Before I had children, my husband and I threw the best holiday parties. We’d head out on field trips all over New York City, where we lived at the time, to hunt down finger foods and festive garlands. Weeks before the big night, we’d have menu-planning sessions and discuss pressing issues: knishes or empanadas? Pinot noir or Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Store-bought pita chips or homemade cheddar-Gruyère crackers we’d read about in that gourmet-food magazine? (Unthinkable to my current mother-of-two self, the freaking homemade crackers won out.)
When we tried to throw our first party post-kids (“Hey! And bring your kids too!” we told everyone), we didn’t have the energy or the time to do any of that, and as a result, it was a disaster. Instead of ending the night with our customarily glowing postmortem, “I’m so glad we do that every year,” we looked at our toddler-decimated house and said, “Welp! Never doing that again.”
We took a few years off. Then, as parents are wont to do, we came back with a plan of attack, which is broken down into the following rules, but which can be summarized in this single philosophy: Dial it back and remember why you’re doing this—to celebrate with the people you love most.
RELATED: Easy Hacks for Hosting Houseguests
You can have a holiday dinner party with four of your closest friends and their kids. You can have a party where you invite 15 to 20 people and limit it to neighborhood friends (or work friends, family, or whatever crew seems manageable and thematically cohesive). You can also move all your furniture to the perimeter of the house, throw the doors wide open, and invite everyone on your Facebook feed.
Pick your party style, then embrace it, keeping in mind that when there are young kids in the mix, there’s a fine line between “good energy” and “total mayhem.”
Send out the invitation one month before the date, and don’t spend hours on Evite or Paperless Post shopping for the best design. This is where the concept of “First idea, best idea” comes in: Don’t overthink color scheme or the lyricism of your words. Make sure you have the correct date, time, and address, and be done with it. The important thing here is the act of committing—you are signing a contract with your future self and that future self now has no excuse.
When people inevitably ask you “What can I bring?” take them up on it. Be specific (“A bottle or two of pinot noir would be amazing”), be strategic (“You got a punch bowl?”), be grateful (“YOU ARE A GODDESS!”), and keep track of the offers so you know what to buy and what to skip come shopping time.
That doesn’t mean just food. And that doesn’t mean just an hour or two before guests arrive. It means picking up cocktail napkins when you’re in the supermarket anyway. It means pulling out a few serving platters during naptime one afternoon the week before, washing them, and figuring out which delicious thing will be served on each. It means emptying bathroom trash cans and bringing out the coat rack the day before the party. It even means filling a bunch of sippy cups with water and stashing them in the fridge, because it’s just easier to say “in the fridge” than “on the second shelf above the dishwasher behind the juice glasses.”
The point is: If you chip away at your tasks, you’ll be much less likely to wake up on party day with the urge to walk out of the house and never return.
As soon as you press “send,” text five of your closest friends and say the following: “I hope you can come to our party, which would not be the same without you and your gingerbread/Christmas cookies/cannoli/Yule log/matzo brittle. Do you think you could bring a batch/loaf/platter? It would be the best holiday gift a girl could ask for. xxx, ” Within an hour of sending out your invitation, you might even be able to check one major task (Figure out dessert) off the to-do list. Look at you go!
P.S. A spread of pies would be an excellent idea for dessert. Your friends provide the pies—store-bought or homemade—and you provide the whipped cream.
And make sure one of those colors is gold! It is the color to infuse your house with a festive feeling, whether you plan to decorate a lot or a little. The color restriction will target your shopping and minimize agita.
Why exactly are you scrubbing the tub in the master bath? I love you and I’m here for you, but that’s cray-cray.
No one is going to think less of you for using disposable plates and forks, especially if they are biodegradable (I like both Earth’s Natural Alternative and Bamboodlers), but there’s no faster way to up the party’s grown-up-ness quotient than by renting two items: wineglasses and small plates for snacks. (Bonus: Many rental agencies don’t require you to wash the dishes before returning them.)
Say what you will about that socialmedia cliché the #snackboard (you know, one of those mega cutting boards that are almost offensive in their bounty of hors d’oeuvres), but it really is a sensible way to entertain. Not only can you make it ahead of time, but both kids and parents will love to pick and grab; no plates required. However, you can’t just dump a bunch of cheese, crackers, and pork products onto a plate and hope for the best. Well, you can, but a few tricks will elevate it from basic to beautiful.
