How to Create the Ultimate Holiday Cookie Spread (Without Losing Your Damn Mind)

Hot tip: You can start prepping a month in advance

ultimate holiday cookie spread: assortment of holiday cookies with three hands reaching to pick them up
Photo: K.C. Tinari/Styling: PureWow Food Team

For us, the holiday season is synonymous with two things: watching cheesy Hallmark movies and baking cookies—approximately 2,000 batches, give or take. Between gifting tins and attending swaps, there are simply never enough sweets to go around…and we’ll be the first to admit that all the grocery shopping, prepping and baking can quickly turn from “fun afternoon project” to “total meltdown, call my therapist.”

But Christmas cookies should be fun! (The season is stressful enough with all those family dinners and awkward convos with Uncle Walter about what qualifies as a livable minimum wage.) That’s where we come in: We’ve baked enough batches of thumbprints and gingerbread folk to know that you can totally reduce your anxiety with a tiny bit of foresight. Presenting our cookie prep timeline, aka how to make all your cookies ahead so you’re not overwhelmed during the holiday crunch.

The Best Store-Bought Sugar Cookie Doughs and Mixes, According to Our Rigorous Taste Test

ultimate holiday cookie spread: cookie jar filled with holiday cookies
Photo: K.C. Tinari/Styling: PureWow Food Team

We’re no meal-prep afficionados, but if there’s a guaranteed way to reduce some of the stress of the holiday rat race then we’re on board. Luckily, you don’t have to pull an all-nighter to create the ultimate cookie tin if you’re willing to strategize.

The reality is most cookies can be prepped and or baked ahead—sometimes months in advance of serving them. It depends on the cookie type and your desired prepping timeline, but let’s just say you’re about to become BFFs with your fridge and freezer. Here’s a general guide based on how much time you want to work ahead.

Before You Start Baking

Apologies in advance to list-haters, but you’re going to want to make a detailed grocery list. (A color-coded spreadsheet? Even better.) Gathering your ingredients and knowing exactly what you have will save you from running to the store at the eleventh hour and fighting a stranger over the last bag of pecans. While you’re at it, stock up on parchment paper, freezer bags, storage containers and anything you might need to store or gift your cookies once they’re baked.

Keep in mind that the following aren’t hard rules—some cookies simply can’t be prepped weeks or months out. (If you’re ever unsure, why not do a trial run to test the results?)

ultimate holiday cookie spread: bourbon pecan chocolate chip cookies
Photo: K.C. Tinari/Styling: Katherine Gillen

If You Want to Start 1 Month Ahead

Some cookie doughs can be scooped a month ahead, then flash frozen on a baking sheet before tossing the balls in a freezer bag and storing them at sub-zero from Thanksgiving to Christmas. (Hot tip: We keep a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough balls in our freezer at all times.) And some cookies are so resilient that you can bake and freeze them for a month (or more).

  • Works best for: Scoopable doughs, roll-out doughs, shortbread, fully dry meringue (without nuts or moist ingredients)
  • Not great for: delicate cookies, loose batters and anything sensitive to drastic temperature changes during thawing
ultimate holiday cookie spread: lattice gingerbread cookies on parchment next to raw dough being cut out
Erin McDowell

If You Want to Start 1 Week Ahead

If you want to knock out the whole project before your cookie swap, you can go so far as to bake your cookies a week ahead, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap and aluminum foil (or pack them in an airtight cookie tin) and stash the batch in the freezer. Just remember to thaw the cookies at room temperature before handing them out to your friends and fam.

  • Works best for: snappy cookies (like gingerbread), drop cookies (like chocolate chip), biscotti
  • Not great for: cakey cookies or anything sensitive to moisture (like meringues or brandy snaps)
ultimate holiday cookie spread: snowflake-shaped sugar cookies stacked
Photo: Liz Andrew/Styling: Erin McDowell

If You Want to Start the Day Before

You can mix most cookie doughs 24 hours ahead and store them in the refrigerator. Simply cover the mixing bowl tightly with plastic wrap or an airtight lid. When you’re ready to scoop or bake, bring the dough to room temperature for about an hour.

  • Works best for: Thicker, sturdier drop cookie doughs (think peanut butter blossoms), anything with a lot of butter (like thumbprints), roll-out doughs (gingerbread or sugar cookies)
  • Not great for: delicate batters with a lot of air in them (like meringue)
ultimate holiday cookie spread: paper box of assorted holiday cookies with a hand picking one up
Photo: K.C. Tinari/Styling: PureWow Food Team

Anatomy of the Perfect Holiday Cookie Tin

Your timeline is mapped out…so what’s going on the menu this year? We think building the ultimate cookie spread is a lot like crafting a charcuterie board. You want a little bit of everything, so here’s what we suggest including:

Of course, the more the merrier—this is just a jumping-off point. If you’re gifting tins, go for crowd-pleasers and shareable recipes. As much as we’d love to know the backstory behind those basil pizzelles (really, truly), buttery, sugary, nostalgic and kid-friendly options are more likely to garner rave reviews. (Then again, it’s the thought that counts.)

Congrats, you’re the most prepared baker ever. Now, what’s the word on those Hallmark movies?


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...