Put yourself in the position of your holiday party invitees: In much of America, in December, the weather is not… inviting. Even self-professed “winter people” might cast a baleful eye at the sun setting at 4:17pm, deciding to watch TV with some spiked hot chocolate that night instead of braving the winter wonderland. (Also, dressing up can feel quite challenging after a long day of work or with the kids.)
So if you’re hosting, make your party relaxing, memorable, and marvelous. This is a time to show the people you love how much you love them–without wanting to tear your hair out. Here are Test Kitchen Director Belle English’s go-to tricks for a holiday party that will ensure a “YES” RSVP year after year.
1. Set the Mood
“The make or break for a lot of celebrations is lighting,” says Belle, so take the time to consider ambiance before guests arrive. She’s a fan of candles, and plenty of them. “Have lots of candles. Dim the lights. Even a candle in the bathroom definitely makes a difference.”
And don’t forget flowers and music. “I’m a big fan of fresh florals or seasonal branches,” says Belle. “Cue up a good playlist; Spotify has a lot of dinner party playlists.” Her go-tos? Oldies and jazz.
2. Get Right Into Appetizers and Drinks
“When people arrive, always have a little bite at the ready,” says Belle. (And drinks, of course!) She loves a good cheeseboard. “It’s always a crowd-pleaser and it’s easy to do ahead of time,” especially when you order a gorgeous collection in advance. (We adore this Ultimate Beehive Cheese Collection, which will make it look like you went to half a dozen specialty shops. Save yourself the headache!)
Having an extra-fancy affair? Good for you. “For an extra-special occasion, our caviar trio is a must,” says Belle. “I’m a purist when it comes to caviar. I serve it with either blini or potato chips, crème fraîche, and chives.”
3. Batch Out Cocktails
Cocktails are always such a sweet touch, but they can feel overwhelming to execute. So batch them out! “I love a batch cocktail because you can make them in advance,” says Belle. “Set out a plate of garnishes so they can DIY and make it special.” Poinsettia punch burbling with fresh citrus juice and sparkling wine, ready for a garnish of ruby cranberries, is Belle’s holiday move. Set it out with a bucket of ice and “something salty on the bar,” she suggests. “Just a few bowls of olives and nuts can make it feel fancy.”
And don’t forget teetotalers and non-cocktail people. “I always have red, white or sparkling on hand, and mixers with sparkling water on the bar for guests who might want something special that’s alcohol-free.” Check out our best options, and consider a range of festive add-ins at the ready, including cranberries, pomegranate seeds, candied ginger, cucumber and lime wheels, and plenty of seltzer.
4. Set a Simple Table on Party Eve
As is true of most every party, do as much as you can in advance, particularly if you’re hosting a meal. “It’s nice to have the table done the night before,” Belle reminds us. “When it comes to party day, table setting might be the last thing you think about, but it’s so important to the occasion.” She prefers a simple table, “so you can let the food shine,” and usually serves family-style, so she is sure to leave enough room on the table to place platters.
5. Plan a Thoughtful Menu
These days, your guests might have a bevy of eating restrictions like gluten-free, meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free, paleo or vegan. So “ask your guests in advance of dietary restrictions in advance,” suggests Belle. “Always have a hearty vegetable side, potatoes, or something substantial for guests who might prefer an alternative to meat.”
6. Do As Much in Advance as Possible
Also, advises Belle, consider what can be done in advance. “For salads, choose a green that can hold dressing longer,” like the excellent wilt-proof Brussels sprout salad seen here. When you can, says our cook, make sauces, desserts and dressings in advance. “Pies and tarts hold really well until the main event.” (Consider this bourbon-pecan-pumpkin number!)
In general, says Belle, “you can do a lot more things in advance than you think.” Veggies can be par-roasted; you can sous vide—”my favorite tool,” says Belle— the meat main course in advance.
7. Make a Lasting Impression
“Edible flowers take it up a notch,” says Belle. We couldn’t agree more. (And boy, do they make a butter board sing!)
8. Consider Party Favors
“I try to see that my guests leave with something—a mini bottle of champagne or wine, or reusable containers filled with leftovers they can take away,” says Belle. “Or if you have it in you, make a sweet treat as a party favor. I like to do chocolate chip cookies wrapped in cellophane bags or parchment paper tied with ribbon for people to tote home.” We love it. Happy holidays, from ours to yours.