That big platter of perfectly cooked meat—slabs of juicy prime rib, the clove-studded ham, a browned and succulent turkey—brings home the warmth and comfort of a festive meal. For lots of hosts and guests, the star of a holiday meal is the meat.

Remember the pictures of Mom easily bearing the platter with turkey to the table? That may not be as easy these days. A trend has emerged in the past few years, says Tony Slaygon, manager of the meat department at Strack & Van Til in Hobart. “Many more people are choosing really large turkeys, 25 pounds. That size turkey wasn’t common, but big turkeys are definitely more popular now.”

Tobie Martin, one of two managers at Rob’s Meat Chop & Deli in Dyer, sees another trend. “It used to be that people wanted a whole roast with more of a fat cap on it. But now people are trying to eat healthier, so they want leaner meats.”

Steve Kalsow at I Street Meats in La Porte, says its No. 1 order for a holiday meal is prime rib, boneless or with bone. “We can also season it, and our customers can order any size.” Other choices do run the whole gamut, though, including turkeys, ducks, steaks, oysters, shrimp and lamb chops.

Slaygon says at Strack & Van Til ham edges out turkey for Christmas dinner, though hosts are also selecting duck and leg of lamb. Martin says prime rib roasts and rump roasts are popular, along with marinated duck breasts.

And the more unusual? “A very few people have asked for a turducken,” says Martin: a chicken in a duck in a turkey.

Kalsow says he’s prepared them, “But it’s about a three-hour job to bone them all and put stuffing between each one.” Martin agrees, adding that with labor and costs, “Who wants to pay almost a hundred dollars for it?” Kalsow says, “I can do just about anything with a piece of meat, but I was asked for a gluten-free turkey, and I couldn’t fill that.” Still, observes Slaygon, “It’s not like 20 years ago; now you can get just about anything you want.”

Kalsow, who started learning how to cut meats when he was 15, says butcher shops are getting hard to find, “Because people are in a hurry and some don’t want to go to a separate store for meats. But here you can get more customized service. Everything’s cut fresh right in front of you and people like that. And they can get the amount they want.” The store does have an array of meats that have been cut and packaged there for customers in hurry.

Also, “we know most everyone who comes in here, and people like that.” Martin says of the customer service advantage of a smaller store. “We want it to be a warm, pleasant, approachable place, not just a business. We ask how their day is going, how the kids are. We like knowing our customers.”

At Strack & Van Til, Slaygon says he wants to make every customer happy, and “around the holidays you especially want that. People are stressed with everything they have to do then, and I understand that. “

How does a host calculate how much meat is needed for the number of guests expected at the table? Slaygon recommends a half pound for boneless roasts and three-fourths of a pound for bone-in, because the bone means less meat. The host can reduce that amount if other proteins are on the menu, though.

Martin figures generally a half pound per person, “But I recommend one or two pounds over that for shrinkage in cooking and because someone always wants seconds.”

Kalsow recommends about a pound per person because at the holidays people like to have some left over. If the guest list includes kids, figure less for them. And knowing your guests’ preferences can help. “Some men will eat a whole slab of baby back ribs.”

All advise ordering meat in advance. “The sooner the better. We’ve never run out, but it could happen, especially with prime rib,” says Kalsow. He’s accepting orders now, and “we don’t want people to wait while we get a cut of meat ready.”

Slaygon says if it’s something the store doesn’t carry, call a couple of days ahead. Legs of lamb are definitely a order item, because the store gets just a certain amount of them at a time.

Each meat cutter says he’s dedicated to providing the best service and meats. At Rob’s Meat, Chop & Deli that’s been owner Rob Newenhouse’s business for nearly 30 years, Martin says he’s constantly making sure the quality is there. “I want (our customers) to be happy. But keeping everyone happy is easy if you know what you’re doing.”

So's knowing how to cook the meat is crucial. Slagon cautions, “Don’t overcook the meat. It can happen with a ham, especially a fully cooked one; cooking too long will dry it out.”

I Street Meats provides a tip sheet for roasting prime rib. Kalsow advises using a thermometer, because the meat will continue cooking a little after it’s removed from the heat—and that can make the difference between perfection and overcooked. Martin says, “Cook it low and slow.”

Besides, he says, “There are cooking instructions on just about everything now, so follow those.”

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