Create the perfect traditional Christmas dinner.

By Carl Hanson
Updated October 12, 2020
turkey on a Christmas table with red wine, corn, mashed potatoes
Credit: LauriPatterson / Getty Images

'Tis the season for feasting. And we're here to help you plan the perfect traditional Christmas dinner menu — with a standout main dish and a supporting cast of all-star sides that truly complement the meal. A few choice wine pairings will tie it all up in ribbons and bows.

Let's start with the main attraction. When we think of the traditional Christmas feast, mostly we think of three main dishes: Turkey, prime rib, and ham. As the star of the show, each main dish requires a supporting cast that complements their particular flavor profile. The primary flavor of each of these three mains is very different. Turkey is relatively bland, which allows the other recipes to take charge. Prime rib is big and robust, so its supporting players can be less bold. And depending on the preparation, ham can be by turns salty and sweet, which creates exciting opportunities for pairing side dishes.

1. Traditional Turkey Dinner

With a traditional turkey dinner, you want lots of flavor in the sides, including the sweet-sour flavor of cranberry sauce and candied sweet potatoes to stand out and contrast with the salty flavors of roasted turkey, gravy, and stuffing. Likewise, a classic green bean casserole brings bigger flavors to the table than a simple steamed or sauteed green beans recipe.

Even so, to round out the meal, you might prefer something fresh and green to contrast with the rich flavors, like a raw kale salad with mandarin orange slices and a bright dressing flavored with orange juice, mustard, and ground cumin. Raw salads in general are smart make-head moves — anything made in advance is one less dish to worry about when things get epic.

The type of turkey preparation also matters. If you're smoking or grilling the turkey, you'll end up with more flavorful meat than roasting. This offers a great excuse to round out the sides with creamy Mac and Cheese or scalloped potatoes. And with smoky or grilled flavors, you can choose bigger wines to pair with the meal, such as Syrah or Zinfandel. And if you prefer white wines, grab a Chardonnay, particularly if you're including mac and cheese on the menu.

whole roasted turkey on a white serving dish with carrots
Photo by Meredith
| Credit: Chef John

Sample Menu: Classic Turkey and Trimmings

Wine Pairing: Dry Riesling or a snappy Sauvignon Blanc. Or reds with some friendly acidity, like Pinot Noir or Barbera. Here's a more in-depth look at pairing wines with holiday dinners.

2. Christmas Prime Rib Dinner

With prime rib, such as our Christmas Prime Rib, you're working with a very flavorful main dish. So you might opt for a subtle, simple baked potato or Yorkshire pudding with au jus on the side instead of a big, flavorful beef gravy over mashed potatoes. And rather than a rich side-dish casserole, you might choose to simply roast a few root vegetables or quickly sauté green beans in butter, garlic, and lemon pepper.

You might also match those big beef flavors with an assertive, palate-cleansing horseradish sauce with a pinch of cayenne pepper. With such a classic old-school meal, you just can't beat bread pudding or old-fashioned gingerbread cake with Christmas-y spices like cinnamon and ginger for dessert.

Prime rib with juicy-looking pink interior on a white ceramic serving dish
Photo by Meredith
| Credit: iamjekob

Get the recipe: Christmas Prime Rib

Sample Menu: Prime Rib Deluxe

Wine Pairing: A red-friendly meal like this wants Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and, particularly for people who like their prime rib on the rare side, Pinot Noir.

3. Holiday Ham Dinner

Meanwhile, with honey-glazed baked ham dotted with cloves, you're starting with a sweet main dish, so you might prefer a sweet potato dish that's light on the candied qualities — perhaps a more savory mashed sweet potato recipe with dried basil and thyme. Creamy scalloped potatoes are always a terrific counterpoint to holiday hams. Or try a butternut squash gratin instead.

The only thing missing now is something fresh and green, like oven-blasted broccoli, green beans, or a crisp kale salad. And for dessert, save room for a rich cheesecake.

Honey Glazed Ham on a white plate
Photo by annie
| Credit: annie

Get the recipe: Honey Glazed Ham

Sample Menu: Ham for the Holidays

Wine Pairing: A dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer, sparkling rosé; or try lighter reds, like Beaujolais or a Pinot Noir, particularly if your roast ham includes a little mustard sauce on the side.

Want more? Check out our collection of Christmas Recipes, including recipes for appetizers, side dishes, main dishes, and Christmas desserts.