I almost didn’t write this post. The topic of easy holiday entertaining sounded trite to me, and maybe even a little pompous.
Because really, holiday entertaining can be stressful. Especially if we start to compare ourselves to Pinterest boards and Instagram posts and beautiful blogs portraying perfectly set tables (or perfectly imperfectly set tables) and hand-designed place cards and gorgeous vintage platters of food and homemade gifts. But that’s not real life. It’s like a photoshopped version of life, one in which all the imperfections are erased—the dirty dishes, late nights of planning, the closets filled with the contents of the last mad-dash to straighten and organize.
But then I started thinking: I have a lot to say on this topic. I have learned so much over the past few years about welcoming our friends into our home. On a typical week, we may have friends over two or three times, sometimes planned and sometimes spontaneous. And so I’ve learned how to make it easy(er).
Here are my lovingly-given thoughts on how to welcome family and friends into your home over the holidays with as little stress as possible.
Plan a Make-Ahead Menu.
First, plan a meal or snacks that can be completely made ahead. When friends come over to our house for dinner, they always ask if there’s anything they can do to help. And of course, they’re happy to help, because they’re friends. But really what they want to do is sit down and have a glass of wine and just rest. When you go to someone’s house, it’s nice to have an excuse to just take a deep breath and let someone else take care of you, even for an evening.
Another good reason to plan a menu where everything can be made ahead is that by the time friends arrive, everything is done. All of the food is in the oven or on the stove, and the kitchen is clean. Everyone can just relax, including me (or you). When I first started hosting dinner parties, I did a lot of last-minute cooking while everyone was gathered in the kitchen. It was still fun, but I felt only half my brain was engaged in the conversation, because the other half was measuring, timing and cooking. It also left a lot more dirty dishes sitting around. Make-ahead meals are a win-win for everyone.
What is a make-ahead meal? It’s anything that can roast in the oven, simmer on the stove top, be served room temperature or get better as it sits. Roasts, braised meats, lasagna, enchiladas, casserole dishes are all good. Roasted vegetables are great. They can be sliced and coated with oil at least an hour before and then go in the oven as guests arrive. Hearty marinated salads are good as well—kale, brussels sprouts, radicchio, endive, cabbage. You can dress these salads before guests arrive and they are perfect by dinner. I’m sharing my favorite brussels sprouts salad, below.
You Don’t Have to Make Everything From Scratch.
Okay, so I usually make everything from scratch, but that’s because I love to cook and I have the time. If you don’t love to cook or you don’t have the time, take advantage of great convenience items. For example, I’ve learned to keep appetizers really simple. You want to give people something to nibble on, but not too much that it spoils dinner. A bowl of olives, some spiced nuts, a great cheese are all good choices (and things that require no extra time). And ice cream for dessert is always a good idea.
Clean the Kitchen Before Guests Arrive
One more advantage of the make-ahead meal: You start your party with a completely clean kitchen. I always make sure the dishwasher is empty and all of the prep-work dishes have been cleaned and put away. If I start with a clean kitchen, the evening ends much more pleasantly. Plates and cups go straight into the dishwasher and serving dishes can just rest in the sink until guests leave.
Accommodate Dietary Restrictions Graciously.
If it’s a small dinner party, I always ask guest for allergies or dietary restrictions. I have a sensitive tummy and so I know it can sometimes be hard and embarrassing to go to someone’s home for dinner and not be able to eat much of what is offered. If it’s a larger party, I just make sure to have a variety of options, including gluten-free, dairy-free and vegetarian. You want everyone to feel comfortable, and not like they are a burden.
Keep Drinks Simple.
If a guest wants to bring something, I always suggest they bring their drink of choice. Otherwise, I keep drinks simple, with white, red and sparkling wine, sparkling water, tea and coffee. That satisfies 99.9% of guests.
Set the Table Ahead of Time.
I often set the table the morning of the party or even sometimes the day before. It’s one less thing to think about as guests are arriving. Generally I place a neutral runner down the center of the table with some candles and maybe some simple flowers in bud bases, leaving lots of room on the table for platters. For dinners where everyone is gathered around the table, I love serving family-style. That way, everyone can fill their own plate and eat as much or as little as they like.
