Don't let hosting stress you out. Serving up love during the holidays shouldn't cause grief. On the contrary, it should bring joy.
In an attempt to ease any pain, I will share some of ways I keep organized when hosting. I know this type of post has been a long time coming, as many of you have asked for helpful entertaining tips. With the holidays only a month away, now's the time. Better sooner than later. What good would a post on hosting tips be if it arrived right before the holiday when you smack in the thick of it. "Thanks, Dana for the heads up!"
Hopefully some of these will be of help right now. Others you can tuck away and retrieve just in time to plan prior to any event or holiday madness. Speaking of which, when did the holiday season go from being fun to stressful? I have two answers from my perspective. (In the movie business this is known as foreshadowing. I am giving you a hint about how I organize my thoughts. Be prepared for many more lists and numbering of ideas to come!)
First answer: Perspective
The POV of a child simply enjoying holidays to the POV of an adult hosting them. That is definitely a major difference. When you are a kid, holidays are completely stress free. You didn't have to do any buying or prepping, cooking or hosting. Just sit back, wait for someone to pass you another gift and have a blast.
Second answer: Competition
Maybe not for everyone, but there seems to be the pressure of one up-manship. Somehow when we host we feel the need to outdo what we did from the previous year. How can I make it different, better? This goes for gift giving, too. Why can't one present be enough?
UGH, the pressure. So, let's start with giving the ole heave ho to those two reasons. How about we revisit the feeling of being a child and just have fun. Bring back that kid again and find the joy and excitement of the holidays. Be thrilled with a homemade ornament. Gather with family just to rejoice in all that we do have.
Ring in a joyous feeling. Whatever it was for you, whether it's playing Christmas carols, stringing old fashioned decorations like popcorn strung garland, or have a pot of cinnamon and apples simmering on the stove. For me, it's baking traditional cookies and reminiscing about my grandmothers. Let that holiday spirit knock on your door, enter into your home and your heart.
On the competition side, what I have found over the years is that guests come because they enjoy the company and whatever food is prepared. So let's just take the 'one up-manship' out of the equation and prepare an event that has as little stress as possible. No one is keeping a scorecard. So do what you can with the time and budget you have. Your generosity of spirit will be enough.
Once you have the emotionality back, then comes the practicality. Preparation is the key. In the film/tv production world this is called pre-pro. The pre-production work that is done prior to ensure that the production goes as smoothly as possible. There are usually lists and budgets and contact sheets with phone numbers and schedules. Guess what? All these apply whenever throwing an event. I guess this is why the transition from production to catering, events and home hosting was an easy one for me. I love lists. Even better, I love checking things off my lists. Call me anal. Call me crazy. Call me whatever you like but having a plan keeps you on track and avoids unnecessary spending and work. Once you try it, you will call me brilliant.
JC is fond of taking pictures of my lists. I'm glad he does because now I have photo evidence to share with you. Some are handwritten like this image. Others I type up and print out.
Here's how I usually go about planning any party.
Step 1: Guest List
Family or friends or a mix
How many people do you want to host
Step 2: Event/party type
Decide the day and time
Is it down dinner, cocktail party, brunch?
Step 3: Menu Selection
Begin planning 2-3 weeks prior. For me, quite time is when ideas come to me. So I sit in a corner of our living room known as the Moroccan bed and gather pen, pad, magazines, cookbooks and iPad. With a cup of coffee or glass of wine depending on the hour of the day I start my research, thumbing through recipes I have made or page through other materials for additional ideas. Then I begin making a list of menu items that I think would work with the theme or holiday. At this stage it's the pie in the sky list. I throw in all the possibilities.
Step 4: Menu Review and Refinement
This portion will be dictated by the guest list, the budget and how much time you have. When preparing a menu, it's fine to start with jotting down all the things you would love to make. But upon the all crucial review time, that's when you need to get down to brass tacks and make sure that you can pull off what you are dreaming about. Because I only have a 4 burner stove and 1 oven. Yes, you read that right. How this is possible I just don't know? Believe me, I did my best song and dance to try to convince JuanCarlos that we should cut into our counter and cabinet to make room for a 6 burner/2 oven Wolf and take a wall down. Alas, I suck at singing, and clearly I didn't have the dance skills for that miracle to occur. So planning out what gets cooked and warmed up in what order is essential. The dream list turned reality part starts here:
1- Budget: This really helps narrow down your fantasy menu. It can be the deciding factor between serving monkfish vs. lobster. Sometimes JC and I have a budget in mind. However, I must be completely honest with you, when we throw parties, we rarely feel constrained to stay within a certain $$. We buy and make whatever moves us. But if you do need to stay within a budget, then this is the first item you should determine, as it will dictate what you can make. Having and sticking to a budget is also a good way to prevent you from overdoing and overspending,
2- Time: Next important reality check. How much time and effort will each of these menu items take and is it realistic? A good way to cut down on time is incorporating a mix of homemade items with store bought/prepared items (like roasted nuts or marinated vegetables: mushrooms, artichoke hearts, etc) The only time required: placing them on a platter or bowl.
