16 Tips For Hosting A Stress-Free Holiday Party

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The holidays can cause a lot of anxiety and nerves for seasoned holiday hosters and party novices alike. But you shouldn't let the fear of burning the holiday ham or forgetting to send invites drag you down. Perfecting a holiday party — whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, or just a celebration with friends — is all about careful planning and thinking ahead. 

If you fail to plan accordingly, your last-minute preparations will revolve around putting stuffing in the oven and baking turkey rather than meeting guests at the door and putting your bubbly on ice. Ideally, you should start planning your holiday party about a month before your actual event, because any closer to the event will require more legwork on your end (which we want to avoid, as much as possible). And luckily we have done some of the heavy lifting for you in providing these tips for planning a stress-free holiday season.

Make a timeline and think ahead

Planners rejoice. Having access to a list of what you need to accomplish way before and as well as the day of a holiday dinner party is important to set yourself up for success. To craft a Thanksgiving timeline, for example, you'll want to start planning about a month in advance. You'll need to ask yourself first who (and more importantly, how many) guests you plan to invite. This number will guide the feasibility of your menu, as well as how to set up your entertaining space.

Your timeline should also dictate how you plan on structuring and buying your food. If you want to get a reasonably priced cut of meat to feed all the guests at your party, you should consider buying your turkey early — this is especially important with the rate of inflation and supply shortages that could make your holiday meal cost more. On your timeline, list when you plan on eating dinner and plan backward for your steps for preparing your sides on time.

Take note of dietary restrictions

It's not easy to accommodate a guest's dietary restrictions during the holiday season, especially when you struggle to schedule a menu for 30 other people who do not have dietary restrictions like allergies, plant-based preferences, or intolerances. To help work around dietary accommodations, we recommend adding a section on your RSVP for dietary restrictions so you'll know in advance what you need to plan for (if you're the one cooking of course). Your other alternatives are to have all of your guests bring a side dish with them — preferably, ask everyone to bring a dish that they enjoy eating. That way, you won't have to worry about someone going without a meal this holiday season.

If you are serving this holiday, you should opt to purchase tools to label your dishes with potential allergens. The eight major allergens — soy, wheat, shellfish, dairy, eggs, tree nuts, and peanuts — are some labels to start with (via the FDA). If you're cooking, you should also make yourself available to answer ingredient questions if you prepared all of the dishes yourself (for which you deserve a round of applause). It's a good way to boast about your cooking skills too.

Send invites early

As with everything holiday party, sending invites as early as possible is very important. According to Shutterfly, the perfect window for sending party invitations for almost any event, including dinner parties, is about three weeks before the day of the event. For holidays especially, you can err on the side of four to five weeks to ensure that folks can figure out travel arrangements. For Christmas Eve or Christmas day, that means sending out those invitations in the first week of December. More formal arrangements, such as events where you have to rent a venue and order extra supplies, may require more advanced notice.

According to the Toronto Star, there are some rules about plus-ones that you should keep in mind if you're hosting. Extending a plus-one to an event should be seen as a courtesy rather than a right. If you get invited, it is usually proper etiquette to bring the person you are dating or married to — but it may not be a good idea to bring someone who you just started dating. As a host, you need to consider plus-ones when you are thinking about ingredients, supplies, and place settings.

Pick a theme for decorating

Planning and decorating your space is much easier when you have a theme picked out. Themes can be things, such as fall leaves or colors, like autumnal browns and oranges or Christmas reds. Once you have a theme, you can start sourcing decorations and settings around that theme. While your first stop can be major online retailers like Amazon, you can also consider in-store shopping at places like HomeGoods and TJ Maxx for affordable holiday decor (that you can keep around for next year's party too).

When planning for holiday party themes, also think about the ambiance you want to set in your space. A later, intimate Thanksgiving dinner may call for candles amid pumpkins, while a bright cheery New Years' celebration will include a ton of glitz and glamor. You can also use your theme and ambiance to inspire the dishes on your table. For example, if your Christmas table is inspired by red-and-white candy canes, you can include cranberries and raspberry-jam cookies on your menu.

Plan your menu based on your headcount, space, and budget

While you might want to plan an opulent holiday party, a $5 per person budget may not buy you top-shelf champagne and Waygu beef. You need to set your menu based on your budget, as well as how many people you plan to have on your guest list. If you're looking to cut costs this holiday season, you can consider having everyone pitch in and bring a dish and just stick to the hosting part of things.

You should plan your menu around your timeline and keep things feasible. If you're hosting for four, you can make individual tart tatins — but that's likely not possible if you've got close to 12 guests. When assembling a menu, you should also think about how much time you'll have to prepare food, drinks, and decor prior to the event. A long work week and a ton of things to do at home aren't conducive to planning a super-intricate gathering.

Decide how you want your guests to contribute

The easiest to take some weight off your chest this holiday season is to have someone else help. If you need a simple way to cook less this holiday (so you can focus on decorating and coordinating), you should ask guests to RSVP with a side dish they can bring from home. Outside of having more options to choose from on the buffet table, you can assume that everyone can eat at least one thing on the buffet table. And if you're not worried about side dishes, you can also ask people to bring desserts, drinks, or paper goods to help out.

The possibilities are endless for holiday sides. Guests can stick to simple recipes like roasted vegetables or fruit salad, or more complicated dishes like 100-layer root vegetable gratin. If you collect RSVPs, you can ask people to be as creative as possible with side dishes to prevent repetition. Choose specific folks (with great recipes) to prepare the classic holiday sides like mashed potatoes or pumpkin pie.

Consider adding a personal touch to the decor and food

When you're entertaining, it can be hard to remember that you are the one throwing the party — since it can seem a lot like you're holding a party for everyone else. You have the opportunity to design, decorate, and add your own personal touch to every part of your holiday party. If you are a fan of florals and florals only, you can make your own floral arrangements to decorate your holiday table. If you love a good charcuterie board, now is the time to let your charcuterie design skills shine by making a snacking board filled with festive cheese, meats, and decorations.

When you're adding a personal touch to your holiday table, you don't have to make big moves only. Something as simple and small as sprigs of holly on each charger plate or glass ornaments placed thoughtfully across the table will elevate your setup.

Buy your ingredients in advance to cut down on costs

Buying in advance (and being sure to purchase enough food) is always an important part of throwing a holiday party. Per the Food Network, you should purchase one-and-a-half pounds of turkey (counting bones) per person on Thanksgiving — which equates to about 8 ounces per person without the bones. For a ham, Southern Living recommends purchasing up to a half pound of boneless ham per person. To get the best prices on these holiday staples, keep your eye out for coupons and sales at your local grocery store in the weeks leading up to your party — if you have enough freezer space, utilize it to store your meat.

As far as beverages, you should plan to go through about half a bottle of wine per person. Split your options between whites and reds, and don't forget to keep a few bottles of beer in the fridge.

Think of the utensils

When it comes to utensils, you'll need to think about serving utensils (like slotted spoons, carving knives, and pie slicers) as well as flatware for the table. According to TigerChef, you should plan to purchase (or borrow, we won't blame you) the essentials — a carving knife for the meat, pie servers for easy scooping, a ladle for the gravy or sauces, and ample butter knives for spreading on fresh dinner rolls.

When choosing flatware, you should aim for efficiency. If you're hosting a big holiday party with more than 30 people, having everyone use ceramic plates and steel flatware will amount to a big dishwasher tab. For larger parties, stick to disposable plastic to make your life easier. You don't have to sacrifice aesthetics for disposability either — especially with the help of these heavy-duty plastic plates. If you're looking for more eco-friendly options, you can purchase a biodegradable dinner set.

Buy leftover containers or have guests bring ones from home

If you have your favorite reusable containers at home, you likely know the feeling of packing them with leftovers and sending them off with your guests after dinner — only to never get the containers back. If you plan enough in advance, you can purchase takeout containers for leftovers or ask guests to bring their own when you send out the invitations. If you choose the latter, you should still be prepared that some folks will forget to pack an extra plastic container or two.

You'll want to purchase containers that your guests can easily reheat. You should never reheat foam to avoid releasing potential toxins and fumes into your kitchen. Instead, purchase bulk meal prep containers that you can have on hand for spooning leftovers into. These containers are both dishwasher and microwave safe, so you can rest comfortably knowing that your guests can enjoy Christmas ham and mashed potatoes — if there's any left of course.

