BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Holiday dinner may be the one time each year the whole family gathers around the table, but that doesn't mean a host has to sacrifice the rest of his or her time with them to make it happen.This isn't the Depression-era Midwest, and there are far more holiday dinner alternatives available to revelers and their loved ones than Peking duck from the Chinese restaurant in A Christmas Story. Not only will some restaurant chains cook a family's holiday dinner for them but, as folks who don't celebrate Christmas know all too well, there are a handful of options for dining out Christmas night as well. Given the costs and labor associated with with getting the family to the dinner table that night, even cooks who consider the holiday meal a labor of love may look longingly at a catering menu. Holiday shoppers plan to spend an average of $105 on food this year, up from $91 in 2004 and $86 as recently as 2008, according to the National Retail Federation. That's after serving up a Thanksgiving dinner that the American Form Bureau Federation estimated at an average of $49.20 for 10 people, or 13% more than families spent last year on turkey (which cost $4 more alone this Thanksgiving), stuffing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and other holiday fare. Though Thanksgiving turkey gives way to Christmas ham in some holiday households, the price of that ham has porked up by more than 20% since last holiday season, according to the CME Group's Lean Hog Index. Those rising costs at the supermarket may have something to do with the 31% of holiday travelers who told American Express' ( AXP) Spending and Savings Tracker that they planned to dine out during their holiday trip home, up from 20% last year. For holiday hosts who want to spend more time enjoying holiday dinner with their family than preparing it for them, we've found five chains that have no problem doing the cooking while they get the credit:
When turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans and corn are menu staples on a normal day, it's not exactly mind-blowing when Boston Market rolls them out for the holidays as well. The 480-restaurant chain offers a la carte options such as eight-pound spiral hams, three-pound turkey breasts and 11-pound whole turkeys, appetizers, pies and sides, but it also dishes out heat-and-serve dinner combos for as many as a dozen people and catered buffets of turkey, ham or beef brisket from $9 to $14 per person. The chain boasts that the $90 price of its ready-made turkey dinner for 12 with a whole turkey, spinach artichoke dip with crackers, mashed potatoes, vegetable stuffing, cranberry relish, gravy, dinner rolls, apple pie and pumpkin pie came in well below the $117 price tag off all of those items bought individually at Publix back in October, but the $9.73-per-person price of the supermarket spread comes in higher than the majority of Boston Market's heat-and-eat options. The chain's most expensive spiral ham spread for 12 with an eight-pound ham, spinach artichoke dip appetizer, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cinnamon apples, gravy, dinner rolls and apple and pumpkin pies is $100, but comes out to $8.33 per person. The meal still needs about two hours or so to heat everything, but the time saved on prep work may be worth that $8.33 a head to a harried host.
If a family that's lost the will to cook on Christmas is fortunate enough to live near one of Luby's 95 U.S. locations, the comfort-food chain is willing to set the holiday menu for the right price. Much like Boston Market, Luby's best attempts at setting the holiday table come through its heat-and-serve meals. For $80, a family of 10 to 12 gets its choice of a whole roasted turkey, whole smoked turkey, whole deep-fried turkey, whole roasted turkey breast, spiral ham or a turkey breast and spiral ham combo with trimmings, rolls and either a pumpkin or pecan pie. Bump the holiday order up to $110 and Luby's will sub in roasted prime beef, mashed potatoes, strawberry cheesecake and holiday pie. If you don't need the whole meal, Luby's will supply those meat options, sides such as caramelized yams and macaroni au gratin and desserts including chocolate ice box pie or German chocolate cake a la carte. All of the above still takes two to two and a half hours to heat, which is why those who want to limit their workload to lifting glasses of eggnog and passing out to a Love Actually DVD should consider Luby's catering service for 10 or more that runs from $7 to $11 a head.
Not only is the 24-hour joint that gave America the Grand Slam breakfast and a grilled cheese sandwich filled with mozzarella sticks open on Christmas, but the holiday is the chain's busiest day of the year. According to a Denny's representative, 1,236,633 diners filled Denny's booths on Christmas Day last year, with most popping in between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Those customers aren't waiting for the waitress to carve them off a slice of ham or turkey, either; 233,812 Build Your Own Grand Slam meals were served last Christmas, making it the holiday's top seller. In Denny's defense, the Build Your Own Grand Slam does get dressed up a bit for the holiday. This season's options include bread pudding french toast with a sweet cream glaze, brown sugar ham steak and pumpkin pie pancakes. The rest of the menu gets into the spirit as well by offering a holiday turkey dinner with turkey breast, stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce and a choice of two sides and holiday turkey melt sandwich with turkey breast and stuffing topped with melted swiss, served with a shmear of cranberry honey mustard spread and a cup of turkey gravy for dipping. It's not exactly Norman Rockwell's idea of a holiday at the dining room table, but you can always get your Red Velvet Pancake Puppies with cream cheese to go.
Not every place is going to be able to provide the full meal for you, but they can at least pitch in. The more than 110 Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes locations in the U.S. are willing to take the side dishes and desserts off a holiday host's hands if he or she can just handle the main course. The buffet chain will bake a caramel apple, peach, mixed berry or cherry cobbler and have it ready for pickup on Christmas day. It also prepares caesar, roasted turkey and pasta side salads to add to the spread and sells tubs of its chocolate chip cookie and sugar cookie dough for last-minute desserts. While these options aren't nearly as helpful as preparing heat-and-eat meals or catering the whole holiday event, they take at least some of the hassle out of a hectic schedule. At the very least, they're a happier alternative to spending a sad holiday at the buffet.
With all that flair on, you know the Friday's staff is down for a holiday party. While it's not a lock that every Friday's will be open, a Friday's representative says that several of the chain's nearly 1,000 locations -- including the T.G.I. Fridays in New York's Times Square -- will keep their regular hours Christmas Day. As tempting as celebrating with some sizzling chicken and shrimp, Jack Daniels flatiron steak and sesame jack chicken fingers sounds, there's one really great reason to hit a Friday's on Christmas night: booze, and lots of it. If it's your first Christmas dinner without the kids, your second or third in a new, far-flung home or your dozenth with your circle of friends, a place that will serve you plate after plate of apps accompanied by Tropical Berry Margaritas, big glasses of beer or concoctions of holiday cheer such as an Ultimate Electric Lemonade can make even a pre-fab restaurant feel like a pretty cozy temporary home for the holidays. -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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