11 Tips for Stress-Free Party Season
Easy ways to survive (and enjoy) this time of year
It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but sometimes, playing hostess—or guest—at countless parties can feel more like a burden than a blessing. We asked two event planners, a food-and-beverage director and a gift-shop owner for advice on decorating, hosting, menu planning and gifting (minus the headache). Here, they share their ideas to keep the fun in the function you’re hosting or attending.
Gather your greens.
Visit the cuttings bin at your nearest Home Depot to score fresh-cut branches from the real trees they sell. You can lay them across the mantel or place them in the center of your table for an easy (and free) display. Tuck in whole citrus fruits or pomegranates to add a bit of color.
Or pick greenery that doesn’t scream winter. Kayla Portillo and Laura Harrelson, co-founders and event directors at Back Patio Event Design, say you might have some great centerpiece options growing in your home. “You probably have a few plants that you could cluster together in the center of your kitchen island, on your coffee table or down your dining table.” Group several succulents and pepper pretty candlesticks or ornaments in or around the arrangement. Or cut stems from eucalyptus branches and lay them down the table. Add white or cream pillar candles to create a warm glow.
Stock up on essentials.
“It’s a good idea to have multiple glass vases in different sizes that can work in a variety of displays,” Laura says. Buy small containers and candle and votive holders in bulk, especially if you like to entertain throughout the year. “We also love to go antiquing, and we stock up on Costco’s pillared LED candles when they go on sale,” Kayla adds.
Decorate ahead of time.
“Set and dress your tables and other surfaces two days before your party,” Laura suggests. “It gives you time to assess, play and make sure there aren’t any last-minute items you need. Then you don’t have to worry about any of the details day of. Details create stress!”
Leave the DJing to technology.
Let your smart TV or smart speaker system run through a Spotify holiday playlist featuring more than 100 songs, set it to a Pandora holiday station and let it play, or search seasonal keywords through whatever service you stream your music and forget about it.
Edit the guest list.
Don’t feel like you have to invite everyone in your contact list or all your neighbors. “I always say you should only invite the people you want to make lasting memories with,” Kayla says. “Weed down the list to the most meaningful guests, people you want to have genuine conversations with.”
“If you’re willing to relinquish control, catering is the way to go,” Laura explains. “It means you don’t have to worry about the prep, the food or the cleanup.” She recommends reaching out and getting proposals from a few different companies. “It’s called shopping around, and it’s totally OK to do even if you ultimately decide to make the food yourself.”
Make easy appetizers.
If you’re a DIYer when it comes to the food, keep it simple. Chris Reid, the director of food and beverage at Rancho Bernardo Inn, chooses fresh, local ingredients when he’s hosting a soiree at home. He recommends starting with three cheeses—a soft, medium and hard variety—made using milk from three different sources (cow, goat and sheep, for instance). He adds seasonal fruits and a torn or cut baguette. For a simple, healthy crostini, he lightly toasts the bread slices, then tops each with some smashed avocado, olive oil, pomegranate arils and chili flakes.
“You can’t go wrong with hummus,” he adds. Chris likes Cedar’s roasted red pepper and zesty lemon spreads that he serves with endive leaves, sliced cucumber and baby carrots for dipping.
Pick a main dish you can’t screw up.
If you’re hosting a sit-down dinner, Chris suggests making prime rib, which looks impressive but isn’t at all difficult to do. His go-to recipe calls for seasoning the meat with salt, pepper, garlic, sage and thyme. Cook the meat at 450°F for 30 minutes then reduce the oven to 350°F until a meat thermometer reads 110°F for medium-rare; 120°F for medium (figure 15-20 minutes of total cooking per pound). Serve with creamy horseradish sauce and simple sides such as roasted potatoes, steamed cauliflower, steamed romanesco or haricot verts.
Craft one signature holiday cocktail.
To create a winter- or holiday-inspired drink (for smaller get togethers), Chris suggests starting with a classic cocktail and adding spices like nutmeg or cinnamon, liqueurs with underlying cardamom, clove or anise flavor profiles and seasonal fruit garnishes such as pears, apples, figs, kumquats, cranberry or pomegranate. Try this riff on the traditional Negroni: Stir together 1.25 ounces gin (Chris uses The Botanist Islay dry gin, a Scottish spirit); 1 ounce Antica Formula, a sweet vermouth with notes of vanilla, almonds, raisins and cloves; and 0.75 ounce Zucca Rabarbaro. Pour over a large ice cube in a double old-fashioned glass, and garnish with an orange peel.
Offer beer and wine.
If you’re hosting more than just a few friends, you might want to go the beer-and-wine route. Chris uses this time of year to introduce his partygoers to seasonal craft beers. Try Breckinridge Brewery’s Orange Stout or, closer to home, Mike Hess Brewing’s Into the Sunset Blood Orange IPA. Chris also suggests pouring any one of Dr. Loosen’s three Dr. L Rieslings. “They’re food- and palate-friendly and have some residual sugary holiday apple and pear notes,” he explains.
Show up with a hostess gift.
Instead of bringing the traditional bottle of wine, Brenna Van Norman, owner of Kiko and Sven in Normal Heights, says the best gifts bring an element of coziness and have great packaging, meaning you don’t even have to wrap it! Some of her favorite items to give include her hand-poured natural soy wax candles in “San Diego,” “West Coast,” “Balsam Fir” or “Sugared Citrus” scents. “They make delicious-smelling gifts and need nothing more than a bit of tissue tied around them.” Plus, you can stock a closet with them so you have one for the unexpected neighbor who pops by with something special for you.
Plants also make great gifts for anyone. While it’s not practical to keep a gaggle of living greens around, you could buy a few at a time and maintain them until you’re ready to give them away. “A plant is such a good gift for those white elephant parties we all go to,” Brenna says. It’s also one that’s sure to incite a “steal” or two.
Or bring something specific to the host or hostess—a test tube-packaged bath soak for the harried hostess or a spiced orange alcohol infusion kit for the DIY mixologist, perhaps—all of which can be found at Kiko and Sven.