Holiday Dinner Hosting: Top 5 Tips for Avoiding Stress

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I freely admit to being a glutton for punishment. I love to cook for a crowd. I love hosting dinner for friends and family, especially for important occasions and holidays. I recognize that this puts me in the category of being somewhat crazy, but there you have it. I love everything about hosting a large dinner party. Even more than the loving and social aspects of holidays and special events is the challenge they present for preparing and serving a seemingly effortless and stress-free meal. The following strategy is my key to accomplishing this.

1. Planning. I typically start two weeks ahead by writing out a menu. I have a huge chalkboard in the kitchen especially for this purpose, but a large piece of paper would work equally well. My menu planner includes the following headings: appetizers, drinks, main course, dessert, the number of people, any food allergies or sensitivities, flowers, and budget. An enjoyable menu doesn’t need to include fussy gourmet food or complicated dishes. In fact, I advise avoiding new recipes or anything difficult for such gatherings. Instead, I find that family favorites beautifully presented in a relaxed setting are always appreciated. Often people will offer to contribute a dish. You decide if it’s worth it. I personally hate having people offer to bring something when I know they will show up with a head of lettuce and want to make the salad in my kitchen asking for a bowl, salad dressing, some nuts, salad servers, etc. You get the picture. It makes me crazy! I avoid the stress and keep those people out of my kitchen. If there are reliable contributors coming as guests—people whom you trust—put a big checkmark beside the menu item they are bringing, and that’s one dish taken care of. Continue to check off items on the menu as you prep them. You may want to tidy up your blackboard before the guests arrive. I re-write it so that my guests can see what I’m serving but don’t see my notes on the budget or similar things.

2. Lists. I write a detailed grocery-shopping list and purchase the necessaries several days in advance, leaving the fresh vegetables and flowers to buy right before the event. I also plan my stations: prepping, cooking, serving, drinks, and appetizers. I find it useful to double-check my menu and ensure that I’m not using the following more than once: oven, stove-top burners, microwave, slow-cooker, and, in the warm weather, the barbeque.

3. Advance Prep. I set the table and chairs and clean the silver and crystal two to three days ahead. I plan which of the serving pieces and serving utensils I will need and set these aside. This includes hot mats. I move the furniture around to ensure there is a serve-yourself drinks station and a place for appetizers. I’ve taken to using two tables for big dinners—one that we dine at and one that holds the buffet. This saves the endless passing of hot dishes or individual plates for the main course. For the buffet table, I use one of my kitchen counters if the group is small. For a larger group, I use a folding table we keep for this purpose. The day before, I prepare as much of the food as I can do safely. I bake the desserts, clean the vegetables, set up the carving/prep areas, and decorate the table with fresh flowers. Fortunately, my partner is good-natured and happily does the housework and any last-minute shopping for me. If you’re not so lucky, you will also need to build in time to tidy, vacuum, dust, and clean bathrooms.

4. Timing. Working backwards from the time I plan to serve dinner, I calculate at what point I need to put the vegetables on, turn on the oven, set the microwave, etc., I write post-it notes, which I place above the cooking station. They say things like: “turkey 375º 2 p.m.,” or “carrots 5:30.” That way my partner or anyone else can follow the plan and quickly help out if I’m chatting, visiting, or dealing with the unexpected. It ensures that everything is prepared at the right time and that there is ample opportunity to carve and place the food nicely on the serving dishes. A cheap and cheerful way to make the dishes look attractive is to simply lay fresh parsley or another herb around the edges as a garnish.

5. Enjoy. Be sure to sit down and enjoy the meal with your guests. No one will enjoy themselves if the cook is rushing around stressing about things. When the meal is finished, put away any food that must be refrigerated, but leave everything else in the kitchen as is so that you can continue to visit. Enjoy a drink! There will be time to tidy up later. The whole point of entertaining is to be present with your guests. Don’t miss out on that by staying in the kitchen. Those whom you have invited won’t mind the mess and will appreciate that you valued their company.

As we approach the holiday season, I hope these tips are helpful and that they contribute to enjoyable, stress-free dinners with your family and friends.