10 Tips to Simplify Holiday Entertaining

posted by Andrea | 12/8/2012

The past few weekends have been chuck full of holiday entertaining in our home. It all started with Thanksgiving and Nora’s birthday party, and it continues for the next few weekends as apparently our new kitchen nominated us to host every single holiday party this season!

Truthfully, I don’t mind :)

I’m ecstatic that our house is finally at a point where we can have people over without excusing our renovation mess or asking them to keep their shoes ON because of construction debris everywhere.

However, after hosting events last night, tonight, and again tomorrow night, I’m sure I’ll be ready for a 5-day break before yet another round of holiday parties starts next weekend!


If you’re also entertaining this holiday season, here are 10 simple tips that should help things go a bit smoother — and actually let you enjoy your time with family and friends!

1. Only clean what the guests see.

No, I’m not encouraging you to stuff things in your back closet or under your bed, but I AM telling you not to waste time cleaning every nook and cranny of your home before your guests arrive.

Not only will they NOT notice if your upstairs hall closet is perfectly organized or if the baseboard behind your couch is dust-free; they also won’t care (or at least they shouldn’t). Your house should be clean enough for you and your guests to feel comfortable… but not to the point where you have to spend days cleaning your home before hand.

I like to make sure the bathrooms and kitchen are clean, the living room is decluttered, and the floors are vacuumed/swept. This is good enough for me… and I can do it all in under an hour.

2. Designate a spot for coats, shoes, bags, etc.

Since we don’t have a mudroom (or even an entryway closet) and since I don’t want people to dump all their belonging right in front of the door (it’s surprising how many people naturally do this!), we always take people’s coats/bags and put them on our bed.

I also put a long rug next to the front and back doors for shoes — however, if it’s not raining or snowing, I honestly don’t care if guests wear their shoes inside.

If you have a huge mudroom, this probably isn’t an issue for you — but for all the rest of us, it’s definitely a good entertaining tip :)

3. Spread out the food and drinks.

Since our house is “normal” size, it starts to feel crowded when 25 people are all huddled around the food on the kitchen table or island. And since I don’t like feeling crowded, I usually try to spread the food throughout the main living areas of the house.

For example, I set up a drinks station next to the refrigerator with cups, ice, water, pop, and anything else we’re offering. Then I set up an appetizer station on the kitchen island with plates, napkins, and all the savory foods. Finally, I put the desserts and coffee in the office (which is open to the living room) and provide more plates, napkins, cups, etc.

It doesn’t take much additional work on my part, and it forces my guests to spread out, mingle, etc.

4. Use paper and plastic.

I know it’s not exactly “green” but it makes things SO much simpler. Unless you’re having a formal sit-down dinner, I would highly encourage you to use paper and plastic plates, napkins, cups, and maybe even utensils.

I usually set out Sharpie markers so everyone can label their cups (especially if kids are involved). I also set out several trash/recycling bags so it’s obvious where the trash needs to go… and so I (hopefully) don’t get piles and piles of cups and plates on my counter!

5. Triple-line ALL trash cans.

Speaking of trash and recycling…

It’s a really really good idea to put two or three trash bags in every trash can. Not only will this help protect against a ripped bag that leaks gross stuff all over your trash can, it will also make it really easy to take out the trash when it gets full. You don’t have to mess with putting another bag in… just remove the old bag and you’re ready to go.

6. Always have extra food.

There are times when I host a party and make all the food (like for Nora’s birthday party)… but there are plenty of other times when I ask everyone to bring a dish to pass. I usually give some “guidance” as to the recipes or types of food I’m looking for (appetizers, desserts, vegetable, salad, etc.).

However, I’ve never hosted a party where every single person showed up and brought what they said they were going to bring. This used to bug me (a lot) but now, instead of getting annoyed, I just plan ahead and make a few extra items that can go in the freezer if we don’t end up eating them.

For example, I’ll make a few extra desserts and keep them in the pantry just in case. If we don’t need them, I’ll put them in the freezer for later — but if we run out of food, I can quickly grab a tray of bars, sweet breads, a variety of crackers and cheese, or even something store-bought!

Running out of food is not OK with me — so by making a few extra things “just in case”, we’re always covered and usually have a nice little freezer stock-pile once the party is over!

7. Have your recipes ready.

I know that whenever I go to someone else’s home, I’m always interested in the recipes they make. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to email someone a recipe only to forget once I get home.

So now, I’ll often print off a few copies of each recipe I make so I’m ready when anyone asks (or I just direct them to my blog if the recipes are posted here).

