Ask a seasoned entertainer and they’ll tell you that one of their favorite parts about throwing a holiday party isn't just the party itself, but the lead up to it as well: The ritual of planning, cooking, curating, and serving that can be at once exhilarating and stressful for any host.
To see you through your first (or your next) holiday party, we talked to the pros at the New York City-based restaurant A Summer Day Cafe for tips on how to throw a memorable party without the stress. Because who better to ask for advice than those who tend to hundreds of people every night of the week? Here, two of our favorite hosts weigh in with clever strategies that elevate entertaining to an art form.
1. When it comes to menu planning, more is more!
Even if you’re hosting on a budget, it’s better to have more food than too little for your guests since you want everyone to balance their intake of food and alcohol and feel satisfied, says Michael Oliver, Culinary Partner at A Summer Day Cafe. Check out this list of easy, healthy appetizers that you can quickly whip up for holiday get-togethers (PS: they’d make equally good breakfast leftovers).
2. But always anticipate your crowds’ needs.
To be fair, balancing the amount of food needed (so you’re sure to have enough but not go over the top so that there are ton of wasted leftovers) can feel more like a delicate science than an educated guess, but Oliver says one way to help you plan is by asking yourself this question: "Are your guests big eaters or more of a grazing crowd?" Take that note as a way to kickstart your creativity for writing a menu theme that’s satisfying but not over-indulgent.
3. Offer a shared dish as an appetizer so your guests can break the ice while you prepare the rest of the food.
For your holiday party, Oliver recommends preparing at least one interactive dish so people can have small bites while mingling. “I like to set my guests up with DIY lettuce wraps. My go to for this are Cresent Duck breasts from Long Island,” he says. He recommends serving them with pickled carrots, cucumbers, scallions, hoisin sauce, and some sriracha for a little kick (the full recipe is below). Another great idea is a cheese and charcuterie board for people to nibble on. Thread olives and pearl onions on a toothpick with little morsels of prosciutto di Parma for the perfect bite. Bonus: This also keeps everyone from hanging out in the kitchen while you work on the warm dishes.
4. No matter what’s on the menu, think like a chef and always be ready.
Prep and freeze ingredients so you’re always ready to “whip up” something quick. Some easy big-batch ingredients Oliver recommends to always have on hand are labeled bags of chili, stocks, and even braised meats. Pro tip: Keeping these items in your freezer are also a great way to impress friends when you’re having impromptu get-togethers.
5. Focus on one thing at a time.
A great party should have a flow to it, and as a host you shouldn’t try to frantically do everything at once (honestly, it’s impossible). Start the night off by putting out snacks for guests to nibble on. Then, have any cold sauces plated and ready to go in the fridge. When the protein is ready, plate it up, and pull the sauces out of the fridge. Always have at least one dish ready for the end of the party as well, which you can bring out after everyone has had a few drinks, Oliver says.
6. In lieu of disposable paper plates and utensils, opt for unique, vintage platters and serving dishes.
Not only do these antique or market finds make for great conversation starters, they take away the fuss of not having enough matching sets for a seated dinner. Stack them in one corner of the room for buffet-style dining.
1. Stock your bar cart or designated bar area with timeless pieces like glassware, stirring spoons, and an ice bucket with tongs so guests can serve themselves.
“Giving your guests the opportunity to pour themselves a simple drink while socializing is a great start to a party. This also gives the host the freedom to still focus on finishing any final touches to the nights' festivities,” Matthew Hunter, beverage director at A Summer Day Cafe, tells SELF. Pro tip: A Japanese jigger, $ 8, helps with measurements, and mixing glasses are great for people who love cocktails.
2. When determining how much alcohol you need for your guest list, it’s usually good to estimate that your guests will each drink a bottle of wine.
Assuming most of your guests will be drinking, having a realistic approximation prevents you from spending too much on alcohol. "I think it’s smart to estimate that your guests will drink at least two to three cocktails in one hour. If you’re serving Aperol Spritz you get 12 servings for a 750 ml bottle," says Hunter.
3. Go for durable acrylic glassware that works well for a crowd.
Aromas get muted in single-use plastic cups—not to mention how wasteful they are—but glass might not be the best choice for a party. The solution? Durable, resusable acrylic glassware that you can mix and match. Try these textured ones from Crate & Barrel, $ 5 each.
4. Don't spend cocktail hour stressing about mixing each person's drinks.
If you want to be the host(ess) with the most(est), have the ingredients for a signature drink ready for your guests to serve themselves. Rest assured the recipes below only seem complex, but are simple enough for anyone to understand. Plus, the minimal ingredients scale up easily to serve a crowd if you want to make a big batch.
Here are a few of Hunter's favorite drinks for a party at home:
3 parts Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 part soda
- Pour Aperol and Prosecco into a short tumbler (otherwise known as a rocks glass) with ice, then add a splash of soda.
- Stir gently to combine, then garnish with a half slice of orange.
1 oz Cynar (PS: Cynar is a bitter aperitif made with artichoke that has richer flavors of chicory, coffee, and chocolate)
1 oz Punt e Mes
½ oz Fresh orange juice
1 tsp. lemon
A splash of Fevertree Tonic
- Pour Cynar, Punt e Mes and orange juice into a rocks glass filled with ice.
- Add teaspoon of lemon then top off with a splash of Fevertree tonic.
- Stir gently to combine.
Orchard Sour (a mocktail):
4 oz sparkling apple cider (such as Duche de Longueville)
2 parts fresh pink grapefruit juice
1 part cinnamon syrup
½ oz fresh lime juice.
- Mix two parts pink grapefruit juice to one part cinnamon syrup for a classic tiki syrup called Don’s Mix.
- Shake two ounces of Don’s Mix with a half ounce fresh lime juice.
- Top with 4 ounces Duche de Longueville.
- Pour into a highball full of ice cubes.
- Garnish with a grapefruit twist over the top of the drink.
And here's a recipe Chef Oliver shared for his famous Pekin Duck Lettuce Wraps.
2 Pekin Duck breasts
1 head of Boston bibb lettuce
1 bunch of scallions
1 bunch of cilantro
1 bunch of Thai Basil
Togarashi (a Japanese spice mix)
Cooking the duck:
- Place the cold duck breast on a cutting board skin side up.
- Using a sharp knife, score the skin in a diagonal direction, being careful not to cut through the meat.
- Turn the duck breast around and score in the opposite direction.
- Season the duck with salt and togarashi.
- Place the duck skin side down in a medium hot pan and begin to render the duck until golden brown.
- Flip the breasts and gently cook flesh side down until desired doneness.
- Take the duck out of the pan and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
- Gently pull apart the bibb lettuce cups, wash, and dry.
- Snip all the herbs with scissors and place in a bowl of water to wash. Dry all the herbs and place on a towel to dry.
- Slice the scallions thinly with a sharp knife and set aside.
- Julienne the carrots and cucumbers using a sharp knife or Japanese mandolin with attachment.
- Arrange the julienned vegetables and bibb lettuce cups on a platter.
- Place the snipped herbs, scallions and bean sprouts and sauces in small bowls next to the platter.
- Slice the duck thinly and place on a platter.
- Allow your guests to DIY and enjoy!