Planning a holiday party can bring out the romantic in even the Scrooge-iest of hearts. Visions of sugarplums and twinkling lights, an elegant table laden with sumptuous goodies, and cocktails sipped by a roaring fire may all sound dreamy—but before you get carried away, take a deep breath and be honest with yourself about what you can accomplish. It’s the busiest time of year, and the last thing you need is extra stress.
The best advice any experienced host will give you is to plan carefully. If you do you’ll find yourself perfectly cool and composed, in a room that rings with good cheer. Here's the perfect menu for an open-house feast.
Offer a selection of nibbles. The classic cheese ball is a retro party trick. Use a mild cream-cheese base for two totally different versions: A fresh goat-cheese blend is rolled in chopped parsley and chives, while a creamy blue cheese, like Maytag from Iowa, is covered in crunchy, golden breadcrumbs. Both can be made two days ahead. They are perfect for spreading on crackers such as Blue Diamond Artisan Nut-Thins.
And who doesn’t love popcorn? Kids and adults alike will go for this savory-sweet Rosemary-Caramel Popcorn.
Another hit of every party: This Quick Shrimp Relish Tray. It's a marriage of two favorites: shrimp cocktail and the timeless holiday relish tray. Lemony marinated shrimp are served with caper berries and celery. The shrimp can be cooked one to two days in advance or bought precooked.
For a signature drink, serve a cocktail that can be made ahead and served from a pitcher. This Spanish twist on the Negroni cocktail uses sherry in place of gin for a stunning drink in jewel-like red.
The ultimate classic, a holiday ham, is a classic for a reason: It’s delicious, perfectly simple to prepare, easy to serve, and can sit out for the duration of the party. Ours is dressed up with glazed winter fruits. Alongside the ham, provide small rolls (store-bought) for sandwiches.
A bright salad is a refreshing addition to a buffet, and this Escarole Salad with Celery and Pine Nuts stands up to the task—it’s seasonal and crunchy, and the sturdy leaves won’t wilt quickly.
Don't forget non-meat eaters: Quinoa is a protein-rich option and when paired with roasted vegetables, like in Roasted Carrots and Red Quinoa, it adds heft and color to the table, whether as a side dish or a main. Roast the carrots and red onions and precook the quinoa up to two days ahead.
Keep it simple for dessert and choose two cookies that will please most guests: one soft and one crunchy; one dark and one light. And have some fresh and dried fruit on the table, too: Clementines are an easy addition, and they pair well with dried figs.
These Chocolate-Ginger Brownies are made with dark chocolate and have fresh ginger in the batter for a seasonal twist. Cut them into small squares to make them go further.
The Lemony Brown-Butter Crinkle Cookies are kid-friendly, with a subtle sophistication the adults will appreciate. They're also simple to roll and bake—no cookie cutters required.
1. When choosing a menu, select dishes that can be served at room temperature. For your sanity, be sure they can be prepped in stages. Make a three-day prep plan, including shopping—this will leave you enough time on the day of the party to pay attention to the last-minute details.
2. Consider your guest list: are there many children on your list, or people with special dietary needs? Try to balance the menu to provide something for everyone.
3. Don’t offer a full bar or cocktails unless you have a designated bartender. Instead, pick one signature drink and make a big batch of it to serve in a pitcher. Put ice and garnishes on the side so guests can help themselves.
4. Make it easy: Choose items that can be picked up with one hand and eaten without sitting at a table, as guests will be eating standing or balancing plates on their laps. Make sure your menu doesn’t include sticky or runny sauces or food that requires two-handed cutting.
Now, go ahead and hang a sprig of mistletoe over the doorway.