Planning a holiday gathering? Wondering how you’ll pile a big crowd of friends or family into a small space, without hitting the eggnog early and often? Relax. Take the time to plan your space, don’t over-decorate, keep the food simple, and get organized. Here are a few tips to help.
Clean and declutter ahead of time
Thoroughly clean the fridge and freezer. Recycle old magazines, put away mail and paperwork, and any unnecessary knickknacks or items that take up floor or counter space. Put away countertop appliances you won’t be using. Focus on deep cleaning bathrooms and kitchen, and vacuuming carpets and upholstery. If you’re crunched for time, and you can afford to have your house cleaned, do it. Even if it’s up to a week before, things will still feel fresh, and you’ll just have to touch up and wipe down kitchen and bathrooms before the party.
Rearrange furnishings if needed for seating
You’ll want to make the most of the space you have available. If you’re renting or bringing in chairs, benches, tables, or TV trays, you may need to rearrange (or remove) some things. Set up chairs and tables to make conversation areas. If you don’t have a dining area large enough for all your guests, just be sure you have enough chairs for people to sit when they eat, and a surface nearby to set their drinks. Most folks are comfortable sitting on a couch, or on a folding chair by a coffee table, or even standing at the counter to eat. Be sure you have a practical spot for any elderly guests.
Whether it’s a holiday cocktail party, brunch, or mega Christmas day event with all the in-laws, the key to pulling off a great menu is organization and simplicity. Make as many dishes ahead of time as you can. You can freeze many baked goods like cookies and quick breads weeks ahead, and casseroles days ahead. Make your dips and prep your veggies at least a day ahead. If guests have offered to bring something, take them up on it. If not, and you are comfortable asking, request that they bring things like appetizers and desserts. Appetizers can take up a lot of refrigerator space, and both can take you a lot of time to make. Plus, it’s always nice to enjoy someone else’s cooking! Be sure to ask your guests to bring dishes that are ready to eat so they won’t be prepping, cooking, and cleaning up during the party.
Map out where you’ll put all of the food and beverages, including what your guests bring. The night before, I set out my platters, trays, and bowls with sticky notes. It saves time on party day and ensures I won’t forget the dip that is hiding behind the milk in the fridge. To save counter space, think vertical where you can — tiered serving trays are a great space saver. Use recyclable paper or plastic plates to keep dishes from piling up and to save on clean up time. With a large group, I sometimes rent plates and silverware. After dinner I just rinse and set them aside in the garage, which means less mess and more time with my guests. If you’re short on refrigerator space, ice chests are the answer. For parties, I keep two on my deck: one for soda and water and the other for wine and beer. My aunt always makes a wonderful, fresh, HUGE salad for Christmas dinner. She brings an ice chest packed with a salad bowl, tongs, salad ingredients, and dressing. We set it outside on the porch or deck, out of the way until needed. It saves me a ton of space in my fridge and it’s easy for her to put the salad together just before dinner.
Everyone wants to be in the kitchen, which generally is the worst place when you’re trying to get food cooked or served. The crowding is worse if it’s a small kitchen. Set up food and beverage stations outside of the kitchen area. Place appetizers on coffee tables, ottoman trays, or any visible surface with easy access and away from the kitchen. Repurpose items if needed. Maybe a desk gets a tablecloth and becomes a dessert station, or clear out a couple of bookcase shelves to house spirits, wine, and glasses for a bar station. If you have the luxury of a bit of outdoor space, and weather permits, think about renting a small party tent or awning. Add some heaters and you’ve got additional space for gathering.
Creating a festive mood
When space is at a premium, keep items like large flower arrangements or centerpieces to a minimum. Get your holiday flair from festive door wreaths, colorful dishes and serving platters, holiday napkins, twinkle lights on windows, candles (battery operated) on sills or mantle, and garland on stair rails. Decorations should help set the mood, not get in the way. Don’t forget music, but keep the volume soft. Lastly, lighting is very important. If you have overhead lighting with dimmers, adjust to soft lighting. If your lamps are too bright, switch out to softer, lower watt bulbs. Battery-operated candles or strands of twinkle lights will add to the holiday sparkle.
A place for everything
When the crowd descends at my Christmas gathering, the first thing that happens is everyone has “stuff” to unload. Items such as holiday gifts, hostess gifts, food for now, food for later, platters and serving tools, coats and purses, ice chests, play pens, and so on all need an assigned place. Be sure you have areas cleared and designated ahead of time for the “stuff” so you can direct your guests to the drop-off spot. This also helps prevents the bottleneck that can happen when guests arrive at the same time.
People love to help, so don’t be afraid to ask. Remember, you are not a caterer or Martha Stewart. A good host takes time to enjoy time with guests and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. If, even with the best planning and organization, your casserole bubbles over in the oven and smokes out your kitchen, temporarily forcing your guests outside for air, laugh it off. It will make a great story for years to come. Cheers!
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