I learned a lot about entertaining from my time at Taste of Home, and more still from my former dance teacher-turned-etiquette-coach. But even with all their lessons, I still think the ingredients to a good party are pretty dang simple: good friends, a few drinks and little smokies.
If you’re hosting this holiday season, here are the rules I live by:
Set a budget
Gross. But like any work project, it’s smart to start with a budget to organize yourself and determine where you can save money and where you want to splurge. Plus, your budget will serve as a rough shopping/cooking list for what you need.
When it comes to your menu, hedge your bets. Whether you’re hosting a formal dinner, buffet or appetizer spread, make sure to include a wide variety of items, with the following considerations:
- Mix in new recipes with tried-and-true recipes. Contrary to popular belief, hosting a party is a great reason to try out a new recipe, but make sure you also include recipes you’ve made before and turn out well. And it’s probably best to not experiment with the main protein for a dinner party.
- Include a mix of items that can satisfy dietary restrictions: vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free. It sounds like a hassle, but it’s easily done and will ensure your menu isn’t too repetitive. Same with hot and cold items and food colors—make sure you’re including a variety.
- Rely on a good local deli or caterer to supply some pre-made items to beef up your spread. I’ve ordered mashed potatoes and gravy or nice smoked salmon and tapenades, which saved me time and I passed them off as homemade. Be sure to stay away from pre-made veggie trays, the dreaded taco dip or meat and cheese platters. You can easily do those yourself, and let’s be honest, they look tacky if they’re store bought.
- But it’s ok to be a little tacky. No matter how fancy your party is, little smokies and meatballs will be a hit. No one knows why.
- Embrace the magic of a charcuterie and cheese board. They make a beautiful visual centerpiece for your appetizers, you can set them up hours before your party and they make great leftovers. I actually always keep cured meats and a few kinds of cheese in my fridge, especially around the holidays, to accommodate last minute pop-ins. Open a bottle of wine, pull out a cutting board and mix in fresh and dried fruits, nuts, mustard or honey, pickles, crackers, meats and a variety of cheeses, and you have a super elegant meal in minutes.
- Estimate the right amount of food. Food Network has a lovely infographic on portions, but generally speaking:
- Purchase more white wine than red
- Incorporate bulk items like good rolls, cheese, nuts and olives to cushion against under-serving
- Always round up when you’re estimating
- Make more of what you think will be most popular
- Splurge on a showstopper (e.g. seafood, crown roast or a fancy dessert) and then get creative on how to make the most of inexpensive items, like chopping up unique fresh produce for crudité or using puff pastry to make onion tartlets or cheese straws. Take bulk items, like nuts, and toss with maple syrup and cook in a pan until they caramelize or take jarred tapanades and pestos and mix with fresh sour cream to make impressive dips.
Last year, I hosted a lumberjack themed holiday party and had my friend Lauren make this incredible cake. The tablecloth is a blanket I owned, placed on some empty boxes to give it height.
As far as beverages go, be sure to have a variety of soda, sparkling water and mixers. You’ll also want to have coffee on hand (including decaf if you have older guests), good cider and tea.
Keep your bar stocked with vodka, rum, whiskey or bourbon, and plenty of choices of wine (my current wine obsession is Banshee Mordecai, but anything from them is fabulous).
Drinks can get expensive quickly, so here are some tips to save money:
- Ask guests to bring a bottle of wine or their favorite drink.
- Create a drink menu with a 2-3 festive options, either pre-mixing in batches or putting the ingredients out with the recipe. The nice thing about a drink menu is that it pushes your guests out of their typical drink routine and you don’t have to buy a full bar for your party.
It’s so great you spent six hours building a customized Spotify playlist that perfectly reflects 2017. Nobody cares. Save time and use an already curated party playlist.
One thing I love about the holidays is that it gives you the opportunity to change the look and feel of your home temporarily. And, it gives you permission to be a little extra.
- Repurpose non-holiday items for décor. Scarves and blankets can be used as tablecloths or same colored items you already own can be grouped together for décor. Rather than buying flowers, use houseplants. Whatever you do, pick a color scheme (1-2 colors) and build from there.
- Use Craigslist, Goodwill and Facebook marketplaces to find décor, glasses or serving dishes for cheap.
- Don’t serve out of plastic! Even if you incorporate store bought items, put them in a proper dish. You are not an animal. And if possible, use real plates and cups for your guests.
- Keep your serving vessels cohesive. While it may seem boring, almost all my serving dishes are white. I find this is the easiest way to mix and match different brands and styles while maintaining a cohesive look.
- If you’re creating a buffet, think about height. Use boxes to create elevated surfaces and then cover the entire thing in a tablecloth or thin blanket. Not only does the height make it easier for guests to see and reach food in the back, it adds visual appeal and can make a lighter spread seem fuller.
- As for exterior, you don’t need to encrust your house in twinkle lights to make an impact. Try a single stand-out wreath, potted evergreens, or a big bow on the front door.
And finally, if you’re attending as a guest, follow these etiquette tips:
- RSVP – If your host asks for an RSVP, do it. And if you say you’re going, go. We live in an era that RSVPs aren’t taken seriously, but all the same, don’t be flaky.
- Bring a gift for your host. When attending a holiday party, you should bring a gift for the host, even if they’re family. It doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant, just something that shows you appreciate them. Grocery stores are the best place to find gifts, including:
- Wine or craft beer
- Artisan pickles
- Loaf of great bread
- Beautiful produce (like a pineapple)
- Nice bottle of olive oil or balsamic
- Gourmet coffee
- Nice jar or tin of fancy cooking salt
- Jar of uniquely flavored jam or jelly
- Bottle of nice bitters
- When you say you’re leaving, leave. Don’t monopolize your host’s time by extending your goodbye.