There are many ways to entertain, but during the busy holiday season, it's the open-house party that I gravitate to.
Not a big, sit-down meal. Not a frenetic, crowded, two-hour cocktail party. Rather, a gentle stretch of time with people coming and going as they please.
With a serve-yourself bar and an array of (mostly) room-temperature food, you can create a relaxed atmosphere that says the whole point was to connect for a little while, and share a drink and something good to eat.
Here's how to put together your own open house:
TIME AND DATE
Evenings are festive, but consider an afternoon party if you are including a lot of families with kids. A four-hour time frame allows for a nice flow of people coming and going, and hopefully means that you will be able to spend some real time with your guests. Send an invite — either paper or online — and include any helpful information about directions, parking or attire.
PLAN AHEAD AND MAKE LISTS
1. Write down all tasks, from brining the pork loin to buying flowers to stocking the bathroom with towels and soap.
2. Make a list of what to buy and when to buy it. Shop for non-perishables, including all drinks, as far in advance as you can.
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3. Plan out what can be made ahead, and especially what can be frozen.
4. Sketch a timeline for the day: what needs to happen, what gets served when. Name who is responsible for each item.
The key words are "make ahead" and "room temperature." You might pick one or two things to serve hot, like pigs in a blanket, and pop a few batches of those into the oven over the course of the party — or not. Serving one dish from a slow cooker, like a hot dip, is another option for a hot offering.
Start by thinking about a buffet and what foods are happy to sit out for a while. You don't need an enormous menu; four or five offerings are fine. You will likely want to make extras for certain dishes, so you can swap in a fresh plate as the party goes on and new folks arrive.
Also think about color — things that make sense together on a plate. Be sure to have something from every food group. And don't forget to have something for those who are vegetarian and/or gluten-free.
Have a few dessert options as well, placed in a separate area if possible.
If people ask if they can bring something, say yes. You can't have too many desserts during the holidays.
Set out all platters and serving utensils at least the night before. Use Post-Its or scraps of paper to label each platter with what it will hold. Take a mental walk through your whole menu.
Put out the glasses, plates, utensils, napkins, etc. Don't stress if things don't match: There is a lot of charm in mixing up the various items you own.
Many people turn to plastic or nice paper for larger gatherings, depending on the number of guests and how many dishes you are willing to face the next day.
Set up the bar ahead of time. Put out glasses, a bucket for ice, and small bowls for citrus wedges and olives.
Consider filling a large container or bucket with drinks and ice so that everything stays cold and people can help themselves.
Don't feel obligated to offer every beverage under the sun. Pick a few alcoholic and a few non-alcoholic ones, and just make sure you have enough of them.
DECORATIONS: COLOR, FLOWERS, CANDLES
You can certainly go all-in on the holiday decorations with garlands, wreaths and light displays, or you can stay simple and still channel holiday cheer. Pops of color add a lot, and can be as simple as supermarket flowers in low vases; bowls of fruit; and votive candles spread throughout the space.
If there's one thing that adds instant energy to a party, it's music. You can create a playlist (or ask a teenager for help!), or turn to streaming services like Spotify or Pandora; choose a theme and let the app create a continuous soundtrack. Or consider employing live talent (a small local band, a pianist, even your kids) if you have the space for it.
• Decide how "open" your open house will be. Are you going to leave the door unlocked, or do you need to make sure someone is answering the doorbell (or apartment buzzer) throughout the evening?
• Designate sufficient space for coats: Clear out a front closet, buy or rent a coat rack, or just pick a bedroom and direct guests to put their coats there. If you are piling them on a bed, cover it first with a durable, washable bedspread.
• Make a garbage can visible. (Or more than one.)
• Be prepared to replenish the food as needed so the platters look appealing and the food doesn't sit too long.
• Divide up responsibilities with your family, and think about hiring help (college students are often looking for some holiday income).
• If you don't have space for a bar, clear off a bookshelf and make that the bar for the evening — it looks quite great.
Feeling a little better? Now take a moment to look around and see how many great people you have in your life.