The holiday season is within reach, and for many of us that means there will be a lot of get-togethers in the coming weeks – maybe you’re hosting one yourself! For years my mom, Cindy, has hosted our family’s Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and New Years gatherings, having learned with practice how to juggle the demands of hosting while enjoying this magical time of year. I asked her to share her tips (in her own words) for those who are either new to throwing dinner parties or who simply want to be a “Hostess with the mostest” this holiday…
1) Plan your menu in advance. In addition to your main dish that will most likely be cooked in the oven, grill, or fryer (e.g., turkey, ham, roast, lasagna) also include items that will be cooked on your stovetop (e.g., steamed or sautéed vegetables, rice, gravy) or can be prepared in advance and heated/reheated (e.g., casseroles, baked beans, stuffing) or simply prepared ahead and served (e.g., salad, cranberry sauce, Jell-O mold). Don’t forget the rolls, bread or biscuits.
2) Don’t hesitate to delegate to the helpful guests who offer to bring a dish. Why not have them bring an appetizer or dessert? It will mean one less dish for you to make and, even better, it will make guests feel good about contributing to the festivities. So as to not duplicate items, it’s usually best if the host suggests a couple of options based on what is needed and lets the guest pick. Don’t forget to thank them effusively.
3) Create a To-Do List including a “flexible” schedule of what order to do things in and how long it will take to do them. I emphasize “flexible” because when things stray from the schedule (and they will) you don’t want to stress over it. You just need to adjust your schedule and move on. Try breaking it down a couple ways. You can start with the time you intend to serve dinner and work backwards (rolls in oven, make the gravy, heat/reheat side dishes, etc.). And/or you can start with the time your guests arrive and work backwards (light candles, turn on party music and atmosphere lights, shower/makeup/hair, etc.). Eventually, after you’ve had enough parties, your to-do lists may be stored in your head and you’ll probably find yourself prepared for any disruption to your schedule.
4) You’ll probably want to vacuum, mop, and clean bathrooms as close to the party as possible. I usually do the vacuuming and bathrooms the day before the party, but the major organizational picking-up, dusting, and cleaning glass doors and mirrors I usually do two or three days before the party. Allow a few minutes the day of to spot check some of these items. You may want to sweep up the dog hair again or swirl the toilet brush around your most public toilet one last time. No need to stress over trying to achieve an immaculate house, however. Your guests are most likely your family and friends who love you and are there to have fun with you, not inspect your house. On the other hand, you may feel more pressure to have a spotless house if you’re entertaining work colleagues or acquaintances from your community, but bear in mind, these folks will remember the good time they had and how you made them feel, not the fingerprints on the front door. Trust me on this one.
5) Set your table well ahead of time. I set mine the day before; others set theirs two or three days before. The point is to have it done well before the bulk of your other prep work needs to be done. It can be a total stress reliever to have this done in advance. Setting your table takes longer to do than you’d think. Bringing extra chairs out from storage, retrieving fine china and crystal from their special cabinets or unique dishes to match the theme of the party, pressing tablecloths, folding napkins, finding the perfect centerpiece; all this takes time. But to me, more than being a stress reliever, setting the table ahead of time is a party preparation motivator. Once it’s set, every time I walk into the room and see the lovely table, I can visualize the delicious food spread out, the candles lit, and everyone having a good time. The party is a success even before it starts!
6) Review your menu and pull out all the necessary serving pieces in advance. This tip has helped reduce my last-minute scrambling tremendously. Select the right sized serving bowls and platters, serving utensils, gravy boats, salt & pepper grinders, and butter dishes (don’t forget to remove the butter and/or margarine from the refrigerator or freezer so it’ll be at room temperature and spreadable). It can be so frustrating knowing you own the perfect bread basket, but not being able to locate it when it’s time to serve. So review your menu, then check out your highest cabinets, your pantry, your basement, or any other storage spots for your seldom-used serving items. You’ll be glad you did.
7) Select your party music playlist before the party. You may select your favorite tunes or perhaps music specific to the holiday or the theme of your party (e.g., Italian music for a big pasta meal). Whatever you choose, remember to start it out fairly soft as background music so the guests can hear and enjoy it but still carry on conversations easily before and during the meal. If you want to increase the volume a little after dinner and maybe even change up the tunes to encourage dancing, that’s entirely up to you and the type of party you want to have. And don’t forget, if you’re like me and find some songs uplifting and motivating, crank the tunes before the party while you’re cooking and cleaning. It’ll feel more like fun than work!
8) Allow yourself enough time to relax and enjoy the process of getting yourself ready. If you look and feel good, you’ll have a better time, even if you burn the rolls.
9) As the guests arrive, take their coats and hang them in a pre-determined location. Offer guests a drink, and if it’s their first time in your home, show them where they can help themselves to additional drinks as the party progresses, unless, of course, you have a designated bartender. If your guests know they can comfortably help themselves to another drink, they won’t need to interrupt you while you’re busy in the kitchen or visiting with another guest. And don’t forget to show them where the bathrooms are!
10) Consider including guests in last minute meal preparation if they offer to help. Some hosts would prefer to be in the kitchen by themselves. This is totally fine, but if you’re on the fence and could use some help, go ahead and hand over a spoon to your willing guest to stir a pot on the stove or a knife and cutting board to slice a loaf of bread. These little moments create memories.
11) Finally, the last thing any guest should see is a stressed-out host! So no matter how big or small your guest list and no matter how extravagant or simple your menu, pour yourself your favorite beverage, relax, enjoy yourself and your guests, and most importantly, smile. Even if something doesn’t go quite as you had planned, your guests may not even notice. They’ll be too busy noticing your relaxed and happy smile!