer table beautiful by sticking to a limited color palette, adds Coelho. "This will really make a statement. You can also add interest by displaying your food at different heights." But whatever you do, don't overdo, she warns. Serving too many appetizers beforehand could spoil Christmas dinner, traditionally a large meal. "You actually want people to be a bit hungry."

What if your guests insist on helping with those final touches? "Get them to help set the table, fold napkins, put on music, pour the wine, get the water glasses full with ice, and get out serving utensils. If all else fails, put a drink in their hands, and tell them to RELAX because you have it under control," Coelho says.

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