If your holiday affairs tend to be formal and fancy, this post may not be for you.
But if you host a more casual holiday gathering, these 10 easy entertaining tips could save you time and trouble–and see what my mother has to say about it!
1 • Use paper plates…with stainless steel flatware and cloth napkins.
Mixing paper plates with cloth napkins and stainless flatware gives you the best of both worlds: The festive (and maybe even slightly upscale) feel of a special occasion and the practicality of quick-and-easy clean-up.
And for casually entertaining a large group of people–especially if children outnumber grown-ups–paper plates make a lot of sense! You don’t have to worry about having enough plates (matching, unchipped, or otherwise) to go around–and no one has to do the dishes afterwards!
Do splurge for thick, sturdy paper plates that can handle a thick slice of turkey and heaping sides. You can buy festive holiday plates (for a lot less than you would spend buying a set of holiday china), or you can get plain plates and use the extras at a later date.
Use stainless steel flatware and cloth napkins with the paper plates. These items notch up the “niceness” level of the gathering (in spite of the paper plates) and allow for having actual place settings (with napkin rings!)–and they won’t break or rip when you use them!
• Tip » Even if I am using place settings with stainless flatware and cloth napkins, I still like to set out a stack/rack of paper napkins in various places in the kitchen for handy use: on the serving tables for a buffet-style meal, near the drink station, on the dessert table, etc. I also like to set out extra silverware (stainless or plastic) in a mug or basket alongside the appetizers and/or desserts.
2 • Get things in motion.
A party is more likely to be a swinging good time if the party already seems like a swinging good time when guests first arrive. Think about what kind of environment you want to create and what kinds of activities you want your guests to enjoy and go ahead and get things moving in the direction you want them to go before the party begins. People are more likely to get involved in something if that something is already underway and requires no more work on their part than to just participate.
So have music playing. Serve yourself a plate of appetizers or a cup of cider. Switch the television to the big game. If you want people to play games or do a puzzle, have those items out and inviting. If you want the kids more or less corralled to a certain area, make that area kid-friendly by turning on an age-appropriate film, setting out toys or games, and having your own kids already engaged in the space.
3 • Rethink your space.
There’s nothing like having twenty-plus people over to your house to make you realize that your kitchen table only seats six. So where is everyone going to sit? In fact, can everyone even fit inside the kitchen?
If you don’t want to plan on having everyone eat standing up, then it’s time to rethink the space you do have. Maybe the kitchen is accommodating after all–if the table is turned ninety degrees to allow a smaller folding table to be set up alongside it and all of the children sit on stools at the counter.
Think about the other rooms in the house as well. Perhaps your living room has enough space for a long table or two–especially if you took out the coffee table and ottoman. Or the home office could be re-arranged to set up a serving table.
And don’t let the furniture that is currently in the room hinder your creative thinking: Furniture can be moved temporarily (it’s just for the day), and any upholstered pieces you don’t want to move can be covered with blankets or tablecloths to protect from spills and stains until the food is put away.
And don’t discount transition spaces like entryways or enclosed porches; very often these spaces offer a long, clear patch of floor perfect for a folding table. Personally, we have found our basement to be a great place to set up a kid’s table–the entrance is right off of the kitchen so the adults can hear (most) everything that goes on and can easily peek down to check on everyone. And the floor is concrete, so messes and spills are easy to clean up.
4 • Set up signs.
While typically used for placecards, signs can be used in other ways to inform and direct your guests. They are handy for identifying food and drink, like the sweet and unsweetened tea pitchers, caf and decaf coffee, or special food-allergy dishes (“contains nuts!” or “gluten-free”). If you want guests to put their jackets, bags, etc., in a specific room, it may be helpful to have a sign in the entryway that directs them to do so.
• Tip » Use a chalkboard. There are plenty of formats for signs, but my favorite is a chalkboard. Cute, sturdy, and easy to store for future gatherings, chalkboards can also be put to everyday use for other purposes like grocery lists.