Contrasts: The best snack boards have shape contrasts (olives next to triangular cheese slices), color contrasts (red peppers next to earthy crackers), height contrasts (cheese sticks! pie stands!), and even something I call “chaos contrasts,” neat rows of, say, baguette next to a mess of prosciutto.
Little Bowls: My husband laughs at me because I buy little bowls everywhere I go. But come snack-board time, I’m psyched about inserting some graphic rounds into the picture, which lend an aesthetic elegance.
Something Natural: Just as a plant makes a living room come alive, natural components warm up a board. They can be edible or merely decorative (sprigs of rosemary or thyme).
Earmark some cash for one teenage babysitter for every eight to ten kids. It will be the difference between your grown-up guests having a great time and their saying to each other on the way home, “Why did we bring the kids again?”
Some foods will never taste as good homemade no matter how much time and effort you put into them. This is where you begin to compile your “what to buy” list. Pigs in a blanket and mini quiches from Costco? Yes, please! Present them on a pretty platter, and don’t look back.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be some warm things, but a holiday party menu when kids are involved should be designed with the idea that you probably don’t want to wear oven mitts with your new dress the whole night, and you don’t want to obsess over buzzers and timers and gougères that go from golden to charred at the very second you are greeting your best friend at the door. Psst ... It’s yet another reason to consider a snack board.
One hot dish is not going to overtax you, especially when it’s a melted-cheese-covered crowd-pleaser and delicious even when it cools from hot to warm. No individual canapés here. Instead think: queso fundido or hot artichoke dip.
RELATED: Slow-Cooker Recipes to Feed a Crowd
Designate one room to be the kids’ area and embrace the mess. Fill a row of containers with Trader Joe’s cheese straws for the coffee table, queue up “Frosty the Snowman” or your favorite holiday playlist on Spotify (dance party!), and say a Hail Mary.
I like to come up with a themed make-your-own appetizer bar, which appeals to a range of tastes and takes very little time to put together. Two ideas to try: Order latkes from your favorite deli and fill dishes with minced red onion, capers, applesauce, sour cream, smoked salmon, shredded horseradish, and, if you’re feeling fancy, caviar; or lay out a pile of crostini bread with toppings like ricotta and roasted tomatoes, smashed white beans with rosemary, and pâté. I generally start a few for people so they get the idea but avoid assembling every one caterer-style.
So you (and your loyal helpers) can clear as many dirty dishes out of the guests’ line of vision as possible and prevent the Jenga-like slag heap of sauce- and chocolate-smeared plates. (FYI: I find this rule is as applicable for a small dinner party for eight as it is for a 100-person holiday kegger.)
Hire a teenager or tell your friends to take as many photos as they can. Take it from someone who has watched all the neighborhood children go from singing “The Wheels on the Bus” to driving actual vehicles: You’re going to want to revisit those holiday memories with neighborhood families and friends a thousand times down the road.
The next day, take the morning to bask in the high of your party, then start writing down everything that worked and didn’t work so your next year’s self will be ahead of the game. (Put your notes right in your digital calendar.) Give that future self a few words of encouragement, i.e., “I know you are dreading this, but trust me, it will all be worth it.”
Do not mess around with crafty cocktails that require muddling herbs or frothing egg whites. Go strictly beer, wine, and one specialty punch that can be offered virginized for the kids and the nondrinkers. Keep things chilled in large galvanized steel tubs that have been filled with ice water (as opposed to just ice; this is important, as it keeps your drinks much colder).
Note: If you don’t have a galvanized steel tub, might I recommend that you purchase one from your local hardware store? Since you have children (and will therefore throw at least one party a year per kid for 18 years—do the math), a tub will yield a high return on a low investment.
How to Make Pomegranate Mojitos
In a large punch bowl, mix together the following just before everyone arrives:
Slice 1 orange crosswise and add to the bowl so slices float on top. Finish with 1 1/2 to 2 cups rum. For virgin mojitos: Add 1 more can seltzer and ½ cup more pomegranate juice and orange juice instead of rum.