The Ultimate Holiday Dinner Party Planning Guide
Follow these tips to impress, not stress.
The holidays are hectic enough without playing host, so no one would blame you if you outsource your party prep. There will still be plenty of things on your entertaining to-do list. So whether you choose to divide and conquer or do it all yourself, we’ve got everything you need to crush holiday entertaining.
Dinner Party Shopping Timeline
Three to four weeks out:
- Choose your main course and order any special roasts or cuts of meat to ensure they’ll be available when you need them.
- Buy games, small gifts if you want to host a grab, or anything else to up the festive quotient.
- Buy paper and ribbons for ornaments: Ask guests to send a photo of a favorite moment from the past year then turn them into ornaments to decorate with or use as favors or seating cards for guests.
Two weeks out:
- Take a quick inventory to make sure you don’t need to buy any additional serving pieces, glasses, etc.
- Visit your local wine store to inquire about case discounts or any other specials, select your wines and arrange to have them delivered.
About one week out:
- Shop for all non-perishables, including extra cocktail snacks like nuts and breadsticks, just in case.
- Buy extra plastic containers or Chinese-style food boxes to send leftovers home with guests.
- Buy a stain remover pen for the guest bathroom.
One to two days out: Buy salad greens, seafood and other perishable ingredients.
Prepping and Cooking
Make ahead recipes are key so you’re not trapped in the kitchen during a party. Shoot for cooking no more than two courses on the day of the party.
In early December make and freeze cookie dough for any last-minute dessert needs and to bake as you need gifts throughout the month. About two weeks before your party prepare anything else–pie doughs, soups, and appetizers–that can be made ahead and frozen. If you’re baking pies for dessert, make the dough for the crust, roll it out, lay it into pie plates and freeze right in the plate.
Here are some of our favorite make ahead recipes:
Make in the morning and keep at room temp: Radicchio and Endive Galette
Make the day before: Shrimp Cocktail with Singapore Hot Sauce
Make the day before: Farro Salad with Turnips and Greens
Make the day before: Roasted Cabbage with Warm Walnut Rosemary Dressing
Make the day before and finish right before dinner: Creamy Swiss Chard with Bread Crumbs
Make the day before and cook the day of: Baked Pasta with Porcinis and Radicchio
Make two days before: Chicken Dijon
The recipe for this stew-like chicken dish comes from Melissa Clark. With crème fraîche, mustard, and tarragon, the flavors are pretty much mind-blowing.
Johnny Valiant Johnny Valiant
Strong starts: Studies show that people remember the beginning and end of an experience most. But with last minute food prep and logistics to figure out, that’s not usually where a host’s attention is. Think about ways to make a guest’s arrival and departure special. Maybe that’s a brief welcome toast or ice breaker game before dinner and a favor, like homemade granola, for guests to take with them when they leave.
Ambience: Lighting creates a vibe so spend some time to get it right. Candles are the easiest way to create soft lighting and illuminate different areas. Scatter a combination of votives and pillars around or fill a large tray with all different sizes of candles and place it in a corner. String lights also provide a warm glow. Try tucking them inside a lantern or under a glass dome.
Yes way, buffet. Serving buffet-style simplifies parties. You can get dishes out quickly and keep them warm while guests can serve themselves. For a casual look, put a long piece of butcher paper on a table or sideboard like a runner and place dishes on top. You can even label them right on the paper. Wrap silverware in napkins to make it easy to grab or put it in jars at the end of the buffet.
A buffet also means there will be more room on the table for centerpieces. Our favorite kind is edible. Line the center of the table with boards filled with charcuterie, cheese, colorful fruit and raw vegetables, olives and crusty bread.
And don’t forget the bar. With so much focus on the food, drinks are often an afterthought. But they’re usually the first thing a guest tastes and can set the tone for the party. Some tips to follow for making the most of cocktail hour, after-dinner drinks and everything in between.
- People will go out of their way to get to the bar and will sometimes hang out near it, so it’s better to keep it out of a central area.
- Premix a signature cocktail in pitchers or print out some classic cocktail recipes on cards and display them on the bar. Include recipes for lower-alcohol options too, like vermouth with soda and a lemon twist.
- Stock plenty of booze-free drinks as well like seltzer with bitters or flavored syrup.
- Choose a dessert wine or digestif and encourage guests to linger after dinner.
To set up the bar:
- Place alcohol in the middle of the table so it can be reached from different angles. Put the bottles on a tray to keep things tidy.
- Arrange ice, mixers, and garnishes on both sides of the alcohol so that guests have two mixing stations.
- Glasses and napkins should also be set up on both ends of the table so they’re easily accessible.
- Use an ice bath to chill beverages like wine and beer. Fill a tub or large bucket about halfway so that it doesn't overflow when you add drinks and put in bottles at least 30 minutes before the party starts.
- Place a small trash container under or next to the bar to simplify clean up.