Holiday parties are one of my favorite things about winter. The seasonal cheer and chilly temperatures make an easy excuse for inviting all of your favorite people over for a night of delicious food, flowing wine, and an abundance of great conversation. Still, there's a lot that goes into throwing a festive fête , especially if you plan on hosting a large crowd.
To find out all the little details that take an evening from meh to amazing, I turned to the real pros: Heather Wautelet, an events consultant that helps bring the Food52 brand to life through parties and special experiences; and Liz Rosen and Maggie Hollingsworth, who are in charge of organizing beautiful dinners and full-scale events (from start to finish) for The Little Owl Venue & Townhouse, two private spaces that are an offshoot of the New York City restaurant. With their help, you can make sure this year's celebration is bigger and better than ever before.
From planning what you should put on the menu to special touches that can transform a space, here are their best tips and tricks for pulling off a holiday party without a hitch.
Consider your guests—and the vibe. Before you even start thinking about the food you're going to serve or how you're going to decorate the tablescape, you should have at least a rough idea of who (and how many) will be coming. "I think being hospitable really means understanding who's coming to your house, because you're throwing the party for them," says Rosen. This, along with your space, will dictate whether you're throwing a sit-down dinner or cocktail party; about six to 10 people for a dinner party is reasonable, while anything over 12 is likely going to go the cocktail route, meaning you'll just need light bites and drinks.
Ahead of setting the menu, get some inspiration. Before thinking about the menu, Rosen usually heads to the farmer's market to see what's in season and looks freshest. "It also just really gives us a lot of inspiration for what we're gonna make, whether it's a garnish, or whether it's the bulk of what we're cooking," she says. Once you have an idea of what you want to make, start jotting down ideas on paper and slowly but surely your menu will form.
Split up your shopping trips. Things like wine, liquor, anything canned or jarred, and even certain decor elements (candles, votives, table cloths, etc.) can be purchased a week or two out, giving you one less thing to think about once it gets closer to the big day. You don't want to purchase things like meat or fresh produce until a day or two before the party, unless you're planning on cooking it ahead of time. As for anything that's going to be served raw (crudité, oysters, and the like), "you want to buy those at the very last minute," says Rosen.
Your vibe = the vibe of the party. The ladies at The Little Owl stressed that the host always sets the tone for the party, so if you're relaxed, your guests will feel at ease; if you're not, well, it rubs off. "Your vibe is what the party vibe is, and the vibe is just as important as the food and the drink," Rosen says. So make sure you do what you need to do—whether that's getting the bulk of the cleaning done the day before, or prepping everything the morning of—to be as ready to enjoy the party as your guests are.
You don't need to go overboard with the appetizers. Whether you're doing light bites or a full meal, keep the appetizers simple. "Instead of doing a bunch of different appetizers, just focus on three or four," says Wautelet. It's also helpful to choose dishes that can be prepped ahead of time, like a spinach dip or deviled eggs, or things that don't really need any prep at all, like nuts and olives. Meat and cheese platters or crudités, she adds, can also take you a long way in a very short period of time. "It's so easy to make that a beautiful presentation and people are always impressed by it."
Make sure you've got something for everyone. Instead of polling every single guest to find out who has food restrictions (though you certainly can if you're not sure!), the gals at The Little Owl typically make sure their menu has a variety of options that everyone can enjoy. That usually means having at least one vegan and gluten-free option each (you could even include some gluten-free crackers on your crudité spread). These dishes should look as beautiful and taste just as good as everything else on the spread, because "you don't want anyone to feel like an afterthought," says Rosen.
Rely on make-ahead, oven-friendly dishes. So that you're not stuck in the kitchen while your guests are sitting down to dinner, choose dishes that can be made ahead of time and then finished off or reheated in the oven. Luckily, some of the coziest, winter-friendly recipes fall under this category. Things like lasagnas (or any type of baked pasta, really), braises, or even an impressive standing rib roast can be prepped the day before and brought to warm, bubbling perfection an hour or two before someone knocks on the door. "Soups are also really great for that—you can always cook those the day before," Rosen adds.
When it comes to drinks, you really only need these options. How you stock your bar will depend on how many people you've invited (and whether or not they like to drink), but a safe rule of thumb: Serve one type of red wine, one white wine, something bubbly (like Prosecco or Champagne), and a cocktail (but only if you have time; punches are easiest). For an elegant touch on cocktails and regular soft drinks, make specialty ice cubes (like these big rocks) and dress up drinks with fresh herbs. "Whether it's mint, thyme, or basil, that's a beautiful way to garnish your drink and make something a little extra special," says Rosen.
Buy your wine in bulk. Depending on how many people you're hosting, buying things in bulk—especially cases of wine—is an easy way to bring down the cost of your party. "When you buy the wine in cases, you can usually get a good deal on that," says Hollingsworth. Another tip for saving money on wine is to swap expensive grape varietals for their budget-friendly counterparts. For example: You could trade a pricy Sancerre for a different Sauvignon Blanc from a very close region; or you might ditch an expensive Barolo for a Nebbiolo instead.
For bigger parties, consider hiring a bartender. "Hiring your own bartender can actually be a relatively affordable thing to do," says Wautelet. She suggested it's a great option if you're having more than 20 people over; you supply the booze, and then they'll take care of prepping the garnishes and mixing up the cocktails. If this is a route you want to consider, check out your city's bartending certification school and they can provide references of who to hire.
Fresh herbs make great centerpieces. Bundles of fresh herbs, like rosemary, thyme, and sage, can go a long way when planning a get-together—and not just for the food. "You can use them on your plates as a garnish, but you can also put them on the table," says Rosen. Arrange little bunches of herbs around candle votives for a seasonal touch that smells good, but won't overpower what's coming out of the kitchen. You can also bring the outside in, Rosen adds, by using little plants and branches as decorative accents.
Give your handwritten place cards a special touch. If you're having a seated dinner, place cards are a given, says Hollingsworth. This not only makes your guests feel welcome and important, but it also helps you put together people you know will get along—and keep apart anyone that might not. "Sometimes I'll write a personal note on the inside of the card, or pose a question to the group that'll engage conversation," she adds.
You can rent furniture and table settings just for the occasion. Just like you can hire a bartender to take the pressure off the drinks section of your to-do list, you can also rent furniture and picture-perfect table settings just for the evening. "You could call your local rental companies and pick out a linen, or a plate, or something that's different than what you have and will make the decor pop," says Rosen. And again, it's one less thing you'll have to worry about.
Make the kid's table fit right in—but still fun. There's no need to make an entirely separate menu for the kiddos, Rosen explains, when you can just slightly adapt what you're serving the adults. Let's say you're making mac and cheese: For the adults, you could add truffles and mushrooms or cauliflower and broccoli; for the kids, just make a smaller, separate dish that doesn't have those extra ingredients. It's also crucial that keep the little ones occupied with an activity, adds Hollingsworth. Her latest go-tos: cookie decorating or lining the wall with big, giant craft paper kids can draw on with crayons.
Give decorated to-go boxes. There are always bound to be leftovers at the end of a holiday party, so be prepared to send your guests home with their favorite dishes or sweet treats. "Some people don't want to eat their dessert right after dinner, so having to-go boxes, with a festive sticker on it or some sort of personal touch is really cute," says Wautelet. She suggests buying a stack of bakery or craft boxes and some festive stickers or stamps, plus string to wrap them with. When they're munching on their leftover pie or mashed potatoes the next day, they'll think about what a great time they had the night before.
What are your best holiday party tips? Tell us in the comments below!
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