The holidays can be a mixed bag: incredibly joyous—spending time with friends and family, eating delicious food, taking a bit of well-deserved vacation—but also stressful. There are parties to plan, meals to cook, planes to catch. If you happen to have the great—and, in some ways, hectic—honor of being the holiday host, there are some thoughtful things you can do to lighten your load while ensuring that your fete is warm, merry, and memorable. The only difference will be that you’ll be less overwhelmed, things will flow more smoothly, and you might even—gasp!—be able to feel like a guest at your own party. Take a deep breath and take some of these tips from entertaining experts to heart, you’ll be glad you did.
Make a list: “When I'm planning a dinner party, I make two grocery lists. The first list has all of the items I can buy 3 weeks beforehand, which are my pantry items, staples, and anything else that won't perish. The second list is the fresh food I buy the Monday before,” says Dana Kofsky of Wellness Styled.
Shop early, shop quality: One of the keys to truly memorable food is high-quality ingredients. So skip the last-minute scramble at the supermarket and shop throughout the week at farmers markets and local specialty shops, recommends Neubauer.
Set the table ahead of time: “Setting the table and pre-chilling the beverages the day before are always helpful,” says Nathaniel Neubauer of Contemporary Catering. “So when it comes time to start preparing, it is simply operational and you get to focus on the food.”
Be resourceful with decorations: Use items that are already on your shopping list or items that can then easily be repurposed. “Pre-purchase fresh seasonal gourds and squash that can be cooked afterwards,” says Neubauer. “Instead of using fresh flowers, include fresh herbs that you're likely to use in your holiday cooking as part of your décor. This eliminates waste and provides a fragrant, beautiful setting.”
Cook in advance as much as possible: Kofsky recommends the following timeline: “The Sunday before the holiday, I take time to clean out my fridge and freezer, making sure that I have enough room for what I just purchased. The Tuesday before, I make my side dishes that can be reheated the day of. I also take out anything out of the freezer that will need to thaw out. The day before is when I suggest baking your pies, many of which can be left at room temperature when they are done. I also prep my salad and vegetables, so that on Thanksgiving Day I can just assemble everything. I set my table and get the house ready the day before while my pies are baking. Prepping everything so far in advance allows you to fully focus on the main dish—turkey!—the day of. While you roast the turkey, you can start reheating your side dishes and make sure everything is in order.”
Let guests bring dishes: If you’re not determined to cook everything yourself and your guests offer, allow them to bring a dish. Just be specific about what you need—you don’t want three green bean casseroles.
Allow guests to help with tidying: Of course this depends on the type of party you are having and whom you are inviting, but close friends and family certainly won’t mind carrying their post-dinner plates into the kitchen. Simply eliminating the dinner table clutter—even if the dishes aren’t done until later—can eliminate some entertaining stress. Plus, “With my friends and family, we often times laugh and share stories as much over cleanup as we do at the table,” says Neubauer.
Consider disposable when appropriate: If you’re hosting a more casual affair, attractive disposable plates could be an option, and a way to drastically cut down on cleanup. For a more formal meal, paper or bamboo plates would seem out of place, but “a simple way to cut back on dishes could be to cook your food in disposable cookware,” recommends Neubauer.