Holiday Meals... to Go

I remember as a kid when it was a major secret if your mom ordered food for a dinner party, especially your family's holiday dinner. The food would be secretly brought home, tucked under a coat and then quickly dished out on your own platters and serving dishes. But these days the stigma of ordering food for dinner parties is thankfully gone. At least that's what I'm hoping.

Aside from doing some Christmas shopping here and there, I've spent the last two weeks shopping for my family's Christmas dinner. Yes, my family will be getting a main course prepared by a complete stranger, in a kitchen none of us has ever seen. And I'm not the only one. Stores like Whole Foods and Giant say they've seen a huge uptick in the number of people ordering their holiday dinners.

"In the last five years, we're doing triple or quadruple the amount of oven-ready dinners we've done in the past," said Michael Gallagher, Whole Foods' prepared foods coordinator in the mid-Atlantic region. "As entertaining becomes more popular in the home, a lot of customers are looking for quick and easy solutions to having to bake and prepare food all day."

There are a ton of options for prepared dinners like the Honey Baked Ham store and restaurants like Boston Market and Chicken Out. I shopped some of the area's grocery stores to see what types of holiday dinners they had to offer. Here's what I found:

Most stores offer turkey, ham or beef dinners, complete with traditional sides like mashed potatoes, green beans, gravy and stuffing. But the more gourmet the store, the more choices you have in sides and main meals and how they're cooked. Standard grocery stores like Giant offer a Butterball turkey with Boston Market potatoes and creamed spinach. A turkey dinner from Whole Foods, however, is dressed with herbs and sitting on a bed of mirepoix. It's offered with sides like cranberry pineapple glazed carrots and haricots verts with almonds. And gourmet stores also tend to offer more alternatives to the traditional main course like prepared salmon, steaks, lobster tails or lasagna.

Without tasting the food, a major difference between the prepared holiday meals at most local grocery stores is price. On one end you're paying between $50 and $90 for an 8-10 person turkey, ham or beef dinner, including all the sides and dessert, at stores like Giant and Harris Teeter. At gourmet stores like Balducci's, you're paying between $140 and $210 for six-person meals that include a similar amount of food. A 12-person turkey dinner at Balducci's is $240. Whole Foods' 8-10 person meals, including side dishes and dessert, range from $160 to $250.

So why the huge price difference? Ask the stores and they say they offer high-quality products. But..."generally the items that you're getting are canned or frozen," says Gallagher of Whole Foods' competitors. "All of our items are fresh." Balducci's also says it's the quality of the food. But a Giant spokesman says you have to consider how much food is coming with the meal and the brand names Giant offers, like Butterball and Boston Market.

So how do you choose? Some stores offer tastings of their holiday fare. Balducci's will have tasting tables set up in its Alexandria store today and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Whole Foods will offer samples if you ask for them. Giant can only offer tastings of its side dishes and desserts. If you like safety in numbers, a Giant spokesman says the store gets the most orders for turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And how do you know if you're getting enough food? Most of the meals will tell you how many people they serve. Or if you'd rather order food a la carte, which most stores offer, some rules of thumb are you need two to three vegetable side dishes and two starches for an eight-person party. Main meat dishes require a pound per person and sides should be about a half-pound per person.

So are you preparing your own holiday meal or ordering out? Who has the best food?

By Tania Anderson |  December 20, 2007; 3:00 AM ET Holidays and Special Occasions
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

we're ordering from picadilly cafeteria. they have the best sides. cooking for three is too much work!

Posted by: hype2 | December 20, 2007 8:30 AM

We always go to my cousin's house when she invites everyone over. It's either potluck or we just bring the some kind of side dish or dessert and watch the kids open their gifts.

Posted by: MissLyn | December 20, 2007 4:17 PM

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