Do you like to entertain around the holidays? Even if you’re not much for entertaining the rest of the year, the holidays are often a time to host friends as well as family for get-togethers over dinner. Hosting a holiday dinner party can be hugely stressful, though. Edit date and time
Unless you make a stress-proof plan ahead of time.
Ready to learn how to stress-proof your holiday dinner party? It’s as simple as following these tips:
Originally posted Sept. 13, 2019; last updated December 2023.
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How to Host a Stress-Free Holiday Dinner Party
1. Curb your guest list
It can be tempting to knock off a gazillion social obligations at once. But even if your home is big enough to accommodate this, that doesn’t mean you have to have everyone over all at once.
On the other hand, having just one night of entertaining to prep for also has its plusses. But smaller get-togethers can often be a lot easier and more fun to pull off. Maybe 2-3 other couples max, or (if you have kids) 1-2 other families.
And while you’re planning the guest list, it’s not necessary that everyone know each other ahead of time. But for keeping the conversation flowing, it is useful to think of which of your friends might have things in common even if they don’t know each other. Or might otherwise enjoy getting to know each other.
2. Do your homework
There’s nothing worse (or more inhospitable) than inviting someone to your home, and then serving them an evening that they just can’t stomach. Or one that takes their breath away – literally.
The time to learn about any severe allergies or strong preferences your guests may have is before they arrive, not after they get there. Planning a multi-course meat extravaganza for a vegetarian is just not going to go over well. Ditto for serving bacon dates, a Christmas ham, and macaroni and cheese to guests who keep kosher. The same goes for having your canine friends serve as the welcoming committee, only to learn your guests have a severe dog allergy.
Asking a few simple questions ahead of time about anything that your guests cannot or will not eat, as well as any other allergies you should know about, will go a long way toward avoiding those awkward moments.
My own mama used to keep a small file of 3×5 index cards in her kitchen cupboard on guests who would visit our house, where she’d make note of all these things. If you’re still old-school, I highly recommend this method; otherwise, adding a note of these things in your Contacts on your phone is another great way to keep it handy for when you need it.
3. Keep it simple – seriously.
A holiday dinner party is NOT the time to experiment with the first run of an entire menu of new dishes.
This is not to say that you can’t try out new recipes for your get-together. Just don’t test them all out on the same night, with your poor guests as your guinea pigs! Instead, think of straightforward dishes that are easy to prepare, like my easy Caesar salad with homemade croutons.
Also, as much as possible, think about dishes you can make (or at least partially prepare) ahead of time. This is one of the reasons my own mama often serves butternut squash at holiday dinners. Besides the fact that it probably came from her garden, she can also cook it up ahead of time, freeze it for a few weeks, and then thaw and reheat on the day of the meal.
4. Consider skipping the house tour
Let’s face it, we all love seeing other people’s homes. But unless yours is regularly in magazine-ready state (mine’s NOT), don’t feel you need to give you guests the full tour if they haven’t been to your home before.
Of course, if you’ve just had some work done that you can’t wait to show off, and it’s in a part of your home that’s easily accessible (for example, this year’s Christmas tree on your new three-season porch), then by all means, do a mini-tour.
But otherwise, the fewer places you show off to your guests, the fewer places you need to have “guest-ready.” As in, not only clean and tidy, but free of things like your Christmas-gift wrapping station or crafting corner.
(That said, do make sure the bathroom your guests will use is spotless and has fresh hand towels. Ditto for the kitchen. As a guest in someone’s home, there’s nothing more gross than seeing a kitchen covered with food splatters and spills, intermingled with an overflowing trash can, a sink full of dirty dishes, and the meal you’re about to consume.)
5. Have a plan and a timetable
And I mean not just for the evening itself, but for the time leading UP TO the evening.
It always amazes me how the holidays (or any big event, really, like a child’s birthday party or any big get-together) seem to “sneak up” on some people.
And then I remember that at times in my life, I’ve been one of those people, too.
For the evening to run smoothly, you need to have a realistic timetable not only of what’s going to happen when (i.e., you won’t be eating the turkey at 6:00 if it only goes in the oven at 5:30), but of what needs to happen at each step BEFORE your dinner-party date, to ensure a seamless get-together.
There’s no point having friends over if you’re going to be stuck in the kitchen the whole time, slaving away over every last bit of food prep.
Which gets to my next point:
6. Prep ahead
Here’s a news flash: You can bake a pie or two for dessert ahead of the big day, if homemade pies are your thing. You can even bake them ahead and freeze them!
The same is true of so many other aspects of your holiday entertaining. My mama’s famous bacon-date appetizer is something she used to make weeks ahead, in bulk, and freeze so she’d always have plenty available for holiday get-togethers. Ditto for Christmas cookies, fruitcakes, and so many other of the holiday treats for which she’s famous.
And while you can buy ready-made vegetable trays in the store for hors d’oeuvres, you can also save a ton of money by prepping your own vegetables (perhaps with the help of a little sous-chef or two) that morning. (This is also one time when a bag of ready-to-go baby carrots is a good example of “processed food” that’s worth the small bit of extra cost.)
And you can extend this principle to so much more than food prep. If you have a formal dining room that you don’t eat in everyday, set the table a few days in advance. If you’ll be hanging guests’ coats in your front-hall closet, clear out the family’s everyday coats to a remote room several days ahead of time.
7. Say “yes” to help and “no” to the rest
But as much as you should try to prep ahead and plan out your timetable, you don’t want to cram every last thing into the same weekend as your dinner party! If you’re in charge of the Sunday School’s Christmas pageant, having a dinner party the night after the big show is not a winning combination.
So try to keep your schedule clear in the days immediately before your get-together. Or if things are just too crazy in the earlier weeks of December, perhaps it makes sense to try instead for a get-together during the final week of the year.
But by the same token, if your invited guests ask what they can bring (and they almost certainly will), don’t be too proud to accept the offer graciously!
You don’t want to rely on the friend who’s always running late to bring the appetizers, or count on the one who can’t bake to bring dessert if your idea of dessert during the holidays is something homemade. BUT there is almost certainly a way you can have each guest who offers bring something that is meaningful to them, and appropriate to the rest of the meal, without straying too far off course from the general theme of the evening.
What have I missed? Let us know your tips to stress-proof that holiday dinner party in the comments below!
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