10 Holiday Party Planning Tips: The Ultimate Christmas Dinner Checklist

Does the thought of hosting family and friends over for the holidays terrify you? Stop worrying! These professional party planning tips will ensure your Christmas or New Year's bash is the highlight of the holiday season.

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How to plan the perfect Christmas party
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1. Start Planning Now

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start planning your party the moment you finish reading this. Seriously, the more time you have before the big day, the more shopping and cooking that you can do well in advance—instead of in a mad rush at the end.

The first step is to create three master lists (guests, menu, shopping) that will help you keep track of everything for the party. Keep the lists in your wallet or date book, so you’ll know exactly what you still need to purchase and how many guests have RSVP’d at all times.

Feeling stressed? These hilarious real-life holiday stories will have you laughing in no time.

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Plan Christmas party: the dinner
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2. Appeal to the Eye

I have a friend who swears that if there’s any other food available, no one will touch the large platters of raw vegetables and dip he bothers to prepare. But this particular host never fails to make such crudités the centerpiece of his buffet. Why? Because with their wonderful colours and textures, they look gorgeous, whether they get eaten or not! In planning your menu, take time to make sure you have as many colours and textures as possible. Think red peppers, tangerines, yellow squash and green beans to brighten up all-brown, or otherwise bland-looking dishes.

Garnishes are another great way to add colour. As professional chefs know, most garnishes only look difficult to create, yet they have the power to make even a simple dish look special. And if radish roses and cucumber fans seem too fancy, you can get that restaurant look with a few well-placed sprigs of fresh herbs.

If you’ve got time, consider dressing your table with these festive DIY dining chair slipcovers.

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Plan the perfect Christmas party: Prepare your kitchen
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3. Make Sure Your Kitchen Can Get the Job Done

It’s quite pointless to plan a party that your kitchen can’t handle. Every kitchen has space constraints; make sure you know yours. For example, can your refrigerator fit all those platters of cold hors d’oeuvres? Can your stove handle heating the five dishes you plan to serve hot at the same time? If not, now’s the time to make adjustments and substitutions. You can avoid kitchen crunch by choosing a menu of foods served at a variety of temperatures and preparing as many dishes in advance as possible (some can be made as much as a month ahead). The one catch: Don’t forget to allow enough time for defrosting and reheating on party day. If you run out of storage space, be creative. I’ve been known to stow food in the microwave and warm bread on top of the dryer in the laundry room. If it’s really cold outside, the porch or garage can serve as a second refrigerator. And speaking of the fridge, now’s a good time to clean it out. You can reclaim lots of space by removing any items that can be stored elsewhere or that should have been tossed long ago.

Pressed for time? These Christmas baking hacks might just save the day.

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Planning a Christmas party: Shop in advance
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4. Shop Smart

The sanest way to shop for a party is in stages. Divide your shopping list by store and buy all the nonperishables you need as early as possible. These credit card perks can also help you save money over the holidays.

Consider some alternate resources for what you need. Read the ads in the newspaper to see what’s on sale at the supermarkets in your area. It may be worth the trip to an unfamiliar store to save money on the big-ticket items on your menu, such as fillet of beef, turkey, ham or shrimp. And don’t forget the local beverage warehouse, where soft drinks and beer are often priced substantially below supermarkets.

Finally, thrift shops can yield wonderful finds for entertaining. Extra glasses, tableware, silver and candlesticks can often be had at a fraction of what new ones would cost.

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Planning a Christmas party: Table decor
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5. Set a Gorgeous Table

A beautifully set table can make even plain food look elegant and inviting. And you don’t need to spend a lot of money to do it. Start with a great tablecloth, especially if your dining room table has seen better days. Tablecloths cover a multitude of sins while adding colour, pattern, even drama to your party. If you don’t own the perfect tablecloth, search out thrift shops and antique stores for old linens. Don’t feel limited to standard tablecloths—I’ve seen beautifully patterned sheets called into action. Even large square silk scarves can make a statement when placed on a diagonal over a plain white tablecloth. Whatever kind of cloth you use, place a felt pad or plastic liner on the table first to protect its surface. Check out more holiday centerpiece ideas.

When it comes to centerpieces, don’t limit your thinking to flowers. A bowl of Christmas balls, fruits, vegetables, even toys can add whimsy and charm to your table setting. I remember a gorgeous table set with nothing more than three pineapples that had been spray painted gold, nestled in some evergreens and surrounded by ivory candles. To spark your imagination, walk through your house and see what’s there. Look in your drawers and cabinets and you may well find decorating treasures.