Learn how to set up a formal dining space

One easy way to take your holiday dinner a step up is to learn how to set a formal dining placement on the table. Typically, beautiful tablescapes start with a tablecloth and a runner — this addition is a simple way to make your setting appear more elegant. Keep your decorations minimal with a simple folded napkin under the charger plate (the big plate underneath the dining plate). You can use simple white plates for your holiday party for a minimal, but elegant flair. Keep the staple flatware nearby — spoons, dinner forks, dessert forks, and butter knives are the essentials.

When you're setting your table, you should also design the arrangement of the table for cross-table conversation. This means that if you plan to decorate the center of the table, you should use short-stemmed florals and small vases. That way, people can talk to one another across the table without obstruction.

Stick to cheap bubbly and easy drinks

Trying to figure out how to reduce your holiday party budget? You may want to check the price label on your bottles — especially the kinds of wine you serve later on in the evening.  Our favorite affordable wine varieties that pair well with almost anything include zinfandels, dry sauvignon blancs, and pinot noirs.

To prevent your guests from feeling super groggy at the beginning of the meal, start serving appetizers with a light, sweet bubbly. As the meal goes on, you can start to introduce the heavier wines that pair well with your main meat and sides. Wines from warmer regions tend to complement heavy mains well, and you should also consider purchasing a sweet wine to finish out dinner.

As for wine storage, you should keep your cheaper or bubblier whites in the fridge. The colder temperatures highlight oaky notes as well as the tannins that give fruity wine its flavor. Full-bodied and deeply-flavored wines should be left and enjoyed at room temperature.

Keep food safety in mind

Although the holidays might seem all about parties and celebrations, it's no time to put food safety on hold. When you're serving food, you need to be aware of the "temperature danger zone" — the temperature that promotes the transfer of foodborne pathogens. According to the USDA, you should avoid leaving raw meat at room temperature to thaw or running it under hot water. Once your bird is cooking, you should make sure you get an internal temperature reading of at least 165 degrees F to ensure it is safe to eat. 

Another important consideration you should take into account at your holiday party is to ensure that you do not leave food out for more than two hours without refrigeration. After two hours, the food can dip into "danger zone" temperatures of between 40  and 140 degrees F (via the USDA). Hot food should stay hot and cold food should stay cold, so you should consult your fridge or oven as needed.

Ditch the party favors, or not

When it comes to party favors, we are divided. While party favors can add a personal touch to your special holiday celebration, making gift bags and adding personalized labels to tiny jars of honey can be a waste of time — and nobody has time before a holiday party. Many guests will be appreciative of being invited to a holiday party, let alone being served a ton of delicious food.

If you are dead set on party favors, there are a ton of potential options you have at your disposal. For the holiday season, you might decorate chocolate-dipped pretzel rods or make hot chocolate bombs decorated with seasonal sprinkles and filled with marshmallows. If you're looking for a way to add a personal touch to your celebration, you can consider making your own trail mix in bulk with your favorite nuts, seeds, and candies, and bagging the trail mix for your guests. Place these treats in individual bags and leave the bags near the door for your guests on the way out.

Don't say no to extra cleanup help

Is it the most host-like thing to ask for extra help with the dishes? Probably not. But if it is indeed your party, you should spend time socializing with guests rather than doing the dishes. According to the Etiquette School of America, a host(ess) belongs with the guests. If you start to feel overwhelmed with how many things you have to get ready, politely ask family members or guests for extra assistance. After all, you don't have to be a martyr all of the time. In fact, asking for assistance is a great way to pull out guests who genuinely want to spend time with you — even if it's over dishes — and folks who are feeling "stuck" in conversation with other guests.

We should also add that dishes don't have to be boring. Put on some good tunes and turn your dishwashing session into a jam session too.

Write down a reflection for your next holiday party

After all of your guests have gone home for the evening, go ahead and set your feet up on the coffee table, grab a warm after-dinner beverage, and take out your notebook. You'll want to evaluate your timeline to assess what went well and what didn't go so well. Did you have enough turkey for all of your guests, or do you need to upgrade and add an extra few pounds to your bird next year? What kinds of wines did you buy, and did they go over well — or do you want to try a different mix next time around?

Although it may seem tedious to write down and keep a written record of how your holiday went, you'll want to have this reflection as a quick snapshot for next year. That is if you plan to host next year's holiday party in the first place.