Cooking festive meal needn't be chore

October 25, 2007|By MARIE GILBERT

Some people would have a bone to pick with their family if they had to prepare and host Thanksgiving dinner 50 years in a row.

Not Helen Gwynn.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," the 75 year-old Hagerstown woman said. "It's a family tradition - and I'm big on tradition."

The same could be said for Ina La Grutta.

For almost 48 years, the Hagerstown resident's dining room has been the setting for her family's holiday meals.

"I know some people think it's a lot of work," she said. "But I love to cook. And after all these years, I can do it with my eyes shut."

The two local women are typical of older cooks who love baking and cooking for family and friends.

But whether they're serving a small group or a large crowd, both women said they have adopted a rule that helps them enjoy the holidays - keep things simple.


Asking for help

They shop early, prepare several dishes ahead of time and do something that, years ago, they might not have considered: They ask for help.

"Everybody brings something," said La Grutta. "I do the turkey and some of the side dishes that my family loves. But my kids are good cooks and enjoy helping out."

Keeping things uncomplicated and being willing to ask for an extra pair of hands in the kitchen are just two ways to eliminate holiday stress, regardless of age, said Karin Kozlowski, nutrition outreach instructor with the Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties offices of the West Virginia University Extension Service.

"The holidays are special times to enjoy being with family and friends," she said. "But it's lost if you're exhausted and nervous. Keep things as simple as possible. This is not about proving anything to anybody."

According to Kozlowski, an important key to eliminating stress is planning ahead.

"It's so important," she said. "And the sooner the better. Weeks before the meal, start thinking about what you want to cook, develop a menu, find out how many people you will be hosting and how much you need to prepare."

Another good tip, Kozlowski said, is to shop early.

Some things you can't buy ahead of time, such as fruits and vegetables. But canned goods and packaged items can easily be purchased and stored, she said. Also, make sure you have all the ingredients you need for baking and cooking so you're not making a last-minute trip to the store only to discover the items are sold out.

It's also important to balance the menu with things that can be made ahead of time and things that must be made the day of the feast, she said.

And don't be afraid to ask for help.

"I teach nutrition and cooking classes to a lot of older folks," Kozlowski said, "and I often encourage them to have a relative or friend lend a hand in the kitchen. Instead of looking at it as asking for help, consider it a great opportunity to get together, a nice way to socialize."

If you're feeling overwhelmed, adapt the menu to what you're able to prepare, Kozlowski suggested.

"I've ratcheted down, myself," she said. "I don't always do a turkey. It doesn't have to be the standard holiday food. Think outside the box. Instead of turkey, roast a chicken. If lasagna is easier, make lasagna. Don't feel you have to prepare the same kind of meal you did 30 years ago."

Most importantly, Kozlowski urged, keep your holiday expectations realistic.

"As a senior citizen, give yourself permission to say 'no'," she said.

"Be realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish," she said. "And don't expect perfection. The day should be pleasant, not perfect."

La Grutta said the stress level has dropped considerably since the early days of her marriage when she fed "big, big crowds of relatives."

"Now it's just my children and their families," she said.

Known for her great Southern food, La Grutta remembers a time when she was still learning her way around the kitchen.

"My first Thanksgiving was a disaster," she recalled. "We were living in Texas and it was just me and my husband, his boss and wife.

"We had just gotten married and I had no table linens, no fancy dishes and we ate at a small kitchen table. To top it off, the turkey was tough and undercooked. I had no idea how long you cooked a turkey. It was a nightmare."

Since her retirement from teaching several years ago, La Grutta said she enjoys cooking more than ever.

"I cook all the time. I'm always making food for my kids and my grandson's teachers. I just love being in the kitchen," she said.

Her advice to the younger cook?

Cooking is like anything else, she said. "When you're comfortable, it's a breeze."

Gwynn said she was brought up in a family of good cooks and was taught that preparing a meal was a labor of love.

"So I don't look upon cooking and baking as a chore," she said. "I've had to slow down over the last few years, but my favorite room is still the kitchen."

Her children once suggested they go to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner.

"I know they were thinking of me," she said. "But I nixed that idea right away. I like leftovers too much."

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