The sudden announcement of new coronavirus restrictions on the last weekend before Christmas has forced many of us to change our festive plans at short notice.
With the news that households in Tier 4 areas will be unable to mix on Christmas Day, and Christmas celebrations restricted to one day elsewhere, many now face the prospect of spending Christmas with fewer people than expected.
If you like to buy your Christmas essentials in advance, this may have left you with a surplus of festive food. Alternatively, if you were expecting to spend Christmas elsewhere, you may be scrambling for supplies ahead of the big day.
Here, we run through what you can do with excess food, and some tips on pulling together a last-minute Christmas meal.
Latest coronavirus advice from Which? – what you need to know about your rights, travel, shopping and more
What to do with surplus Christmas food
If you’ve got an online food order and it’s yet to arrive, you may still be able to amend or cancel the order.
Otherwise, here are some tips on how to handle excess food – from safe storage to ways to donate or share it:
Large joints of meat
If you don’t want to be eating turkey sandwiches until the new year, consider freezing your leftover meat. Depending on the joint, it may be possible to portion and freeze some of your meat before cooking, which could give you extra oven space for the trimmings.
But if you’re after a show-stopping centrepiece, it would be better to cook the whole joint as usual, then freeze the leftovers after you’ve eaten. Remember to allow cooked meat to cool to room temperature before freezing, and always keep it separate from raw meat.
Meat can be frozen for a long time, but the quality begins to deteriorate after a few months, so it’s best to try and find some inventive new recipes to use it up gradually over the winter months ahead.
Vegetarian and vegan options
If you had veggie or vegan centrepieces planned – shop-bought ones are likely to be freezer-friendly – check the packaging for details. Homemade options such as nut roast also freeze well.
Best vegan Christmas meals – Which? experts rate supermarket offerings for 2020
Most vegetables can be frozen, but if they have a particularly high water content, like broccoli and cabbage, they can go soggy.
Carrots and parsnips are best prepped and cooked to ‘al dente’ levels before freezing. If you planned on making stewed red cabbage, again it may be better to prep it and then freeze, ready for a postponed celebration at a later date.
Another option is to make up some batches of soup – an easy and forgiving way to use up a range of veg quickly. This can be portioned and frozen – perfect for when you need a warming lunch on a cold winter’s day.
If you’re cooking a turkey or chicken, you can make stock out of the carcass, too, and use some for your soup and freeze the rest for future batches.
Foods you can and can’t freeze, and how to do it right – check our guide to freezing foods before you get started.
Cheese and crackers
It might surprise you to know that cheese can be frozen as well (except soft cheeses such as brie, which lose their texture once defrosted).
Crackers last well if still in their packaging or in airtight containers, but if you have more than you need, consider donating them and other non-perishable foods such as biscuits to a local food bank.
Some food banks have rules on what they can and can’t accept, while others may have specific shortages this Christmas, so look online or call ahead if you’re unsure.
As a starting point, you can check the Trussell Trust or your local authority’s website for local food banks, advice on what is most needed and what they can and can’t accept.
Lots of Christmas drinks can be stored for a while, and some will taste all the better for it.
If you’re storing wine, keep bottles on their sides and out of the fridge (the ideal temperature for storing wine is around 13°C, which is much warmer than a fridge). For more advice on storing wine, see our five top tips for storing wine at home.
For drinks with a shorter shelf-life, it is again worth considering whether they could be taken to a food bank. Long-life fruit juice usually keeps for six to 12 months, but it’s one of the most requested items by food banks so, if you won’t be pouring as many glasses of Buck’s Fizz as usual, a donation could help spread some festive cheer.
Most shop-bought desserts can be frozen, but check on the packaging if you’re unsure.
Freshly baked goods don’t usually last as long as store-bought desserts, so if you’ve already gone to the effort of baking your own Christmas dessert, consider dividing it up and freezing excess portions as soon as possible.
Freezing portions separately will also allow you to defrost smaller amounts at a time, so you won’t need to finish the rest of your dessert in one go, no matter how tempting it is.
Dairy products, such as milk, cream and yoghurt, can be frozen if you don’t think you’ll get through them all before the expiry date, but the texture can suffer somewhat upon defrosting, and they’re best used for cooking.
- 7 ways to fit more in your freezer – our top tips for squeezing everything in
Other Christmas food
If you’re whipping up a smoked salmon starter on the big day, but now worry that you’ve bought too much, don’t panic: smoked salmon freezes well. Just be sure to put it in the freezer before its use-by date.
Panettone also keeps well. With a shelf-life of four to six months, it won’t quite make it until next Christmas, but if you’ve got lots of festive treats to get through, it can hold out well into 2021. Once opened, you could freeze sections of it so you don’t have to demolish it all in one go.
A good resource for checking how best to store any other foods you have spare is the LoveFoodHateWaste A-Z of food storage guide.
Not enough space in the freezer?
Freezer already packed to the rafters? Have a bit of a clear-out and get rid of any ancient bits that may be lurking in there. It’s a good idea to clearly label and date any food you add in, so it’s easier to identify what needs to be used up first.
Consider what you could donate via food banks or food-sharing apps too; some people in your area may be unexpectedly lacking in festive food this year due to the changes in Christmas mixing rules.
Food-sharing app Olio is one option. It allows you to post items you have spare for pick-up in your local area. The app has advice around doing this in a COVID-safe way, so be sure to read this carefully first.
What to do if you need a last-minute Christmas dinner
If you were planning to join a festive celebration elsewhere on the big day, but the new restrictions mean you’ll have to cobble together a last-minute Christmas dinner instead, you could also check out Olio to see what’s going spare in your neighbourhood.
Here are some more tips for creating a Christmas feast in a hurry:
- Buy a smaller cut of meat: Consider a smaller cut like a turkey crown or a chicken – they’re much cheaper and easier to prepare, and you won’t be left with a load of leftovers. You could also opt for something non-traditional to make Christmas special – local butchers should be able to advise on options and how best to cook them.
- Look for cheap treats: If some of the big centrepiece dishes have already sold out, don’t despair. There are lots of inexpensive ways to create the flavours and smells of Christmas Day. For example, brew up some mulled wine or treat yourself to a cheap, yet delicious, mince pie.
- Experiment: If you’re cooking for yourself this year, see it as an opportunity to be creative. Why not turn your roast into a festive turkey burger by adding cranberry, brie and a crusty roll to your meal?
- Shop safely: Although the timing of the restrictions may cause a bit of a scramble to get Christmas dinner sorted, it’s important to remember why they are in place. Follow our supermarket shopping Christmas advice guide to keep up to date with supermarket opening hours and shopping options for vulnerable people, and check our advice on the new COVID-19 variant and what it means for you.
- Stay connected with family and friends: Thanks to video calling, spending Christmas on your own doesn’t mean you have to eat alone. Seeing family and friends around tucking into their lunch may help bring some normality to an otherwise bizarre Christmas day. And once the plates are cleared away, check out our favourite virtual Christmas games.
Five ways to make the most out of Christmas 2020 – more tips on making virtual Christmas work for you