3- Guests: Who is coming, what would they like and are there any special needs (gluten free, vegetarians, Meat lovers, fish lovers, etc)
I review my menu with these crucial guidelines in mind and start revising ensuring that I have a variety of foods for everyone that I can make in the allotted time, and budget.
I also review the menu to include that there are cold, room temp and warm items. This is for three main reasons.
One, having cold or room temp items means one less thing to cook and need stove space.
Two, these items can already be placed on the buffet table so that when guest arrive they can begin the nibbling.
Three, these items usually can be prepared ahead of time, stored in the fridge, and frees up time for you.
Step 5: List making 101: have a page for each list. That's right, there is more than one list.
(Clearly, I like putting things in order. Plus, I promised you there would be plenty of lists and numbering and I like to keep my promises. I do believe lists help, especially when you reading so much information. You are easily able to identify the things that are of value.) Let's move on to the making of the lists, shall we.
Daily To Do List
Day of Event List
Menu (with categories for appetizer/main/dessert)
1- Guest List:
Send out invite or make phone calls and keep a list of who is coming, total number of guests and make any specific food restriction notes
2- Shopping List:
This will ensure you get everything you need and don't have to make any emergency runs during cooking preparations. It will also keep you from buying items that you do not need and thereby overspending. (Another confession, I sometimes don't stick to this list. I see things in the store that look great and toss them in my wagon thus adding to the menu. It's the nature of my something from nothing style that is engrained in me. But I am getting better at sticking to the list!)
3- Daily To Do List:
This list will be the life savior in keeping all the moving parts organized so you are not cramming everything into the day of the event. Remember pre-pro. This is at the heart of it. I review my menu, my theme and think of all the prep that needs to happen. Then I start to list everything that can be done ahead of time. You can usually begin several days out, completing small tasks and spreading out the work so it truly is much less stressful. Prep what you can a little at a time in manageable chunks, thus setting yourself up for an 'easy to assemble' approach on the day of. One trick that has worked incredibly well for me is mise en place. You remember what that is: French for, everything in it's place. I cut, chop, prep ingredients, then place them in bags, containers and group each dish's ingredients together. On the day of the party, all I have to do is combine them.
A sample Daily To Do List, can look like this:
Shop for non perishable items
Iron linens for table
Straighten up house
Shop for remaining food items
Pull out all platters and serving utensils
Buy and arrange florals
Food prep with exact list to check off
marinate meat, etc
4- Day of List:
Write down all the pending tasks you need to accomplish the day of the event.
Assembly charcuterie/cheese platter
Shave zucchini, etc
Add toilet paper to bathrooms
Change hand towels
5- Menu List:
I know you may feel this one is silly but I have found that having an actual menu sheet is incredibly helpful. I started incorporating it ever since I forgot to serve an item that was tucked in the back of the refrigerator. Having a complete menu in full sight reminds you of every item that you prepared so you won't forget a single thing.
Food & Beverage Amounts.
There are standard calculations to follow. Check here for a comprehensive summary. I have my own take on this, as my experience has shown me that our guests enjoy grazing a bit more and longer than the usual estimates.
When figuring on amounts for each appetizers, plan on making 1.5-2 times the amount of each appetizers for each guest. For example, if you are serving mini meatballs to 20 guests you should have between 30-40 meatballs. Below are approximate amounts for the different types of events. My estimates are slightly higher than what is usually recommended. That's what I learned from years of party throwing. Plus I come from a long line of women who like to feed people, so being short on food is NOT an option.
Hors d'oveurs Before a Meal: Plan on 6-8 pieces per person.
Hors d'oveurs as Main for Cocktail Party: Plan on 12-14 pieces per person.
1.5 drinks/per hour per person
Wine bottles 750ml provides 5 glasses of wine
Champagne/Cava/Prosecco 750ml bottle provides 6 glasses per bottle
Water: 1 liter/4 guests. Offer both flat and sparking
Soft Drinks/Juices: Plan on 8 oz/person if you have wine/beer and have a variety of juices, soft drinks. Triple that if you are only serving non alcoholic beverages.
When throwing a big party it's so important that you have help. Don't be afraid to ask a family member or friend to come early to help you with the last minute items. Or if your budget allows, hire someone who can assist in a variety of ways, from setting up, to arranging food on platters to serving and clean up. Having been hired to do this for clients, I know what a huge difference this can make. Recently I was able to hire one person to help me out during a family party. It was a gamer changer since it meant that my party goers didn't need to lift a finger, and it freed me up to be able enjoy without any worries. If you can't afford this option, then hopefully you are as lucky as I am to have guests that do help out.
Well, that was a ton of info to read through. Sorry for the lengthy post but I have found that these are the keys to keeping me sane, on track and able to enjoy a party. I wish for you a smooth holiday party throwing season, and that this post provided some helpful hints on how to host a bit more stress free.