Impress and charm your guests this holiday season by being a calm, cool and collected host. All it takes to have a relaxed and successful meal is some organization. To help make the day as enjoyable for you as it is for your company, planning is key. Here are some time-saving tips to ensure yours is a sumptuous feast that is fun for you and indulgent for your family and friends.

  • The Big Chill:

Give your refrigerator and pantry the once-over, to double-check ingredient availability and to make room for all those new groceries (be ruthless in your purging!).

  • Advance Notice:

I am a huge proponent of doing as much preparation ahead as possible. Many things, like pie dough, stock…even mashed potatoes (really!) can be made in advance, so you’ll be a step ahead on the big day. And, remember, stick with what you know. Now’s not the time to tackle that complicated, new recipe you saw in the current issue of your favorite foodie magazine. That’s asking for trouble, my friend.

  • Lists, lists, lists:

Once the menu is established, focus on shopping and prepping schedules. I organize my grocery list by sections (even in the order of the store’s department layouts) and write headings on the page: Produce, Deli/Meat, Canned Goods, Dairy, Frozen, Cleaning and Miscellaneous. (This should make all you fellow Virgos extremely happy!) Need a refresher course? Read each recipe from beginning to end at least 3 times so there are no surprises. Then go through the recipes and put the ingredients under the appropriate headings. At the store, mark off the items as you go, so you don’t have to backtrack or accidentally omit an ingredient.

  • The Write Way:

Keep a notebook with all your party information, including a written time-line: 1 week ahead – order turkey and flowers; shop for perishables the weekend before, 3 days prior, pick up fresh produce, etc. On the big day, I list everything…and I mean everything, like 10:00 a.m.–preheat the oven. 2:00 p.m.–take the stuffing out of the fridge. It may seem silly to be that detailed, but it will save you frustration in the end, believe me!

Grocery List
Grocery List
  • Pressed for Time:

Go ahead and iron your napkins and tablecloth and store.

  • The Sharper Image:

When was the last time you sharpened your carving knife? Sharpen it now!

  • Dress Rehearsal:

Try out your table settings in advance. Now’s the time to break out those special, vintage pieces and your heirloom silver. Washed and ready, polished and gleaming. Don’t worry if you don’t have enough matching pieces. An eclectic mix of your favorite bowls, plates and platters will look beautiful and make your guests feel comfortable. Plan which platter or compote will hold what and put a sticky note on each one (cranberry relish in here; mashed potatoes here) to make sure you don’t come up one short when you ring the dinner bell! Nothing’s worse than having hot food ready and nothing to put it in. I even lay out serving spoons and place them in the bowls. (I can’t help myself!)

  • Mise en Place:

Gather all the necessary kitchen equipment you’ll need – the roasting pan, butcher’s twine, fat separator, bulb baster, turkey lifters, etc. Do this ahead of time so there’s no last minute fumbling to locate the proper pot or the realization you had loaned your best pan to your cousin a few months back.

Kitchen Twine and Grater
Kitchen Twine and Grater
  • Dinner’s Ready:

Consider serving the meal buffet-style: Your guests don’t have to pass around hot, heavy dishes and can go back for seconds (or thirds) at their leisure. Create a “wow” factor by varying the height and size of your serving pieces for visual interest. Use cake stands, footed compotes, trifle bowls and baskets to introduce texture. There should always be a focal point – not necessarily flowers and not always necessarily centered. Use something that celebrates the season and looks perfect on a fall buffet. Try an artfully arranged group of bowls filled with lavish amounts of nuts, plump pomegranates and juicy oranges. Or a big basket brimming with apples, gourds, and baby pumpkins at the end of the table.

  • Table Talk:

If you’re having a sit-down ‘do, set the table the night before and throw a clean cloth over the whole thing. You’ll thank yourself in the morning. Then, have a seat and make sure your centerpiece isn’t blocking your guests’ view. Ever try talking over a huge flower arrangement that hides someone’s face? Not pretty (unless it’s someone you’re happy to not talk to).

  • Rethink Your Surfaces:

Clear a side board, desk or the top of a piano to create a wine bar or dessert station.

  • Red or White?

Simplify and serve both. A light-bodied white is perfect for appetizers and a Pinot Noir, with its cherry-berry burst, is an excellent choice for the meal. Or set a celebratory tone and offer sparkling wine. It’s delicious and budget-friendly. Try an Italian Prosecco, many can be found for under $15.

  • Embrace the Season:

Place seasonal touches all around the house. Small, festive displays – indoors and out – create visual moments for your guests.

  • Take it Outside:

If the weather permits, have cocktails and appetizers outside for a movable feast.

  • Yes, Please!

Let your guests participate. If they offer to bring something, let them bring another dessert – the more, the merrier, in my opinion! And don’t be a martyr (I’ve been seriously guilty of this in the past) – when it’s time to clean up, let anyone who asks help dry the dishes.

So, relax! Getting as much done as possible ahead of time for your holiday gathering will bring you one step closer to every host’s goal: Being a guest at their own party! Now, let’s get cooking!

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