Spend Time on the Details that Bring You Joy.
If you are crafty and love creating beautiful flower arrangements and hand-lettered place cards, then do it! Your guests will love and appreciate the effort, especially if they’re handmade. But if those details give you a headache, just light some candles and call it a day! You should only invest time in the details that bring you joy.
Use Serving Dishes You Love.
Many food styling experts will tell you food looks good on a white plate. That may be true, but I think food tastes best when served on something you love. I have a cabinet filled with white platters, but my favorite ones are the ones passed down through my family—my Granny Dixon’s china, the pitcher my Granny gave me or the crystal that belonged to Elie’s Mom. Those pieces have meaning, and every time I pull them out, I think of them.
Clean the House, but Don’t Obsess.
My Mom and Dad threw great parties when I was growing up. But I never looked forward to the days before, when my Mom would scrub the whole house from baseboards to the light fiixtures, including cleaning out every drawer and closet. When I pointed out that no one would actually be looking in that drawer in the hallway, she said, “But I know it’s there, and it matters to me.” That might have been true, but it also stressed her out trying to get everything ready. Since I inherited her need for the house to always look picture-perfect, I try to keep this in perspective when I’m getting ready for a party. The bathrooms should definitely be clean and the house picked up, but it doesn't really matter if the guest bedroom has fresh flowers. It's likely that no one will go in there, anyway. Being a little relaxed about the cleanliness of your house is also a good philosophy for last-minute guests or impromptu get-togethers. People will remember your hospitality, not how clean your house is.
Use Lists to Your Advantage.
I admit: I am a lover of lists. There’s something very satisfying about making a list and then checking things off. But that aside, I find lists indispensible for party planning. I always make a complete grocery list of all of the items I need, and I check them off as I purchase them. Try not to leave all of your shopping for the last minute, because that can be stressful. Pantry goods can be purchased days and weeks ahead of time.
The second list you’ll need is a timeline. While it might seem laborious, I create a timeline even for a simple dinner party. I usually start from the time of the party and work backwards, beginning with what needs to be prepared or finished at the last minute (hopefully not a lot) to what can be prepared hours or days ahead of time.
Lastly, be nice to yourself. Don’t think every little detail has to be perfect. You’ll drive yourself crazy. After all, these are people who love you and are just coming over to spend time together and have fun. Just dim the lights, light some candles, put on great music and meet your guests at the door with a drink and a big smile. Your joy will put everyone at ease, and you’re guaranteed a great party. And if anything goes wrong, just laugh. It will make a great story.
Brussels Sprouts, Fennel & Pomegranate Seeds Salad with Meyer Lemon Dressing
To get you started on your make-ahead menu, here is my latest favorite salad recipe: Brussels Sprouts, Fennel & Pomegranate Seeds Salad with Meyer Lemon Dressing. With the green and red, it’s a perfect salad for the holidays, and it’s a fresh, bright and healthy addition to heavy holiday meals. You can add the dressing to this salad hours before, so it can just be sitting in the refrigerator, waiting for dinner.
1 bunch Brussels sprouts (about 1 ½ pounds)
1 fennel bulb
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1/2 cup pecans, toasted and chopped
Zest and juice from one Meyer lemon
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon maple syrup
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 few grinds of black pepper
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
Wash the Brussels sprouts and trim them, cutting off the bottom stem and peeling off any dry outer leaves. Cut the sprouts in half through the stem and then very thinly slice them. Alternatively, if you have a mandolin, you can leave them whole and slice them on the mandolin. Place the shredded Brussels sprouts in a large bowl.
Cut the tops off of the fennel bulb. You can freeze the tops in a freezer bag for the next time you make chicken or vegetable stock. Cut the fennel bulb in half and remove the core. Very thinly slice the fennel. Alternatively, if you have a mandolin, you can leave the fennel whole and slice it on the mandolin. Add the fennel to the bowl with the Brussels and then add the pomegranate seeds and the toasted pecans. Toss everything together.
In a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk together the Meyer lemon juice and zest, sherry vinegar, maple syrup, olive oil, sea salt, black pepper and pepper flakes. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss together. You can prepare the salad up to a few hours before serving. The salad will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for about two days.