How to host a healthier holiday party and have it be your best yet

Experts share advice on food, drinks and activities everyone can feel good about.

Experts share advice on food, drinks and activities everyone can feel good about

(Credit: Getty Images)

I've been event-producing award shows, galas and parties for celebrities for more than a decade and with every new event comes an important list of considerations for the VIP guests: those who are getting in shape for a new role, people with specific food allergies or irritations and, more seriously, individuals struggling with addiction. As a host, it's your responsibility to consider the habits, goals and needs of your guests, whatever those may be, and to ensure that everyone feels like they've been thought of and cared for, never judged or pressured.

Planning a gathering that facilitates all of the above and still incorporates just the right amount of indulgence is the modern challenge - and a worthwhile one! The holiday season is commonly treated as an all-bets-off time of year, but if you're trying to keep your calorie intake down, or if you're trying to reduce your social drinking to improve your mental health - whatever the reasons - we don't want the holidays to shift from celebration to regret.

With that in mind, I want to give you some trade secrets on how to bring out the best in your guests by hosting a healthier holiday get together.

Set a Cinderella-style expiration time

We've all received open ended invitations and, before you know it, had two bottles of wine and eaten a full wheel of cranberry brie. As the host, it's really important to consider the overall duration of a party, since you'll need to make sure everyone is adequately fed, entertained and not too full of holiday spirits by the time it's done. Keeping it cute is key.

If you're planning an evening or after-work thing, put an end time on the invite. My suggestion is 5:00-7:00 PM, so your guests can get themselves dinner after your event. If you're hosting on a weekend, again be clear as to the start and finish time and make sure you don't overlap with a standard meal time unless your party is focused on that meal.

Consider this "Please leave by 9" sign as message reinforcement.

Please Leave by 9 gold sign, circle dots garland and glittery confetti, $39.41,

No more free pour

Hosting a get-together in your home shouldn't mean that your liquor cabinet is free game. Bartenders never leave bottles unattended on the bar, and neither should you. Having a few, well considered drink options for guests will keep people from free-pouring bowls of wine

Food writer Jessica Brooks suggests this festive big batch drink recipe thats allow you to control the amount of alcohol without compromising flavour:

(Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Apple cider punch (zero-low alcohol)

Brooks says:

Preparing this drink will fill your house with holiday aroma! Gently heat apple cider in a pot on low to medium heat with a few cinnamon sticks. Turn heat off just before the cider begins to simmer and let it continue to infuse with cinnamon flavour as it cools. Add freshly-squeezed lemon juice to brighten the flavour and soda water, as much as you wish to your taste preference. Serve alongside a bowl of ice with tongs so the ice doesn't melt in the punch and water down the flavours you've so lovingly prepared. You can serve this cold or hot. If you are pouring it hot, skip the soda water and serve in your best mugs. Split this recipe into two pitchers and add dark rum to one for the boozy option.

(Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Blood orange and rosemary gin and tonic (low sugar)

Brooks says:

Infusing clear alcohol can be done ahead for festive handcrafted drinks. You can make this with vodka too if you'd rather and substitute mandarin oranges if blood oranges aren't readily available. Here's how to do it: Wash and slice six blood oranges and put into the bottom of a clean container. Pour a 750 mL bottle of gin over and throw in two sprigs of rosemary. Cover and let infuse in your fridge for three days. Strain and serve in an elegant pitcher mixed with soda or tonic water and garnishes like slices of oranges and sprigs of rosemary and ice on the side for guests to help themselves. If you want to make this entirely non-alcoholic, infuse sparkling water as directed above and leave overnight in the fridge.

Get serious about non-alcoholic alternatives

How do hosts account for guests that are serious about cutting back on their alcohol consumption, or perhaps even in recovery for addiction?

Lucas Wade, a Support Counsellor at Bellwood Health Service who is in recovery himself, offered some advice for how to properly host and communicate with guests that are looking to stay on track this holiday season. His first suggestion is to check in privately with anyone you know who is in recovery before the event to offer some reassurance. "Let them know your event will be a safe space and that you're there to support them," Wade says. "They can come and go whenever they need, there's no pressure and you haven't talked to anyone else about their recovery unless they want you to. Tell them you'll have plenty of non-alcoholic options so they don't feel left out."

Then he suggests offering a large variety of non-alcoholic beverages, like sparkling water and juices, punches, teas and hot chocolate and giving them equal space at the table. "It can help a person feel equal, too," he says. But he warns that non-alcoholic beers, wines and champagnes might be triggering. "It's best to stay away from serving anything that gives the illusion of alcohol but without the effect."

You may want to consider cutting the booze altogether. Most recent studies show no amount of alcohol is safe anyway and the holidays present particular health risks due to increased consumption, so a break wouldn't hurt anyone. If you're planning a non-alcoholic event, Wade suggests making it clear on the invite. And if you're doing it to support someone in particular, he says you should, "Put the 'pressure' on yourself to take it off the recovering person you're supporting. Say you're on a health kick and want to stay on track over the holidays."

Go extra big on healthy holiday food

The way you present something goes a long way. Just as your non-alcoholic drinks should be displayed in equal abundance and fanfare as those with alcohol, go big on your healthy bounty. Brooks agrees that in order to make health holiday platters exciting, "The key is abundance, and incorporating unique items that will delight guests. Consider roasted macadamia nuts instead of almonds and some jarred artichokes served in a bowl with toothpicks amidst the meats and cheese." Look for festive and colourful fruits and veggies, too. "Things like sliced fennel and persimmon slices look especially festive," Brooks says.

She suggests ditching creamy dips. "Serve a hot bowl of bagna cauda, an aromatic and flavourful italian dip with garlic and anchovies that pairs well with all kinds of winter veggies, raw or cooked. Try things like endive leaves, spears of roasted squash and heirloom carrots."

A case study in delightful healthy holiday treats: the mini salad. Brooks says: "Serve mini salads instead of meat and cheese platters. Pluck the leaves off a head of Boston lettuce, leaving them whole. Fill with grated raw beets and carrots tossed in a lemon thyme vinaigrette. Guests can grab the individual salad cups with their hands and eat them in a bite or two without needing to dirty plates."

Keep guests active and focused

To keep guests from drinking or over-consuming anything out of boredom and awkwardness, focus their attention on an activity. In my line of work, we call it an "activation". This is most easily accomplished with a smaller group, but nonetheless, it's a useful strategy when planning a get together with new friends that may struggle to get into conversation and keep it going. A simple holiday themed example of this idea is to host wreath making! Sure, you're going to have pine needles all over your floor, but guests will leave with something beautiful and it's fun for everyone. There are simple to follow tutorials on-line. Other simple to execute activities include card stamping or ornament making.

But you get the idea - keeping your guests' hands and minds busy will keep them focused and engaged... and creating! And that can be a fulfilling shared experience. Meanwhile, you may want to perfect your holiday party small talk to be able to help the convos along.

This season is rife with challenges and temptations, but we can all do our part to support one another and end the year with festive cheer and a collection of meaningful experiences. Whatever event you're hosting, consider all the guests you're welcoming into your home and what will make a truly memorable and merry time for all.

Jeff Perrin is an event producer based in Toronto and an expert in entertaining. He values good times that people can feel good about and leaving a lasting impression.


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