You can’t go wrong with candles. Candlelight is the kindest light of all—warm, cozy and very Christmassy. Candles of various heights and diameters look especially lovely when grouped together on mirrored surfaces (if you don’t have a mirrored tray, use a small wall mirror with the hanger on the back removed, or mirrored tile from the hardware store.) Whatever method you use to display them, however, it’s best to use dripless candles. They’re well worth the extra expense—especially at cleanup time.

Feeling nostalgic? Here’s what a country Christmas was like in the 1950s.

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Planning a Christmas party: Make-ahead foods
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6. Make as Much as You Can in Advance

Waiting until the last few days before your party to cook everything just doesn’t make sense—especially when, if you examine your menu, you’ll see that much of it can be prepared ahead, frozen and reheated. Just pin up a reminder to yourself so you don’t forget to defrost in time.

Don’t rule out convenience foods: As far as I’m concerned, the bakery does a much better job of baking bread than I do. And why spend time washing and peeling baby carrots when they come packaged that way at the supermarket?

For those things that demand last-minute attention, don’t be proud, be smart: Have meats and cheeses sliced at the grocery store. (Check out these helpful hints on how to pair wine and cheese with ease.) Buy packaged ice. The idea is to minimize your efforts so you haven’t exhausted yourself before the party even begins.

Want to crack into a bottle you’ve just been gifted by a guest? Here’s how to chill white wine in an instant!

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How to clean before a Christmas party
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7. Don’t Drive Yourself Crazy Cleaning

Our advice: Don’t attempt a top-to-bottom housecleaning before your party. Confine your efforts to the rooms your guests will see and use. And close the doors to the others. (You should also avoid these traditional cleaning tricks that don’t work.)

But there is one place you should spend some time scrubbing: the bathroom. It’s the one room by which your guests will judge the cleanliness of the whole house. Make sure it’s spotless, and enhance the overall impression of clean by removing all the clutter—toiletries, bathrobes, rubber duckies.

Clutter removal is key to the rest of your housecleaning too. Here’s my technique: After you’ve done the bathroom, start cleaning where the guests will enter. Get rid of mail on the hall table. Stash the coats, the toys and the dog’s leash. Cleaning as you go, proceed to your party rooms and remove newspapers and magazines. It’s a great idea to clear off tables and countertops, too, because you’ll need the space for food and drinks. Polish all wooden and glass surfaces, but do not bother cleaning the windows. Once your rooms are filled with people, no one will be looking out them anyway.

Don’t miss these other brilliant cleaning shortcuts.

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Serve Christmas dinner buffet-style
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8. Keep Serving Simple

The elaborate passing of food, called French service, should be left to the French. Unless you have an army of waiters at your beck and call, self-service rules. For a small number of guests, a good arrangement is to place all the food, buffet-style, on one main table, and designate another table for the bar. However, the bigger the party, the more you ought to consider setting up several food areas so that everyone doesn’t end up crowded in one spot. For example, use your coffee table for the hors d’oeuvres, your buffet top for the cheese platter, and a card table for coffee and sweets. One place you should avoid using for food service is your kitchen. During the party, it will be far too busy a place to have your guests gathering (and getting in the way). During your party, check often to see how everything looks, rearranging and replacing food as necessary. As food is finished, remove empty dishes, making sure everything looks as fresh for the last guest as it did for the first. You might also want to steal these royal family holiday traditions.

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Get help when hosting a Christmas party
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9. Ask for Help

One word separates the confident host from the person who swears she’ll never entertain again as long as she lives: Help. And the larger your party, the more help you’ll need.

The number one source of your household help should be… Your household. As long as they’ve reached coat-carrying age, your children can—and should—pitch in. In fact, most kids love being more than just decorative accessories at their parents’ parties. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover how good your children feel about helping to clear away glasses, passing hors d’oeuvres and, yes, getting people’s coats for them.

Anxious about family members clashing at your bash? Here’s how to prevent World War Three from breaking out at your holiday dinner.

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Try to enjoy yourself at your own Christmas party
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10. Enjoy Yourself

You’ve worked extra hard, you want everything to be perfect and you worry that your guests won’t enjoy themselves if it isn’t. But the truth is that most people are delighted to have someone go to all the trouble it takes to entertain. Your guests will never know that you forgot the cucumbers for the salad or that the dessert was store-bought—and if they do figure it out, chances are they won’t care. (Check out these quick fixes for virtually every holiday party disaster.) When your guests arrive, they’ll be in a party mood and pleased just to have been invited. So take a deep breath before you open the door to your first guest and relax. This is going to be fun.

After all, it’s Christmas. And that alone should bring warmth to everyone’s hearts and smiles to everyone’s faces.

After dinner, why pop one of these all-time best Christmas movies on the big screen?

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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