Holiday Hosting, Minus the Fuss

How to stay merry while hosting a houseful

Whether you're throwing an intimate dinner party for eight or a cocktail party for 50, these handy holiday entertaining tips will help you keep your sanity while enjoying your own party.

Get a game plan. Before you attempt to throw the party of the season, sketch it out on paper: whom you're inviting, what you're making, the kinds of wine, flowers, etc. Then put together a day-by-day timeline for the week before. The hour or so prior to the party should be reserved for last-minute details like lighting candles, putting out ice, and reheating appetizers—not major cooking or cleaning.

Keep it simple. Holiday hosts tend to go overboard on everything from food to decor. Simple is better, especially if it keeps you more relaxed. Go with monochromatic flowers in bud vases, or serve easily assembled appetizers like cheese and crackers or high-quality olives. People will enjoy your company far more than a magazine-worthy spread.

Make it ahead. Pick a few signature snacks and freeze a batch. All you have to do is reheat them when guests come over. Gougères (little French cheese puffs) are perfect little savory bites that go directly from freezer to oven. I freeze bite-size Nutella shortbread brownies, then thaw them for a few hours before guests come over.

Tie seasonal elements into your table decor. Fresh cranberries in jars with votive candles, sprigs of rosemary or thyme tied into napkins or bowls of pretty citrus fruits. They add a pop of color and cost far less than flowers.

Chilled bubbly is the festive best. You certainly don't have to break the bank by buying real Champagne when there are so many delicious, inexpensive options like Cremant (sparkling wine from other regions in France), Prosecco, Cava, and sparkling wines from the U.S., South Africa and South America. For a holiday twist, I build a sparkling cocktail from cranberry juice, simple syrup and Grand Marnier, then top it with bubbly and a sprig of rosemary.

Personal touches go a long way. Take the time to hand-write name cards at dinner parties, or make little gifts like labeled Mason jars of homemade granola. Your guests will feel extra-special having a little memento of the party to take home.

Don't forget the tunes. I'm a sucker for Christmas music, but an entire night of it can be a little much. I create a festive playlist for holiday parties and include jazzy holiday favorites (think: Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald) mixed in with hip-hop, jazz and R&B.

Set the mood. I put votive candles everywhere in little glass jars, and of course, the holidays are the time to pull out strings of white lights. The dimmer the better, plus you don't have to stress as much over vacuuming and dusting.

Have a soup party. After weeks straight of eating spinach artichoke dip and holiday cookies, it is possible to get sick of rich foods. Mix it up with a potluck. Have half the guests bring a favorite soup, and ask everyone else to provide salad, bread and wine. It ends up being healthier, easier on the host (since they only have to make one thing) and the perfect meal on a cold night.

Collaborative parties are the best. I say this all the time: Don't try and do it all by yourself. People love pitching in with a dish, hand-writing menus or arranging the flowers. When everyone brings their talents to the table, it is much more fun for both host and guests.