• Tip » Consider the wording. “KEEP OUT!” on a door may get the message across but it comes off a bit harsher than a phrase like “Not today, please!” In general, “Please” and “Thank you” help to gentle the bossy tone of a written instruction.
• Tip » Stage the scene. The power of suggestion is strong, so go ahead and leave an example for your guests to follow. For example, we have some allergy issues that lead us to invite guests (mostly kids) to remove their shoes before going upstairs (where every room is carpeted). So we set a chalkboard sign on the stairs that says “no shoes upstairs please” AND THEN we also set a pair of the kids’ shoes beside the sign. This small act makes it more likely that people will notice the sign, follow through with its suggestion, and feel like they are not the only people doing so.
5 • Set out some appetizers.
Even though the reason everyone is coming to your house is probably to eat a big meal, it is still a good idea to put out some finger foods to have before the big meal. Nothing makes people feel more immediately at ease than being able to dive right into some chips and dip.
As much as possible you want your guests to avoid the awkward I’m-standing-around-and-wondering-what-to-do-now experience, so encourage guests to pull up a chair and snack as they want to. Holding a plate while milling around the food table gives guests something to do and a reason to be in the kitchen.
6 • Put on some music.
Have music playing before guests arrive and keep it playing softly in the background during the entire event (unless you have some other special plans that require silence or other sources of sound). Background music will save you and your guests from the dreaded awkward silence–and may even provide fodder for conversation.
7 • Control the flow.
It’s your party, so you get to be the boss, which means deciding on the way you want–or don’t want–people moving into and through the house. If you have multiple entrances to your house, make it obvious which door guests should use by turning on a light, keeping the other entrances closed off (garage doors down, screen doors latched, etc.), or even setting up a sign (see Tip #4).
Inside the house, close off rooms you don’t want guests entering and make the open rooms inviting by switching on lamps, playing music, turning on the tv, or setting out games (my brother-in-law once spent the better part of an hour fiddling with a wooden brain teaser, which in turn engaged everyone who filtered through the room).
8 • Control the overflow.
When it’s your turn to host, there can be a whole lot of everything in your house at one time! Here are a few ways to keep from being overwhelmed by the overflow…
» Of stuff. When people come through your door, they are bringing their coats, purses, diaper bags, keys, umbrellas, hats, and scarves with them. So clear off the coat rack (don’t have one? Maybe this is a good item to borrow–see Tip #10) and break out the umbrella stand. A bedroom or office could corral the overflow of personal belongings. Over-the-door hooks provide extra storage for coats without taking up any extra floor space, and setting out a tray or two on nearby shelves or furniture can house keys, sunglasses, and other small items of miscellany.
» Of trash. More people means more trash–especially if you’re using paper plates (see Tip #1). Set the trash can out where people can access it without getting in the way of the people cooking and cleaning in the central kitchen area. It may not even be a bad idea to set out a second trashcan, maybe even in another handy location.
» Of people. When there are too many cooks in the kitchen, you might like having another place for guests to go. Consider making a den, office, or bonus room an inviting places for guests to relax and converse, maybe watch some football or play a game. If the weather is nice, encourage people to go outside to enjoy some eggnog or a pick-up game of basketball. And consider areas like the basement, carport, or garage for potential areas of game-playing or kid-watching.
9 • Anticipate the details.
Think about any specific details that might need addressing ahead of time to help things go smoothly and set your guests further at ease. A little consideration on your part will also go a long way in lightening your own load on the big day because you will be prepared ahead of time and won’t have to scramble around at the last minute.
For example, if small children will be present, it could be helpful to have child-sized utensils, sippy cups, little chairs/high chair, baby wipes, toys, or even a clean, quiet space suitable for diaper changes, naptimes, or nursing. Consider if entryways should be cleared or adjusted to allow easier access for guests who may have walkers or wheelchairs. If you have guests with known allergies (food, pet, etc.), determine if any primary triggers need addressing in advance.
