1. Deconstruct the Appetizers
Spooning filling into hollowed-out loaves of bread or tiny taco shells, or neatly arranging chopped tomatoes over toasted bread, looks lovely, but it also sucks up valuable I-could-be-sitting-on-the-couch-with-my-feet-up time. Instead, create DIY stations: Put out a bowl of spinach dip with slices of baguette, taco dip with scoop-shaped tortilla chips, or bruschetta with pita chips, and let your guests do the assembling.
2. Stock Up on Cream Cheese
This must be the world's easiest homemade appetizer: Let a block of cream cheese come to room temperature. (You can even remove it from the refrigerator in the morning and leave it out—wrapped in the original packaging or plastic—all day.) Spread pepper jelly or mango pepper jelly on top and serve with crackers. (If you buy a few bricks, you'll have extra for morning-after bagels.)
3. Put a Bucket in the Sink
Even if guests are using disposable plates and cups, parties somehow have a way of generating dirty dishes. Set a plastic dishpan in the sink and fill it with warm, soapy water. As empty dip bowls and serving utensils pile up, plunk them into the bucket. They're temporarily out of sight, and even if they remain there overnight, they'll be easier to deal with after a good soak.
4. Two Words: House Wine
Pick a couple wines—one red and one white—and stock up on both. Margrit Mondavi, wife of the late winemaker Robert Mondavi, says Sauvignon Blanc (which is light and fruity) and Cabernet Sauvignon (think cocoa and cinnamon) go with practically anything and taste good to pretty much anyone. Buying a 12-bottle case will save you 10 to 15 percent per bottle. And if you can, look for screw tops; you'll be glad not to be wrestling with a wine opener when the party's in full swing.
5. Embrace the Garnish
Adding greenery to a plate of hors d'oeuvres may seem like an unnecessary step, but a sprig of evergreen can telegraph a yuletide feeling without you having to decorate the house. Toss some cranberries in between a block of Cheddar and a wheel of Brie; lay a few pine boughs on the bar. Another presentation trick: If you've got special-occasion serving pieces, use them (Mondavi's instant appetizer is carrot and celery sticks in crystal bowls).
6. Remember That Billions of Bartenders Can't Be Wrong
Just as every nice bar has a bowl full of roasted, salted nuts for noshing, so should any living room that's packed with Cabernet-sipping revelers (just be sure to alert parents of small children that they're there if you're unsure of any allergies the kids may have). Bobbysue's Nuts
features a savory, not-too-sweet mixture of almonds, cashews and pecans, and a portion of the proceeds go to building animal rescue shelters.
Next: 11 speedy appetizers from pantry staples