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Tips for a stress-free holiday gathering for first-time hosts

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 21, 2021

By Emily Heil and Jura Koncius Washington Post

The season of celebration is here, and if this is your first time hosting family or friends in your new home for the holidays, you might be wondering how you’re going to pull it off.

Before we delve into the specifics (don’t worry, we’ve got your back), a few words of general advice: You don’t have to throw the party your parents (or grandparents) did. This is your show.

If you want to break out your wedding china and serve a traditional dinner menu, do it. But if you’re more the chili-and-beer type, that’s fine, too.

Are you more of a morning person? Serve mimosas and quiche at a brunch. Hate holiday music? Queue up an R&B playlist. If living through a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to let go of what’s not important, and that might include Great-Aunt Trudy’s chess pie that nobody really liked anyway.

Speaking of the pandemic: This year’s gatherings will probably be merrier than 2020’s thanks to coronavirus vaccines. But COVID-19 concerns are still on the menu. Some people might not be traveling, or they might cancel at the last minute. The ingredients you need for that dessert you planned on making might be sitting in a container ship. Stay flexible.

And know your audience, says Darcy Miller, a celebrations consultant and the author and illustrator of “Celebrate Everything! Fun Ideas to Bring Your Parties to Life.” If you have guests who are more nervous than others about sitting close to one another, create your own individual mini-graze boards.

“People then have their own platter, and it’s also active decor when you line them up on the table,” Miller says. The boards can include savory or sweet foods and be topped with placecards for a personal touch.

We talked to party-planning experts and culinary gurus for advice on how to plan, shop, cook, serve and clean up for your nearest and dearest this holiday season – without losing your mind.

It’s all about the game plan

The best way to avoid being frazzled is to be prepared. Seasoned hosts set their tables several days in advance. “Always pretend your event is a few days before. It’s like putting a fake date on your calendar,” Miller says. There is always work you have to do at the end such as cooking and getting fresh flowers. She recommends cleaning the house, rounding up an extra dining chair and buying beverages in advance.

Miami-based Amanda Gluck, who writes the blog Fashionable Hostess, makes a detailed timeline. “My dinner is at 7 p.m., so at 5 p.m., the pot roast goes in the oven. At 5:30, fill the water glasses. At 6 p.m., light the candles. At 6:30, put the bread on the table,” she says.

She lays out platters with serving forks and spoons with a note on each that says what will go where. “So even if someone else helps me to serve, they won’t be searching through my cabinets.” You might also realize you don’t have a crucial piece: Gluck once had to call her mom to bring a gravy boat.

It’s OK to ask for help, says Lola Wiarco Dweck, a recipe developer and cooking instructor at Lola’s Cocina in Denver, but be careful what you ask for. “I usually don’t like people to bring anything that is really essential to the menu,” she says. “Extras are good, such as drinks or dessert. I want to have things ready to host, as you never know who will be late or early.”

This year, there’s one more thing on the prep list: checking the rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for the holidays have recommendations for minimizing coronavirus risks. Also consult local guidelines for mask wearing and how many guests to host. Individual households must decide what works best for them when it comes to unvaccinated family members or celebrating outdoors.

Pick a serving setup

Before you choose your menu, determine your serving style. Buffets are good if you don’t have a large dining table. When Alejandra Ramos, a food TV personality and host of the upcoming “Great American Recipe” on PBS, entertains in her New York apartment, guests help themselves, then find spots to eat.

If you’ve got the space for it, a family-style meal – where people sit around a table and food is passed on platters – can cut down on the need for elaborate decorations, notes Amber Mayfield, an event planner and the founding editor of the magazine While Entertaining.

“Food can be part of the design so you’re not going crazy with flowers or anything,” she says. “And the beautiful platters of food give you a ‘wow’ moment.”

Most entertaining veterans counsel against having “plated” meals, where a host makes up individual plates and serves them. With a larger guest list, the food could be cold by the time it gets to the table.

Gluck suggests setting up a bar in advance with a big ice bucket, wine that has been uncorked, mixers and garnishes. You don’t have to have a full bar – sometimes one specialty cocktail is enough, as well as nonalcoholic choices such as sparkling water, fruit juices and seltzers.

Embrace a hybrid menu

The pandemic has made takeout an option not only for family dinners, but also for entertaining because restaurants have bumped their offerings up a notch. Many now offer specific holiday dinner dishes to take home.

