An immediate family-only feast should still feel special.

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mother and son at christmas dinner
Credit: Getty / VioletaStoimenova

If cutting friends and family from your annual holiday dinner guest list is putting a damper on your usual excitement, consider the pros of a smaller party with immediate family only: Extra time to talk to each loved one, less stress during the preparation, and many more opportunities to get creative with the details of your table décor. "A major pro of setting a table for a smaller group is that you are able to focus more on the overall set up, and less on how everyone's going to fit at the table," says Tanya Willock of Hidden Gem home boutique in Southampton, New York. "It's the perfect time to experiment with ideas." Here, they share their best advice for setting a table for a smaller-than-usual group.

First, plan the meal.

Before you begin designing your table, decide on the type of food service you and your guests feel comfortable with; if you usually serve family style, you might opt for individually-plated meals this year instead. Event planner Kiersten Rooney of LB Events and Design suggests pre-set appetizer plates, pre-poured drinks, and pre-mixed cocktails—all of which limit the number of people touching the same serving dishes or bottles. "A small cutting board that doubles as a party favor, along with individual servings of cheeses, meats, and accoutrements, can be prepped in advance and pre-set at each setting," she says. Delegate one person to plate the main courses in an isolated prep area before placing each meal on the table, or hire a local restaurant to cater individually-packaged sets of classic holiday food. "I think keeping the menu traditional this year is crucial," Rooney says. "The holidays are the perfect time for traditional dishes, which I think gives a sense of normalcy and comfort."

Next, create a centerpiece.

Though seating a party of just six or eight guests—which is likely the size of your quarantine pod—means you may be working with a smaller table, foregoing family-style platters gives you room to design a striking centerpiece. "When setting a bigger table, you have the option of letting your piece spread out across the entire tablescape," says Willock. "With a smaller table, think long and narrow, or a smaller layout." Use natural elements from fall and winter landscapes—like moss, wood, dried flowers, cranberries, oranges, and leaves—as a starting point for elegant, but not fussy décor. "Autumnal foliage is something I look forward to all year long," says Rooney. "You can clip some branches from your backyard or during a walk—make sure it's okay with the neighbors first!—and decorate the table with fall-colored leaves. A bonus: There are many natural elements that can be dried, like pampas grass and foxtail grass so it lasts a long time."

Experiment with filling vessels of different shapes, sizes, and materials to show off your foliage in unique ways. "Try using a larger circle planter for a round table, and a cool organic shape for a square or rectangle table," says Temidra Willock-Morsch of Hidden Gem. "Another nice idea is having two or three orchids bundled together—super easy and extremely beautiful." Add a warm glow with candles, strings of white lights, and glass or metallic accents. "I love the idea of adding battery-operated twinkle lights into a cylinder vase with greenery in a variety of sizes to keep the centerpiece interesting," says Willock-Morsch. "A low, mirrored vase—with lots of candles for an intimate, cozy vibe—helps create a more dynamic perspective on your table."

Last, put together the place settings.

Hosting a formal dinner for a smaller group allows you to get out your best china, crystal, and silver—and to add or upgrade pieces that would be cost-prohibitive for a crowd. "A set of eight colored glasses is affordable and a fun way to accent the dining table with a pop of color," says Rooney. "Or we may finally splurge on the new modern gold flatware—again something that is only possible with a limited group." Add special custom details, like place cards or fancy napkin folds, for a thoughtful, curated feel at each place setting. "Tying some rosemary with some greenery and a name card is a nice touch; to keep things simple but still interesting, use collected wine corks with a slit to place the name card," says Willock-Morsch. "Something I like to do for my family holiday tables is creating napkin origami—playing around with different napkin folding techniques. It adds a nice element of surprise!" But most importantly, says Rooney, focus on the joy of getting together with your loved ones. "Just the thought of coming together, sharing a meal, and having an event—no matter how big or how small—to look forward to is reason enough to be thankful," she says.

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