This is also helpful if anyone at your party has allergies or dietary restrictions. Just show them your recipe card and they’ll know if they can or can not eat your dish.

8. Provide disposable containers for leftovers.

I don’t always do this, but depending on the situation, I’ll set out a big pile of yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, and Cool-Whip containers for everyone’s leftovers. That way, we can wash all the dishes and send everyone home with clean plates and bowls.

This is definitely not necessary, but I find that people really appreciate it — especially if it’s an all-day event (when unwashed dishes can get smelly or baked food gets crusted on).

9. Have a cleaning kit ready.

It’s almost inevitable that someone will spill something over the course of your party. And if you’re house is furnished in mostly white (like ours is) it’s probably a good idea to have some cleaning supplies easily accessible.

I usually just keep a basket in our laundry room (which is right off the kitchen) filled with several rags, carpet cleaner, and upholstery spot treatment. When the situation arises, I simply pull out a rag and cleaner and clean up the spill — no frantically looking for my cleaning supplies!

10. Don’t be a helicopter host.

While I think it’s totally acceptable to quickly clean up a large spill or potential stain, I DO NOT think it’s appropriate to “hover” around (like a helicopter) picking up trash, wiping down counters, fluffing pillows, and being “busy” all night long.

Once everyone has their food and drink, make sure you also get your food and then sit and relax. Don’t worry if the kitchen looks like a disaster or there’s trash everywhere. I’ve found the guests often feel uneasy when the host is a busy-body all night long.

Wait until everyone is gone and then race against the clock to see how quickly you can pick everything up (Dave and I do this and it’s crazy how fast cleanup actually goes!)

If you’re hosting any type of event this holiday season, I’m confident that these 10 tips will help you to simplify the whole process — and hopefully even enjoy yourself!

What are your best tips to simplify holiday entertaining?

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  1. Deb


    The only thing I do different is I do use REAL glasses, silverware and dishes. The other stuff gets pricey over time as compared to buying plates and glasses once for $1 each. (Dollar store or WM), I got extra silverware at a garage sale…………oh and Sharpies work on real glasses to, just have to wipe it off with a rag before the dishwasher. My husband hates plastic anything….


    Hilda Reply:

    I also dislike using plastic or paper. I purchase dishes at the local Thrift Store, use and clean them, then return them.


  2. Michelle De Rooy


    It depends on the party type. I generally go for casual.
    My tips are pretty similar.
    Plan, shop bake & freeze early – buy prepared food if desired or time poor – people want your Company more than homemade food;
    Offer canapes (less mess & plates needed);
    Accept people’s offer to help;
    Have designated rubbish bins sign posted. I also have a tray out for dirty utensils
    Descreet signs pointing to the powder room are posted esp if including new visitors
    Give yourself permission to clean up tomorrow where possible
    Most of all, relax & mingle – enjoy your party & your guests

    I like your idea re having recipes ready… All my recipes are on my computer if not on my blog! I will hand out my name card & direct them to contact me after the party when I have more time!


  3. Pagan


    To add to your cleaning kit I would pit some shout wipes in there in case someone gets coffee or cranberry sauce on their white blouse. Quick to pull out and offer!

    Also, for those who are worried about using paper plates, they make some from 100% recycled materials (and they’re pretty nice looking!) and there are some they are completely biodegradable. The few times I’ve not been able to bring real tableware I have used these with success.


  4. Kristen


    Great tips, Andrea! I like the reminder to only clean what guests see. My best tip is bake ahead of time. I’m cooking a lot this weekend and during the week so I’ll be prepared for all our upcoming parties. I hope all your Christmas hosting goes well!


  5. Rebecca


    Oh I am SO guilty of being a helicopter host. I’m better when we have large parties but if we just have a couple people over I’m so bad about doing the dishes before they leave because I just don’t like thinking about having to clean it after they leave. Need to work on that…


  6. Emily


    Enjoy your information so much, like a trip back in time, my family was from Marshall. Here is a tip from my grandmother used. Set out a medium size puzzle with the edges in place on a small table or chest in any main room. Watch people stop to take time to put a few pieces in place and start a conversation with someone they may not usually talk with. A good ice beaker that continues on and off throughout the gathering. Good for all ages.


  7. angela


    Great tips! My friend recently mentioned that she always sets out a puzzle. Great for people that need a break from people, feel a bit awkward, or who ate just more hands on.


    Andrea Reply:

    That’s an awesome idea Angela. The only issue for me is I don’t have a great place to set out a puzzle table without things feeling pretty crowded. I’ll have to think about that one!