From Thanksgiving to Boxing Day, November and December bring many reasons to entertain. But if you're the party planner (or cook, or both!), how do you keep it fresh and stress-free?
Food writer and amateur chef Kim Foster expands on advice from her story, "Chop, Sizzle, Gather," in the November issue of Desert Companion magazine, with holiday-specific tips.
And seasoned event designer Patrick Peel talks about how (or not) to theme a party, defuse awkward conversation, keep your stress level in check, and more.
GETTING THE GUEST LIST RIGHT
Foster: “We try to choreograph and curate the guest list so that you have a few different kinds of personalities. You might have your quiet friends from down the street, but you have your actress friend who can tell a great story and talk to anybody. You want to be sure you have a lot of different types of people so that there’s always somebody able to help with conversations, there’s not a lot of lulls and so you’re really looking for diversity.”
DEALING WITH JUDGMENTAL GUESTS
Foster: “It is harder to avoid on the holidays because even though Aunt Mildred is going to mention that you’ve gained ten pounds or is going to make fun of your dry turkey out loud at the dinner table there’s probably nothing you can do about that. You’re just going to have to be Teflon at the holidays and just smile and let it go.
"But normally, for a dinner party, you should be inviting people who want to be with you and are excited and who don’t care if something burns or it's not perfect. It’s not about being a restaurant. It’s about getting together and having friends get together. So, if someone is going to stress you out, I would leave them off the guest list."
PICKING AND EXECUTING A THEME
Peel: “I do feel that themes are cliché, but I think you can derive inspiration from a theme and not be so ‘themey.’
"Gatsby, for example; everyone loves a luxurious, fluffy, surreal kind of feeling, more fantasy. I think there are pieces you can bring in that don’t necessarily make it cliché but can still speak to your taste level, whether that be a small arrangement of feathers to just pay homage to Gatsby, not be Gatsby.
"I think it's about how you approach it and bring in the right pieces so that it’s not too cliché."
CREATING A COHESIVE AMBIANCE
Peel: "I think doing a nice centerpiece, a nice focal point, really helps tie a lot of things in. Look to your home to be the inspiration. So, if there’s a certain color palette that is constant… just flourish on that a little bit more, bring in a little bling here and there, some candles, a bit of floral that all reflect that and then you have yourself a simple setting."
GETTING THE FOOD RIGHT
Foster: "Appearance of your food goes a long way. I want people to think – brown food might taste really great but throwing a little bit of cilantro or parsley on the top really does help make the dish elevated a little bit and it is really simple to do.
"Another thing about mixing it up is, not everything has to be homecooked. You can buy shrimp tempura at 99 Ranch [Market] and throw that in the oven and it's pretty much as good as anything you could make at home and probably better, because if it's your first time making shrimp tempura – you’re probably going to screw it up. Get little dim sum, little wontons, little snacks and peanuts just to put out that you don’t actually have to cook.
"If you arrange them in a really beautiful way like on a board or do a charcuterie board – a charcuterie board is totally no-cook… you go to the market you buy lots of interesting things, place them artfully on the board and boom – you’ve got your first course.
"Then when you’ve got everybody eating, then you can have a minute to figure out what’s going on in the kitchen. Everybody is happy. Drinks are out, everybody is having appetizers, and then you can go back into the kitchen and work on that main course."
PUTTING TOGETHER THE TRADITIONAL HOLIDAY MEAL
Foster: "Think about mixing up in terms of appetizers and getting everybody ready.
"The thing about the holidays is that there is a lot of sense memory. You really want to make that cream of onion dish that your mom made, or your grandmother’s cranberry bread. There’s a lot of pressure to do that dish or to have five different sides or to make sure your aunt who has celiac disease has enough gluten-free things. There’s a lot of things to think about.
"I would keep the main course really simple. I would do a beautiful spread on a board to keep everybody busy for appetizers. Then I would do a meat – if that’s what you’re serving, unless you’re vegetarian – and then your sides.
"And then you definitely want to keep people filled up – this is kind of a secret – you want to have some beautiful bread out so that people can put some butter, throw something nice on it, and eat, because no matter what, if there is bread out, people would fill up."
Peel: "There are little things that you can pick up through your day that you don’t realize… I think if you look at it that way and break it down into a little smaller and smaller pieces, and also think about what you want to bring into your home as far as décor is concerned, then it makes it a lot easier to manage."
DAY OF THE PARTY STRESS
Peel: "I personally do my hot yoga in the morning, then I come home and refresh and I’m very clear-minded. I have my game plan, and we go for it and lay everything out.
"Also, I think that if there are people around the home incorporate them into the workforce. Put them to work and have a moment with them. It’s more about the experience. It’s about bringing people together. People want to help. If they didn’t bring a dish or a bottle of wine -- God forbid! -- they’re still contributing."
Foster: "The easiest thing you can do to relieve stress if you’re the cook is to keep it simple. The whole point is the experience. It’s about you being with friends and relatives. People are eating, but it’s about people being together and sharing conversation and jokes and laughing. And if you’re stressed, then everybody is stressed. The cook controls the room. The simpler it’s going to be for you and the better it’s going to be for your guests."
DEFUSING AWKWARD CONVERSATIONS
Peel: "Louder music and more cocktails!
"It’s going to happen – yes – but you veer that conversation away. If there is some kind of activity, or this a game moment. Maybe have a photo opp that’s decorated in a holiday flavor. Pull people in that direction and don't allow the TV to be on… your music should be playing."
PUTTING TOGETHER A LARGE PARTY
Foster: "For people who really know how to cook – moderate to expert – planning is everything. So, making sure that you’re organized and that you’ve done your shopping ahead.
"A moderate cook is going to know what dishes they’re good at. What they can plan... if you’ve done small ones, it’s easier to ramp up to bigger ones. Trust your gut. Trust what works. Invite people that you love. And I would say, do dishes that you feel confident in and then maybe some more challenging ones just to make really fun. I call it sport cooking when you really want to push yourself a little bit more."
SETTING THE MOOD IN A BIG HOUSE PARTY
Peel: "Setting a mood with your music, your lighting and the overall color palette are, to me, the three things that I would focus on.
"What I mean by color palette is, going with home colors that you already have and embellishing on those, whether it’s a wreath on the door, intertwined with some ribbon, or other bling-type embellishments or that centerpiece that’s going to carry that color palette all the way through so that people feel the festiveness as they come into your space."
CLEANING THE HOUSE
Peel: "Do a light dust. Make sure that things are put in place, and make sure your floors look presentable but I don’t think you have to do a deep clean. I would deep clean your bathrooms more than anything. But everything else, because they’re going to come through… if you have everything in place, it’s not going to look dirty."
Foster: "If you can afford it, I would consider having someone come in to wash dishes at the end of the night… It is definitely an extravagance, but having someone come in -- even if it's your teenage kids and you pay them a little bit of money -- to just do all the dishes and have them sitting there clean in the morning will just make you feel better."
Kim Foster, food writer; Patrick Peel, senior event designer, Hello! Destination Management
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.