Holiday Party Planning Ideas & Tips

The key to a great party isn’t the food, the location, or the music: it’s a relaxed host. How to be a happy host? “Do as much prep ahead of time as you can,” says Diane Phillips, a caterer, and cook who has taught hundreds of do-ahead cooking classes and written several books on the topic, including Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead, the James Beard Award-nominated Perfect Party Food and others. If holiday entertaining makes you feel frazzled, don’t fear: the Diva of Do-Ahead is here with a few of her foolproof tips. 

Make a plan.

Using a blank calendar, mark the day of the party, then fill in the days before with things that need to be done, even the most mundane—like cleaning the house, selecting music, and grocery shopping. Decide how many people, what kind of party (sit-down, buffet), and then gather your recipes. Make a shopping list, and don’t forget the nonfood items, such as napkins, paper towels, candles, etc.

Here’s help with the math:

1 guest = 4 cocktail napkins + 1 pound of ice (for icing drinks and serving)

Expect one alcoholic beverage per guest per hour.

12 guests = 6 bottles of wine + 1 or 2 cases of beer + 6 liters of water (still or sparkling)

Give yourself permission to outsource.

Give yourself permission to ask for help from others—or to tap your favorite bakery or prepared-foods deli. If you aren’t fond of making desserts or rolls, find a great bakery or a talented friend.

Start with a clean kitchen.

Always start the party with a clean sink and an empty dishwasher and a trash can in the kitchen. Nothing is worse than having to take out the garbage in the middle of a party, and the sink and dishwasher are great places to hide dirty dishes.

Set the table early.

For sit-down functions, set the table a day or two ahead of time, then cover it with a sheet. For a grazing party, make sure the platters you will use will fit on the table. Do a dry run with empty serving platters, arranging them in a pleasing manner, then mark the spots with sticky notes. This serves two functions: you know that the serving pieces will fit and when someone asks, “May I help you with something?” you can smile and say, “Would you please put this on the table where the note is?”

Chill the drinks.

If you have lots of drinks to cool and a full fridge, fill your washing machine with ice the morning of the party and chill in there. Bring drinks out as you need them. The washing machine will drain as the ice melts, and you won’t have to stock coolers all night or empty all the melted ice the next day! (This works with front loaders too.)

Keep food at the optimal temperature.

To keep dips cold, slice off the top from a round loaf of bread and remove the inside of the bread, leaving a 3/4-inch shell. Put the round in a freezer bag and freeze. On the day of the party, pour the dip into the frozen bread round. It will keep the dip cold for 4 to 6 hours. To keep items like meatballs or mulled cider warm, put your slow cooker to work, in the “warm” setting.