The holiday season should be a time of celebration among close friends and family — and few events represent that spirit of thankfulness and revelry better than a holiday party.
For the party host, however, a year-end celebration is not always a purely joyful time. With guest lists, menus and decorations to coordinate, hosting a holiday party can quickly get overwhelming, sending stress levels into unfestive territory.
Fortunately, all it takes is a little planning and preparation to actually enjoy your holiday party just as much as your guests. Here are a few tips from event-planning veterans to help make it happen.
Start Planning Early
Chef Bobby Breaux of Chef Bobby & Dot Catering in Kaplan, Louisiana, says the most common mistake party hosts make is waiting too long to start planning for a holiday event. This is especially problematic if you plan to order any of your food from an outside source like a caterer or restaurant.
Breaux says his business spikes during the holiday season, which means his team typically needs several weeks’ notice to make sure they can schedule cooking time for every party’s food. Breaux’s kitchen, for example, cooked 110 briskets last holiday season, along with enough rice dressing for 800 people every three days. That means last-minute requests are likely going to be a problem.
“I’d probably start planning almost a month ahead,” he says. “If they wait until the last minute, most caterers and restaurants are busy and may even stop taking orders.”
Heather Sewell Day, owner of The Red Cake, a Baton Rouge-based event-planning company, says to start with the basics when planning your party: Choose a guest list, determine a budget and select where you’re going to host the event — such as your home, a restaurant or another venue. Once you determine those basics, you can move on to the items like food and drink.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Little Help
Breaux says he finds holiday party hosts are less likely to attempt to prepare every dish on their own these days, opting instead to focus on their favorites. Caterers can pre-make some of the most difficult holiday dishes for parties so that they can be heated up on the day of the event. If you place them in a nice dish, nobody has to know where they came from.
“A lot of people don’t cook everything on their own anymore,” Breaux says. “More and more people do the dish that they like to do and the rest they pass on to somebody else.”
If You’re Doing the Cooking, Keep It Simple
Chef/owner Karen Ferries-Yoon of The Cocktail Party Chef in New York City specializes in stylish versions of savory and sweet hors d'oeuvres. While some of her party creations are quite intricate, she suggests home party hosts focus on dishes with as few ingredients as possible that still pack a punch of flavor. “Most important, it has to look beautiful,” she says.
She says one of the simplest and consistently successful recipes for home cooks is baked parmesan crisps, a two-ingredient dish that can be made quickly in batches of 15-20 per baking sheet. First, pour a heaping tablespoon of grated parmesan cheese onto a silicone- or parchment-lined baking sheet and lightly pat down. Cook for roughly 10 minutes at 350 degrees until they form a flat, cracker-like consistency.
“As they come out of the oven, just sprinkle some black pepper and you’re done,” she says. “People love these. It’s a great bar snack.” You can add a little parsley or basil for a splash of color, she says.
For a simple and sweet party treat, Ferries-Yoon recommends melting some chocolate, adding some pomegranate seeds and pumpkins seeds, then spreading it out on a cooking sheet. Let it set in a freezer or refrigerator for an easy-yet-complex dessert that is perfect for the holiday season.
When venturing into more complex recipes, she says, party hosts should try to focus on their strengths and dishes they know will be successful. “If you have things in your repertoire that you know how to do, then make them,” she says. “This is not the time to try something new.”
When Decorating, Turn to What You Already Have
Creating a festive aesthetic is vital for setting the mood at your gathering, but you don’t have to make a huge investment to make things look nice, particularly around the holidays. Day suggests appropriating some holiday decorations from around your house for your table spread.
“You don’t have to spend a lot of money on flowers and things like that, especially during the holidays,” she says. “You can cut some limbs off your Christmas tree to use around your platters. You can bring in some Christmas ornaments and tuck them inside the limbs of the trees, rather than spending a lot of money on flowers.”
Don’t Forget the Hot Beverages
If your holiday gathering comes with cooler weather, be sure to offer your guests some warm-beverage options — such as hot chocolate and coffee — to close the festivities out properly.
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