We may not all be royal, but we can eat like we are—and, according to former royal chef Darren McGrady, this is exactly what the royal family eats on Christmas Day (so you have 359 days to prepare for next year’s feast!).
According to Hello, McGrady—who has worked for Her late Majesty and Princess Diana and who prepared seven royal Christmas meals—calls Christmas Day with the royal family at Sandringham a “modern-day Downton Abbey.” The day kicks off with a full English breakfast before the family heads off to church at St. Mary Magdalene and, when they return, “it was the same meal every year” for lunch, he says.
“They’re actually boring when it comes to festivities,” McGrady says. “They didn’t do hams or anything, just traditional turkeys. We did three turkeys for the Queen and her family in the royal dining room, one for the children’s nursery, and then more for the 100 or so staff, so everyone had a Christmas lunch.”
McGrady says the Queen and senior members of the royal family would dine in the main room, while the younger children would eat in the nursery, looked after by their nannies.
“The children always ate in the nursery until they were old enough to conduct themselves properly at the dining table,” he says. “So, for the Queen, there was never a case of putting a highchair at the table with a little baby squealing and throwing food. It was Victorian. The children’s place was in the nursery and [a] nanny would take care of them.”
In addition to the Christmas turkey, the family feasts on “different stuffings—sage and onion, chestnut—and the traditional sides like roast potatoes, mash potatoes, parsnips, and Brussels sprouts,” he says.
For dessert? Christmas pudding, of course.
“The pudding was made in pudding basins, turned out, decorated in holly, doused in brandy, and then the Palace steward would carry it, flaming, into the royal dining room,” McGrady says. “It was so traditional.”
After lunch, the family went for a walk around Sandringham, then returned to the house to watch the Queen’s speech (or, in this year’s case, the King’s speech, broadcast at 3 p.m. local time).
“Not long after, they’d go in for afternoon tea,” McGrady says. “It was always the chocolate Yule log, which was a twist on the chocolate birthday cake, scones, mince pies, different types of sandwiches, and the Christmas cake. We’d make one big Christmas cake for the Queen and the royal family and then another smaller one for the nursery for Prince William, Prince Harry, Zara [Phillips], Peter [Phillips], Princess Beatrice, and Princess Eugenie. It was always fruit cake—royal icing, marzipan, and the traditional fruit cake.”
Are you stuffed yet? Well, the day is not done! The last meal of the day is the evening buffet, which McGrady describes as being “even more elaborate” than lunch. It was also the only time the head chef would go into the dining room to carve the meat.
“The buffet was when they brought out the whole spread,” he says. “When I was there, Harrods would always give them a whole foie gras en croute. They’d have a whole Stilton cheese. We’d take the top off, pitchfork the top, and pour port into it. It made this gorgeous spread for the crackers. It was really opulent. There was also a big York ham that was decorated.” (Guaranteed Harrods is no longer giving the royal family foie gras: King Charles banned the dish from all royal residences when he took the throne.)
McGrady remembers that “after carving all of the meat, the Queen would then ask the steward to pour the head chef a drink and he’d get a whiskey and they’d toast him and say thank you, and that was them saying thank you for the whole year.”
McGrady worked for Diana until her death in 1997 and says he "always used to enjoy when Princess Diana was there. She’d come into the kitchen, and she used to love the crepe souffle dessert. I’d always put that on the menu because I knew it was her favorite. She would have lunch and then—bless her—she would come down into the kitchen once everyone had left the table and say, ‘Oooh, is there any of the crepe souffle left?' When the tray came back, I’d always put it in the warmer because I knew she’d be down. She said, ‘I love this pudding, and I’m too scared to ask for seconds in front of the Queen!’”
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Rachel Burchfield is a writer, editor, and podcaster whose primary interests are fashion and beauty, society and culture, and, most especially, the British Royal Family and other royal families around the world. She serves as Marie Claire’s Senior Celebrity and Royals Editor and has also contributed to publications like Allure, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, People, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and W, among others. Before taking on her current role with Marie Claire, Rachel served as its Weekend Editor and later Royals Editor. She is the cohost of Podcast Royal, a show that was named a top five royal podcast by The New York Times. A voracious reader and lover of books, Rachel also hosts I’d Rather Be Reading, which spotlights the best current nonfiction books hitting the market and interviews the authors of them. Rachel frequently appears as a media commentator, and she or her work has appeared on outlets like NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN, and more.
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