15 of Our Best DIY Ideas to Minimize Mess at the Table
Drinks are being poured and dishes passed around—in other words, it's time for a gathering. Follow our smartest strategies from over the years for tabletop festivities without the fuss.
Entertaining is a wonderful way to keep us connected, encouraging us to welcome people into our homes and to celebrate holidays, milestones, or simply a nice clear night. There are many ways to make these gatherings feel distinctive, whether with pretty place cards or enticing hors d'oeuvres. This proves to be true even for smaller, family dinners—as the case may be these days amid social distancing. And as we've devised entertaining ideas for you over the years, we've always tried to incorporate elements of beauty.
But ingenuity and practicality have mattered just as much, as these are the qualities that we hope let you, the host, enjoy a get-together as much as your guests do. For one? Serve less-mess foods. It'll reduce your workload as the host and, otherwise, having a menu full of multi-course dishes will keep you tucked away in the kitchen for a majority of the party. Keep drinking glasses that become slippery with condensation more secure in your guests' hands with a few rubber bands. Coasters, place mats, and trivets all have their place at the table, too—for protecting the table's surface from enthusiastic over-pours and accidental spills. And on a breezy day, natural elements like river stones-turned-paper weights will help keep plates and napkins where they belong—not to mention, they double as décor.
And the best part? You've told us that as you adopt our newest ideas, you continue to use and appreciate our old ones—more reasons to celebrate.
Any formal setting starts with a tablecloth protecting the surface, but what about one that's multipurpose? For a fresh-looking table that makes cleanup easy, start with an inexpensive roll of white paper. Painters' tape holds it down, and rubber stamps add DIY flair. Everything a diner needs—fork, knife, napkin, and straw—is tucked into this grab-and-go pocket, minimizing fumbling at the buffet. Rubber-stamped hydrangea marks each place setting, with any number of butterflies fluttering nearby.
Try this simple party trick to embellish everyday glassware with stripes: Dress drinking glasses up with colored rubber bands in a variety of widths. The bands also prevent slippage from condensation. (Use red and blue for your patriotic celebrations such as the Fourth of July.)
Shop Now: Up&Up Rubber Band Ball, $3, target.com.
Small Bites, Served
Instead of a communal bowlful o' nuts at your next get-together, try a more hygienic presentation by putting the snacks and party mix in clear glass narrow-necked decanters, so guests can pour out their portions rather than scoop them up with potentially germy hands. In addition to being sanitary, the clean-lined vessels look fresh and modern.
Instead of watering down your drink with ice cubes that are destined to melt, give the entire vessel its own ice bucket. Slip one glass container inside another (we found these multipurpose cylinders at a floral-supply shop, and put the ice between them. The effect is dramatic and guarantees that your punch retains its punch. All that's left is to choose one of our refreshing summer drink recipes for serving.
Shop Now: Jamali Garden Glass Cylinder Vases, starting from $6, jamaligarden.com.
Salt and Pepper
Individual servings of salt and pepper may seem like an extravagance until you realize you'll never hear the phrase "Pass the salt" uttered ever again. Each guest can pinch and sprinkle their own seasonings from their own teeny-tiny miniature baskets.
Shop Now: ArtMinds Miniatures Straw Round Baskets, $3.69 each, michaels.com.
Bread and Butter
The same thinking goes for bread and butter, too. Forgo the usual communal basket and treat all your guests to personal bread boards. Add a ramekin of butter, so they can lay it on as thick as they like.
Shop Now: JK Adams Maple Round Bar Board, $10, jkadams.com.
Soft leather coasters protect the table's surface and the glassware. Stripes and paint splatters bring out their playful side. Block off a pattern using masking tape in various widths, then brush the exposed sections with craft paint. Allow to dry completely before removing the tape. Spray with clear sealant, let cure for 24 hours, and use them at your next get-together. Create a color-block look by painting just half the circle or water down the craft paint before splattering.
Shop Now: Dharma Trading Co. Leather Blank Rounders, 3 3/4" diameter, $1.50 each, dharmatrading.com. Martha Stewart Crafts Multi-Surface Craft Paint, in Greek Tile and Indigo, $2.50 for 2 oz., michaels.com.
Pretty paper goods are no match for an unruly summer breeze at an outdoor gathering. River rocks (available by the bag at garden centers) help keep plates and napkins where they belong, even after they've left the serving table. Pile them in a bucket on the buffet table for guests to grab along with their utensils; you'll avoid having to chase flyaways.
An inexpensive drop cloth from the hardware store can easily be transformed into a durable outdoor table covering. Just don't let the wind prevent you from setting your table outside: Run a piece of standard boat rope along the underside of a table (the rope should be four-and-a-half times the width of the table); bring the two long, loose ends to the top of table. Tie ends in a square knot on the top of the table. Bring the loose ends back down under the table, and tie them. Repeat with another piece of rope at the other end of the table.
Mats protect the table's surface and clattering dishware, but they're capable of corralling flatware, too. To make our custom color-block settings, cut out rectangles of yellow and white waxed canvas. Rather than hemming the edges, gently pull a few loose threads to give them a frayed finish. Then stitch on contrasting pockets so you can tuck in flatware, and match it with plates.
Shop Now: Fairfield Textile Army Duck with Martexin Original Wax, 10.10 oz. in Natural and Slicker Yellow, $17 a yd., fairfieldfabrics.com; CB2 Drift Matte Yellow Plates, $71.60 for set of 8, cb2.com; Hawkins New York Highland Flatware in Black, $75 for set of 5, hawkinsnewyork.com.
A creative napkin fold can have a practical side—or a pocket, as the case is here. To turn casual table linens into a holder for breadsticks, a flower, or a set of utensils, follow these steps: Fold the bottom edge of a napkin up to the middle; fold the bottom up again on top of itself; then, fold the two sides to meet in back; fold in the sides again, and place the napkin on the table. Tuck goodies into the front pocket.
Face it, trivets are helpful items to have on hand in the kitchen as much as the dining room. These leather-handle trivets—made from fabric scraps and soft cowhide leather—are necessary even more so as they actually have handles. First, sew two rectangles of patched fabric—layered with batting—together. Then, add a handle: Punch small holes into each end of a leather strip, use embroidery thread to stitch the ends onto your trivet.
Cold drinks, slippery with condensation, can slide around on a tray. To keep glasses steady, line your tray with cork. Rolls of cork sheeting, about one millimeter thick, are available at office-supply stores. With scissors, cut a piece of cork the same size as the tray's bottom; affix it inside the tray with double-sided tape.
Color-coordinated ice buckets—red for rosé and white for Sauvignon Blanc—make it easy to spot your drink of choice. Not to mention, they're ideal for toting back and forth from the kitchen as well as containing ice as it melts over the course of the evening.
Shop Now: Bucket Outlet Decorative 2-Quart Pails, in Candy Apple Red and Glossy White, $4 each, bucket-outlet.com.
Everyone's favorite summer dessert always ends the party on a sweet, if not sticky, note. Use this trick to keep ice cream from dripping out of the bottom of a cone: Drop in a mini marshmallow or two before you add your scoops.