And don’t forget about the practical details! Be sure that items you know people will need (like extra rolls of toilet paper, hand towels, cups, kleenexes, etc.) are in plain view and within easy reach.
My Mom Says «
Having hosted more than a few Thanksgivings (and Christmases and Easters and birthdays and, well, you get the idea), my mother is practiced in the art of anticipating the needs of her guests and she has some valuable insights into hosting large family gatherings. Her main piece of advice is to..
» Get an early start.
Decorate as many days in advance as you can. Go ahead and lay out the place settings, especially if you have a dining room you don’t use everyday. Get out your serving pieces, your silverware, napkins, everything. This way you know what you have and you have time to go shopping for what you need.
Because you do forget from year to year. Maybe you didn’t remember that you ran out of paper napkins or loaned your daughter a serving piece you’d like to use.
And everything takes so much time–the cooking, the cleaning, the decorating. Much more time than you think. So make it easy on yourself and reduce the last-minute stress. Getting as much done as early as you can makes all the difference.
[ Thanks, mom! You’re the hostess with the mostest! ]
10 • Borrow it.
Thanksgiving and Christmas come but once a year, and if you are not in the practice of hosting large events on a regular basis, you might find yourself coming up short on supplies when friends and family are headed to your house for the holiday.
Determine what items you might need–or need more of–and see if a kind relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker may let you borrow something for the big day. With so many people going out of town, odds are good that you may know some good-hearted people who won’t be taking their card table or folding chairs with them. And since people are already planning to come to your house, it might make sense to see if some borrow-able items might be able to arrive with them!
Very often we think of the big items we might need to borrow–folding tables and chairs, turkey platter, and carving knife. But there might be smaller things that are just as handy but that we may not think of until too late:
» Silverware. It was only when I hosted my first Thanksgiving that I realized I only had 10 place settings of flatware–but 20+ people needing to eat!
» Serving ware. Maybe you only have 2 slotted spoons and 1 pie server to go with 2 dozen dishes! In this instance, if your guests are supposed to show up with side dishes or desserts, it would be easy to ask them to bring along a serving utensil too!
» Extra table items. For example, a few extra sets of salt and pepper shakers are always nice to have on hand to spread out on a long table or to set on different smaller tables.
» Decorative accents. If you’re using them, think about the number of tablecloths, placemats, and napkin rings, you might want to use. In some cases, people might even let you borrow holiday decorations like candles or seasonal decor (but you are planning to use decorations on the table, be sure to keep the decor low and well spaced to allow people to see one another across the table as well as to give some room for elbows and glasses and passing dishes around.
A Word of Warning & a Bit of Advice
» DON’T BORROW EVERYTHING! While it may be fine to borrow a single item or even a few things from people who know you well, it is unacceptable to use other people and their belongings to outfit your entire shindig! It’s your party, so you need to be the one to accept the responsibility of making provisions on your own.
» SHOW GRATITUDE. Just because your neighbor is not taking his folding table with him to visit his parents in Michigan doesn’t mean he had to let you use it! People are being nice about loaning their things; be nice about borrowing them. At the very least, a big thank you is warranted. Of course, a thank you note (remember those?) or a small gift or a baked good may also be a nice touch. And it goes without saying that items should be returned clean and in the same good shape they were when you received them. And if you break it? Well, then, you’re buying a replacement!
» MAKE THE INVESTMENT. If you think you might begin to host more events in the future, even just once a year, consider purchasing some of the items to have on hand. It is fine to borrow things every now and then, but it is better to be a in position where you have what you need. You don’t want to overtax the generosity of your friends and family–nor do you want to gain a reputation as a sponge or mooch! And who knows? You may even be able to pay it forward by being a gracious lender one day.
For more ideas, see our previous post → 15 Things to Frame (that aren’t photographs).