Stress-Free Holiday Party Shortcuts from the Pros
We turn to the experts to uncover their top tricks for hosting an unforgettable get-together that you can enjoy just as much as your guests do.
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The Dessert That Lets You Chill Out
The best way to keep party guests entertained and happy: a DIY dessert bar. A sophisticated plate of sweets will encourage guests to munch, mingle—and stay out of the kitchen. Renowned food writer Mark Bittman reveals the perfect formula for making the crowd-pleaser in his new book Kitchen Matrix. You’ll need: (1) a base, (2) fillings and (3) toppings. Sturdy bakery cookies including ladyfingers, biscotti, shortbread and mini pie crusts make the best vessels. Bittman suggests whipped cream, lemon pudding or ricotta whipped with honey as a filling. If you intend on leaving ingredients out for more than an hour or two, try thinned raspberry jam (just warm it) for a more hands-off approach. "The animating spirit behind the dessert bar is endless variety," Bittman says. For toppings, try caramel popcorn, almond brittle, toasted coconut, macerated strawberries, and chocolate, butterscotch or caramel sauce—and anything else that would taste good on a sundae.
Cross These Things Off—Before You've Even Done a Thing
Once you've created a to-do list for your party, immediately cross off half of the items, suggests chef and Nigella Christmas author Nigella Lawson. It's normal to get so caught up in brainstorming great dishes—and, admittedly, finding at least a dozen "must-make" recipes on Pinterest—that before you know it, your grocery list is as long as your forearm. "Settle on three or four things you want to give people to eat," she says. When it comes to drinks, keep it just as simple: one cocktail, water and a nonalcoholic drink, like apple cider.
The Decoration That Doubles as Air Freshener
That classic carol may sing about decking the halls with boughs of holly, but if you want your guests to have a really good time, maybe you should switch to citrus. Research shows that "ambient scents," like orange and peppermint, can boost people's attitudes toward the music, the dancing and the overall experience at a club. You can bring the scent home in a subtle, decorative way by drying out orange slices and hanging them on a Christmas tree, garland or tucking them into a centerpiece, recommends blogger Sherry Petersik, who runs Young House Love with her husband, John. Simply slice a few oranges, arrange them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven for 2 to 3 hours at 225 degrees. When they've cooled, attach hooks and hang wherever you see fit.
Order Just the Right Amount of Alcohol
This "pro" is more of a tool than an actual person, but trust us, you'll be grateful for its help. Evite, the invitation and event-planning website, takes the head-scratching out of figuring out how much booze to buy for a party with its Drink Calculator. Just enter the duration of your party, how many light, average and heavy drinkers there will be and what kind(s) of alcohol you plan on serving, and it will tell you how much you should buy.
Play It Cool
About a half-hour before the party starts, lower the thermostat to below 70 degrees, recommends Brooke Scher Mogan, who plans several events a month as vice president at Alison Brod Public Relations. In the nightclub industry, this is called "freezing the box," and it keeps the room from getting fan-yourself-with-a-cocktail-napkin hot when your guests arrive.
Shop Other Rooms—and Your Backyard—to Set the Mood
You don't need a pricey red-and-green bouquet to get into the holiday spirit. Kelly Rowe, the blogger behind Live Laugh Rowe, says she often collects pinecones from her yard and clusters them in a bowl or vase as a low-key (and free!) centerpiece. She pulls the vases and bowls from other rooms in her house. Rowe also moves many of her candles into the living room and dining room areas to create a more intimate atmosphere, rather than buying extras just for the party.
Give Guests the No-Fail, No-Pressure Cheese Plate
It's a known fact: People who arrive early will offer to help. And that's a wonderful thing. To minimize stress on everyone involved, come up with tasks ahead of time that guests can help out with, says Amanda Hesser, cofounder of the online food community Food52. Tearing lettuce leaves, slicing a baguette, preparing a salad or a cheese plate and setting the table tend to be safe bets anyone can feel confident tackling.
Mess? What Mess?
If the rest of your guests are arriving and you're not quite ready (hey, it happens), don't worry about scrubbing the dishes. "With pots and pans, you can put them in the oven. If that's still in use, set the dishes in a container in the pantry or a spare closet," says Debra Johnson, a training manager for Merry Maids. After all, no one's going to take away your "Amazing party!" bragging rights if you move them to the sink after everyone's left and deal with them the next morning.