So you have made the decision to throw a holiday party this year, but where do you begin?
First – call your caterer, ha ha. But, seriously, it is okay to ask for help for all or just part of your party. But whether doing it all yourself or not, here are some planning tips from our 20 plus years of experience to ease your stress.
What you serve at your party will be determined by what time your guests arrive. An open house can start at 2pm and just be light hors d’oeuvres, a snack between lunch and dinner. If inviting guests at 5 to 6pm you should plan enough food to cover dinner; it might not be an actual sit down dinner, but plan on them eating that much. Inviting guests after 7pm you can just do cheeses and desserts.
An open house is a great way to go for family and friends, especially if kids are involved. Plan 3 or 4 hors d’oeuvres plus 1 stationed item. By a station I mean a large focal point, such as an abundant fruit and cheese display. For a dinner hour party (but not dinner) plan 2 stations plus 4 to 5 hors d’oeuvres, this way if the guests are hungry they can help themselves. The late evening is a lot of fun, just do a nice cheese display, and make a couple of other items, and ask friends to bring their best dessert.
Don’t feel you need to be traditional just for the sake of it. Of course, whatever traditions are important to your family you want to keep, but otherwise be creative. For instance we always host Christmas Eve at our house, and for years we started with hors d’oeuvres, stuffing ourselves because we all love them! Then waiting until we can barely fit any more to start dinner, and finally forcing dessert, which was a shame because we love dessert too. But now we just put out a grand buffet of hors d’oeuvres and desserts and nibble all night long! It allows a huge variety, plenty of food, and everyone can eat at their own pace between presents, conversation and cocktails.
Whatever type of party you are having, when planning your menu you should keep in mind three balances. First is pre-prepped items versus things that must be done at the last minute (ala-minute). Second, hot versus cold items. Third is purchased versus homemade.
Purchased versus homemade – what do you have time to make? Can a part of something be bought and you finish it; semi-home-made? Save making things to those items that are your personal or family favorites, where that homemade touch really comes across.
Now that you have decided what to make versus purchase, what is your prep schedule like? Doing everything the day of party can get very hectic and leave you too tired and stressed to be a good hostess, and don’t forget you want to enjoy your party too. What can be done a day or two before? In part or in whole? For instance most sauces and salsas can be made 2 days in advance. Vegetable prep for sautés or crudités can be cut and bagged the day before. Some great items to think about are puff pastry rollups filled with ham and cheese or pesto that you can just pull out of the freezer and bake. Homemade meat balls can be made a week in advance and just reheated.
Hot versus cold versus room temperature items make can make a big difference. How long can a hot item be hot and still be good and how will you keep it hot? How long can a cold item be out of the refrigerator and how much refrigeration do you have? Many items can be cooked in advance and just reheated, only tying up the oven for 5 to 10 minutes. Spanakopita and empanadas can be easy hot items. Buy smaller baking sheets that can fit side by side in the oven for a greater variety.
Keep room temperature items in mind if refrigeration will be an issue. Baked goods, sweet or savory, are usually a good choice. Some wet items can be safe at room temperature for hours; their key trait is usually be very salty or acidic; think dried salted meats, pickled items, or others in a high salt or vinegar environment. For instance, although it’s odd to think about leaving fish out, cured salmon (lox), ceviche, and smoked oysters are safe at room temp for periods of time. But, even these should be covered and out of the sun or particularly warm locations.
And lastly, do you have enough plates and glassware? Or will some of your guests be enjoying that award will Pinot Noir out of a Flintstones glass? Rentals are easy and can ease your clean up too. I plan 2 glasses per person for a cocktail party. For 30 guests with wine and cocktails I would order 25 wine glasses, 20 cocktail and 15 water to use for back up. I use JRB Event Services and Encore Events (aka Cal-West) for rentals. Just call them a week or two in advance to arrange what you need; for small amounts you can usually arrange to pick them up the day before and return the day after the party. Larger quantities can be delivered.
Always remember your ice. I have found that extra ice makes everyone happy. When that guests asks what to bring - ask for ice; they can pick it up on the way and no one needs to find freezer space to store it.