Avoid These Pitfalls While Entertaining At The Holidays

Tips to steer clear of party-planning disasters this holiday season.

It happens to even the most seasoned hosts: The genius idea that came to you in the night becomes a party nightmare. Maybe it's your adorable appetizer of mini waffles topped with chicken nuggets that end up dripping honey butter down everyone's festive fronts. Maybe it's those cute plastic champagne flutes with the weirdly wobbly bottoms that tip over nearly every time someone sets one down. Whatever the case, the holiday season only presents more opportunities for failure, and there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid.  

Holiday entertaining is already fraught with peril—after all, Uncle Mark will have unfettered access to the bar, and your pal George's new girlfriend Lois has been taking singing lessons, hell-bent on having an impromptu holiday recital. Besides hiding the piano in the garage and swapping out all the bourbon for Spiritless Kentucky 74, how can you set yourself up for holiday success? Here are a few tips and tricks to keep certain controllable factors as smooth as possible. Keep these in mind, and you might just be able to have a good time at your own party.

Ditch the charcuterie board—go big

By "go big," I don't mean inviting everyone you've ever met or renting an 8-foot chocolate fountain. I mean you should opt for large-format food instead of a lot of little fussy dishes. Larger-scale food makes a statement, is easier to prepare and set up, and will make your life much simpler.


Think about a whole leg of prosciutto or serrano ham on a stand for self-service, some mustard and chutney, and bread or crackers—this is simpler than an elaborate charcuterie board with eleven different cured meats and all those endless little accompaniments that must be constantly refreshed. A single large wedge or wheel of cheddar, Stilton, Jarlsburg, or brie (again, served with just some crackers and maybe a jar of truffle honey) will last all night and look amazing. No one needs eight different cheeses to choose from.

As for the mains, a huge vat of chili, gumbo, stew, curry, or stir fry are one-pot meals that thrill the masses and require only a bowl of rice to accompany. Other options include a big pan of mac and cheese, pastitsio, or lasagna, which are all a meal unto themselves and require only a plate and a fork.


Skip the full bar

A full bar for a party is a logistical nightmare: expensive, messy, and guaranteed to cause a bottleneck under the best of circumstances. It's the holidays, so go with one or two batched signature drinks or seasonal punches, and if your people are wedded to cocktails, think canned. Tip Top Proper Cocktails makes perfectly crafted mini cans of everything from brilliantly dry gin martinis to perfectly balanced Manhattans, to festive fare like Jungle Birds and Espresso Martinis. Ten options to choose from, ideal serving size, and adorable. All you need is ice, glasses, and garnishes.


Hand out assignments to your guests

Everyone wants to help out by bringing something, so let them! But offer some guidance to keep things easy. If you are having a potluck, think about a theme to guide your guests, or do an online signup sheet for folks to claim categories of dishes (appetizers, desserts, etc.).


Does anyone have dietary restrictions? Ask them to bring their favorite dish that fits their needs to share with everyone. Do you, the host, prefer to control the menu? Then ask for things like bread, crackers, wine, fizzy water, or flowers. In my household, we preempt unnecessary host gifts by specifically requesting that people to bring us copies of cherished family recipes—bonus points if it's something extra special like a scanned copy of an index card in their grandmother's handwriting.

Be specific with your asks

Your invitation should be clear about everything from suggested dress to the type of party you're throwing, and it's especially important to specify timing. Is it an open house? Set a start and end time: "Please join us anytime between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. for casual cocktails and light nibbles." Is it a sit-down dinner? "Cocktails at 6, dinner at 7, please come dressed in your best sparkles!"


And always, always be clear about who is invited. "All are welcome, please be sure to RSVP for the total number in your party." Or maybe something more like, "Book your babysitter! Can't wait to celebrate the season with you." Any extra details like the code for your security gate or parking instructions should also be listed. When you're busy setting up for your event, you don't want 15 people texting and calling with logistical issues.

Consider cleanup scope

Having a lovely little cocktail party for ten? Use real plates and glasses. But if you have more than a dozen guests en route, opt for disposables to keep cleanup to a minimum. Verterra makes great palm leaf plates and bowls that are heavy duty, ecologically friendly, and super attractive. Repurpose has stemless wine glasses that are a chic as they are tossable.


Have a little extra cash to invest in your own sanity? Consider hiring a server to keep everyone's glasses full, garbage wrangled, and end-of-party cleanup covered. Every year my husband and I hire a server for our New Year's Eve party in lieu of giving holiday presents to each other, and it is always the best thing we could gift ourselves.

However you choose to celebrate the season with friends and family, we hope it is festive and fun, with minimal stress and maximum joy. Worst case scenario, just tell Uncle Mark to join Lois at the piano and let them slur duets after dessert.