Hosting a party can seriously drain your energy and budget, but it doesn’t have to. Why should guests have all the fun? Just in time for holiday hosting season, we asked a lifestyle expert and a professional event planner for their stress-free entertaining strategies.
“Forget the idea that a holiday party needs to be an over-the-top affair,” says Brittany Pattner, a creative director for the lifestyle brand Goop, who designs the brand’s retail spaces and oversees its events. “At the end of the day, your guests are there for you. If you’re in the spirit, they’re in the spirit.”
New York event planner to the stars Bronson van Wyck agrees. “The host’s energy is infectious,” he says. “People want to see you having a good time. They don’t want to see you frazzled, and they don’t want to not see you because you’re stuck in the kitchen or behind the bar.”
Here are nine tips to lighten your load so that you can really let loose.
Be realistic. Too often, hosts bite off more than they can chew and spend the evening playing catch-up. So go easy on yourself. If a three-course dinner feels out of reach, plan something low-maintenance, such as a champagne brunch before your local holiday parade or a low-key after-party. That way, you can ride the adrenaline of a big event without having to carry it all yourself. Van Wyck's holiday get-together is more of a late-night blowout. Usually held the Saturday before Christmas, he doesn't get going until 9:30 p.m. so that it feels less like an obligation and more like a destination for people. "It's loud music, strong drinks, low lighting," he says. "It's a proper party. At this time of year, people want to take the edge off."
Make a thoughtful guest list. Van Wyck has thrown parties for Madonna, major art museums and several presidents, and he always begins with the guest list: "Great guests make a great party, full stop." Invite a mix of close friends and outgoing acquaintances so all you need to do is make introductions, and welcome guests to bring a friend so long as it isn't a formal dinner. It'll be easier on you in the end; nobody likes to babysit. And encourage folks to leave politics at the door. After a year of high tensions, most people just want to kick back and have fun. That's how it was done when van Wyck was one of Washington's go-to planners. In 2001, after serving as head of events for the Democratic National Convention, he planned George W. Bush's inaugural ball. "Best-case scenario, a great party reminds us how much we have in common and sends us back to work the next day with a little more compassion," he says.
Set the mood, simply. Forget spending a fortune on extravagant decorations, and keep your focus to lighting and music. Simple string lights can transform a dull space, making it glow with warmth and charm. A little background music does wonders to put guests at ease, so make an inviting playlist and position your speakers so that the sounds fill the room. This way, you'll have control over the mood, whether you need to turn it up or tone it down. For a festive touch, Pattner scatters white faux gourds and pumpkins and clusters of cream-colored taper candles around the room. "They're neutral and elegant," she says, and, unlike fresh flowers, she doesn't have to worry about them dying.
Outsource your tabletop. New start-ups such as Table + Teaspoon and Borrowed Blu make it easy to rent and return prearranged tablescapes so that you can throw a stylish dinner party without stressing over your dishware. Choose from a menu of dinner party themes with coordinating flatware, linens, wine glasses, candles and more, starting at $24 per setting. It's remarkably easy: Place your order a week in advance and mail the supplies back when you're done. If you need only a few pieces, such as extra chairs or a buffet table, try a local event vendor. Basic folding chairs typically cost as little as $1 each, while fancier chairs can cost between $6 and $8 each. Although it's perfectly acceptable to mix and match decor, try not to go overboard. Pattner hosted 20 guests for Thanksgiving dinner and opted for black chairs with white cushions. "If you mix and match everything, it feels like a hodgepodge," she said. "Vary the dishware or the furniture, but not both."
Visit a local wine shop. When Pattner and her husband began entertaining regularly, they worried about their wine choices. So they joined a wine club run out of a shop in their neighborhood. The owner, who grew up in Napa, offers suggestions for wines to serve based on Pattner's planned menu and budget and often orders the bottles, too. Handing off this task saves her hours in planning. Shop owners "usually have relationships with local vineyards," she says. "You've got an on-hand expert."
Delegate. If a full menu is over your head, consider having your party catered or delegating dishes to friends for a potluck. Particularly for a more casual evening, a potluck is a nice way to make people feel involved. Make it competitive by asking a few of your most culinarily inclined friends to bring one of the same dish, such as spiked eggnog or Christmas pudding, and then vote on a winning recipe. Pattner orders pies from a bakery in her neighborhood. "As much as I'd love to be a good baker, I'm not going to attempt four pies for one party," she says. "I make the dishes I love to make and then order the rest."
Prepare the room. You'll never enjoy your party if you're on high alert all evening, watching for red wine spills or fragile items breaking. So try to clear the general area where you'll be entertaining. Stow away precious pieces such as glasses or vases, and protect fabric furniture with a blanket or slipcover.
Serve the classics. If you aren't going to hire help in the kitchen, try to serve room-temperature-friendly dishes that you can prepare ahead of time. And don't feel pressured to drum up a creative menu. Around the holidays, people tend to expect classic, somewhat sentimental dishes such as mashed potatoes and stuffing. "Most of us aren't eating these dishes regularly, so I make them the old-fashioned way, with whole milk and real butter," Pattner says. "There's nostalgia in those tastes and smells."
Hire cleaners. It might feel like a splurge, but cleaners can be worth every penny even if you've got a tight budget. Most professional companies will charge between $90 and $150 to clean a 1,000-square-foot apartment or the equivalent. "Nothing takes away hosting stress more than knowing you'll have a clean house the next morning," van Wyck says. "Nurse your hangover in bed."
More from Lifestyle: