Holiday entertaining can be enormously satisfying. It gives the gift of your hospitality, as well as memories guests may treasure for years. But entertaining requires advance planning and attention to detail.
Over the years, I’ve hosted some major events in my home–including a rehearsal dinner party for 60 people before my son’s wedding and a high school reunion buffet-ice breaker for 85 former classmates. Most recently, I threw a book launch party for Simply Sensational Cookies; pics and details are here. If you’ll be entertaining during the holidays, here are some suggestions that have worked for me:
Especially during the holidays, invite guests early and take into account that not everyone may be free to attend.
If you’re hiring help or renting equipment book well ahead; these services are in big demand at holiday time.
Start putting the house in order—literally—as soon as a party date is set. Get jobs like window washing, carpet cleaning, and small repairs out of the way.
All the party prep that can be done ahead should be done ahead: Wash the glasses, polish the silver; press the table linens; or for an informal event, buy the paper plates, napkins, cups, etc. Also, stock the bar, and prepare and stash dishes that can be successfully frozen.
If guests must either eat standing up or with plates perched on their laps, menu items should pass the fork test—that is, they can be eaten with only a fork (no knife).
Plan to serve nearly all do-ahead dishes, so readying food won’t take too much time away from hosting. Remember to calculate how many dishes will need warming at one time and be sure there is enough oven space. Likewise, take into account refrigerator space and thawing times. (Large casseroles take a surprisingly long time.)
Curb inclinations to do fancier dishes than you can confidently prepare; your nerves will thank you.
Include enough meatless dishes that vegetarians can devise a meal. (It’s also a good idea to include low-carbohydrate and low-fat dishes for dieters.)
Make point of emphasizing variety. This gracefully accommodates guests’ various likes, dislikes and dietary restrictions without their having to make requests (or not eat!).
Whenever possible, feature homemade dishes rather than purchased platters. If time is too short for much cooking, intermingle purchased items with homemade dishes, and at the very least arrange purchased foods in your own plates and serving bowls. Not only does this convey the impression that you went to some effort, but it avoids the charmless deli-tray and take-out tub look.
Make the food look festive. Choose colorful recipes and serving pieces, and garnish abundantly. Go beyond the old stand-by’s like parsley sprigs, pickles and stuffed olives.
Decorate platters with vegetables such as multi-colored pepper rings or strips, red onions, radishes, radicchio, red cabbage and curly kale leaves, and fruits such as grapes, orange, kiwi, and star fruit slices and berries.
Arrange the food on the table so it looks attractive and is readily accessible to guests. Add interest by varying the heights of dishes with pedestals and trivets. For a buffet it’s better to serve from a smallish table. A large table with items sparsely spaced looks skimpy and may also requires guests to reach in too far. For more than 25 people, have two serving lines. Otherwise, some folks will be finished eating before others even reach the table.
Here are some great desserts to serve for the holidays: New York Deli-Style Cheesecake, Cranberry-Cherry Crumb Bars, or Banana-Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake with Chocolate Glaze.