Mayfield likes to outsource the main dish and focus on “low-lift” sides. “Think about the local restaurant you love that has a chicken or a leg of lamb,” she says. “Buy the big thing from someone who is great at it. It takes the pressure off you.”

Accompaniments can be as simple as a sheet pan of colorful roasted vegetables or a hearty grain salad, she says. She’s also a fan of a “semi-homemade” dessert, such as a premade pie shell that you fill with fruit and serve with good ice cream.

Ramos seconds this advice. “Don’t do things that aren’t fun for you. If you’re not a baker, don’t bake dessert. If there’s a main dish you love to make, make that.”

You can get great food from so many places, whether it’s a local barbecue spot or a deli. “You can do a party with literally no cooking,” Ramos says. “I like to live in the in-between, but it’s up to you.”

Time- and stress-savers include relying on make-ahead dishes. Ramos’s rules: no pasta and no fried food because both require last-minute effort and perfect timing. Instead, she likes more forgiving dishes such as a big pot of chili or a brisket.

Both Ramos and Mayfield say not to go overboard. You don’t need three types of predinner snacks and five sides. “That just gets costly and wasteful,” Mayfield says. “Limiting options keeps things easier.”

Dress the house in your own style

Small touches can add warmth to your gathering, whether it’s personalized place cards made by your kids or party favors that include chocolates.

Designer and author Justina Blakeney of the Jungalow lifestyle brand goes outdoors for inspiration. “Rely on seasonal greenery as a jumping-off place,” she says. “Pluck some maple leaves and use them as a runner to create a lush look.” She also likes “botanicals and bling”: greens paired with gold, silver, bronze or mercury glass.

You can zhuzh up your everyday white plates with cloth napkins, jewel-toned glassware and lots of candles, Blakeney says. Or, if you are a so-called grandmillennial, use your flowered family china along with other vintage pieces.

Nicole Jones, divisional merchandise manager for gifts and entertaining at Anthropologie, says setting a holiday table can be a great time to pull out items you never use. If your grandmother is coming, put something she gave you on the table for extra points.

Most importantly, try to be relaxed. “A house doesn’t have to be perfect or completely done for it to feel festive or inviting,” says Blakeney, who designs products for Target. “Chill out. These are family and friends, and they are not judging you.”

Establish your own traditions

Holiday traditions are a blend of old and new. Jones, her British husband and their two kids adapted a custom he grew up with: Christmas crackers, or party favors consisting of wrapped cardboard tubes that are filled with small gifts and that open with a popping sound.

“We always have Christmas crackers at the table at Christmas, and we now incorporate them into Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve,” Jones says.

Dweck, who grew up “Mexican Catholic,” says it has been easy for her and her husband, who is Jewish, to combine traditions because “everything centers on family and food,” she says. For generations, several dozen women in Dweck’s family have gathered to make tamales before Christmas. They assemble, bag and freeze hundreds of tamales that are then served in all of the families’ homes.

The main recipe comes from her great-grandmother – slow-cooked pork with red chile sauce – but her husband doesn’t eat pork, so now they make a chicken version and a vegetarian one.

Some families have a tradition of reflecting on why they gather. If this speaks to you, jot down a few thoughts or ask an older relative or your funny cousin to prepare a toast. “It’s a moment to slow down the dinner, a moment for reflection and to share things that are happening in our lives,” Gluck says.

And if hosting a large dinner seems overwhelming, throw a party that isn’t on the holiday itself. Miller says many people would appreciate something fun to do the day after Thanksgiving. “Start a new tradition of having friends and family come by for a Friday cocktail party.” Or host a leftover turkey sandwich bar sometime over the weekend.

Build in time for self-care

Don’t get so focused on your guests that you neglect yourself. Ramos has a hard rule: Two hours before guests arrive, she drops everything and gets dressed. “You don’t want to answer the door with wet hair and be the scraggliest person at your own party,” she says.

“That’s not fun, and no one wants to see a stressed-out host.” Pick out your outfit ahead of time. Maybe it’s a chance to look past the sweats and dig out something sparkly?

Post-shindig, you deserve a reward, so plan on treating yourself to a massage or meeting up with your friends for tea. For Jones, self-care means beginning the day after with a brisk walk in the fresh air and maybe putting on a face mask to help depuff.

But then again, you’re still calling the shots. If you want to just crawl under a blanket and binge-watch “Succession,” hey, it’s your party.

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