When it comes to holiday parties, most guests have a good time. The same, unfortunately, often can't be said of the host or hostess, who is too busy dealing with the high stress level that can accompany planning and holding a successful gathering.
The first step to hosting a successful holiday event is to plan ahead, according to entertaining experts.
"Planning ahead gives you time to get ready," says event planner Frank Robinson, CEO of Island Events. He recommends making a timeline listing everything that must be done for the party.
"Timelines are the key," Robinson says, giving the example of starting the timeline for a Christmas party the day after Thanksgiving. "You can plan for everything, from when the invitations are sent to when to polish the silver to when you place your order with the butcher. Entertaining should be fun, not intimidating. It's very much about planning. It will always work to your advantage."
Kim Danger, founder of the family savings website Mommysavers, has three suggestions for holiday entertaining. 1) Look through your pantry and find recipes that use what you have. 2) Concentrate on recipes with five ingredients or fewer. 3) Cook ahead of time, and freeze the food you will be serving.
Though cleaning the house is an important part of preparing for a holiday party, don't overdo it, Robinson advises. "Of course you want a clean house, but remember that you should be comfortable entertaining in your own home," he says. "Your home is a reflection of you and not a museum. If you have a Saturday evening event, clean on a Friday, and be sure no one touches anything. It will mean that you are not stressed the day of the party."
Keeping costs under control is another important consideration when hosting a holiday gathering. Bibby Gignilliat, an executive chef and owner of Parties That Cook, suggests buying some specialty foods from a wholesale store, such as Costco. "Maybe you want to serve a few high-end dishes, such as lump crabmeat hors d'oeuvres served with a dip or lamb skewers served with store-bought pesto," she says.
Gignilliat shops at farmers markets for foods in season and at ethnic stores for other foods and ingredients. "Shopping at these places can help keep your costs in check, plus buying local means that the produce or other foods are fresh," she says. "Always use fresh ingredients. Your food will taste better."
She also purchases fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables and creates natural centerpieces, combining them with leaves, seeds and nuts. "They make beautiful centerpieces that can be used after the party," she says.
Mommysavers' Danger believes in keeping decorations simple and natural, for example, placing cranberries in a glass vase or walnuts in a bowl with candles or putting out a pair of mittens with a sprig of holly.
Gignilliat has a suggestion for stress-proof holiday entertaining: "Involve your guests. This keeps the stress at bay and helps you as the host, because you don't have to do all of the cooking for the party," she says.
This can take several forms, including sending each guest a recipe to make and bring or having a cooking party where each person brings an assigned ingredient and everyone cooks together.
Gignilliat also recommends two traditional entertaining formats -- a potluck dinner, to which everyone brings a dish, or a progressive dinner, meaning participants eat each course at a different house.
Another idea that Gignilliat has used for staff parties is to select a cookbook and have each person make a recipe from it. "It not only reduces the stress and cost to the host but also serves as a learning experience, in addition to being a great way to bond," she says.
Hiring a staff to work at the party can help it go more smoothly. Gignilliat recommends hiring a server to pass the hors d'oeuvres and to keep the buffet in order.
"Your guests want to see you with them, not in the kitchen," she says.
Robinson agrees. "A host can't be in control of the party if he is trying to do everything. Staff is so important," he says. "You don't need an army. For 20 guests, a staff of two people is enough to serve and to break down the party."
If you are planning an especially elegant holiday gathering and/or entertaining a large number of people, consider renting such equipment as dishes, glasses, silverware, linen and even tables and chairs.
"If you only do this kind of entertaining once a year, you should rent, not buy," Robinson advises. "There are hundred of options to choose from."
Robinson has just one hard and fast rule for the host or hostess: Don't drink the day of or during the party.
"It's your party, and you want to be on your best behavior," Robinson says. "Wait until the end of the party, when you can open a bottle of good Champagne or have your favorite drink and celebrate with your closest friends, who stay later."