How to throw a holiday party that's stress-free but still special, according to these entertaining experts

Eschew decorations and serve… sandwiches? Unexpected hosting tips from Canadians who know.

Eschew decorations and serve… sandwiches? Unexpected hosting tips from Canadians who know

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

You might be  someone who starts planning their big holiday gathering as soon as the leaves fall, or perhaps it's your turn to host the family seasonal feast. Or maybe you simply got swept up by the spirit of it all and decided to host your very first party this year. Whatever your party planning genesis, there are likely a few pesky aspects rattling around in your brain when your head hits the pillow at night. We get it. With crowded schedules, presents to buy and family members you may or may not be ready to see, this time of year can be stress-inducing enough without having to worry about the responsibility hosting.

To make the whole thing a little bit easier, we reached out to a collection of Canadian food and entertaining experts who know a thing or two about throwing an event that's memorable for all the right reasons. Below you'll find their best advice on everything from setting a mood to reducing waste and — most importantly — staying at ease while still creating something so special.

Spread. It. Out.

Anyone who's hosted a large gathering knows that the key to feeling composed on the big day is doing as much prep as possible beforehand. But Laura Calder, Toronto-based chef and author of The Inviting Life: An Inspirational Guide to Homemaking, Hosting and Opening the Door to Happiness, suggests taking that a step further in order to fully relish in the spirit of the season. "I use the whole month," Calder says, "Make it really roomy." By adopting a one-thing-a-day approach and spacing out tedious-seeming tasks, like making the shopping list, cooking, or setting the table, in the weeks leading up to your event, Calder says they'll feel less like boxes you're rushing to check off, and more like moments you can savour. After all, "it's the buildup to Christmas that's the fun part," she argues, "embracing the spirit of it is number one."

That being said, if spacing out your cooking far in advance just isn't an option, Adrian Harris and Jeremy Inglett, the Vancouver-based pair behind The Food Gays and the new cookbook Cooking in Color, suggest including "a few cold or room temperature dishes" on your menu to keep things as low pressure as possible. Think beyond typical salad fare, too — mains like salmon or quiche that can be made earlier in the day also taste great at room temp.

Resist the urge to all-out splurge…

The holidays are all about giving, so it's natural that our desire to serve sprawling spreads full of gourmet bites grows this time of year; we want to appropriately toast those who have made the months leading up so special. However, according to Jean-François Archambault, food waste expert and ambassador for Hellmann's Real Food Rescue, our inclination to chase that wow-factor often makes the holiday season particularly bad for food waste, exacerbating what is already a $31 billion/year issue for Canadians. "We always buy too much when we host parties or when we have people over because we want to be generous," Archambault explains. "Sometimes we miscalculate the proportions." In order to avoid overbuying a certain item, be sure to cross-reference the recipes you're using with a guide like this one, which outlines the recommended per-person serving size for everything from cuts of meat to canapes. That way, when you're in the store, you'll have an exact number to match, and won't have to worry about estimating or being tempted by an alluring display.

And while we're keeping an eye on the amount we're buying, it's also worth remembering that creating a delicious meal doesn't have to mean focusing on foods with a high price tag — particularly when it comes to big platters and boards. Lisa Dawn Bolton, Vancouver-based food stylist and author of On Boards: Simple & Inspiring Recipe Ideas to Share at Every Gathering, is adamant that "a beautiful board does not have to be expensive", and there are a few simple swaps we can make to really save where it counts. For instance, "when you're purchasing meat from your deli, have them slice it as thin as possible without shaving," Bolton says. "Cured meats have strong flavour and just a little goes a long way." Similarly, instead of opting for fancy crackers, Bolton recommends going with a simple baguette that you can get for around a dollar. "Slice it thin and toast have of the slices," she says. "This gives gives you two options to place on your board without breaking the bank." 

...and if you do, reuse

Even if you take all the necessary precautions, things like guest cancellations or food packages that are larger than necessary can still leave you with leftovers at the end of a big evening. Instead of tossing those remaining bits, or letting them sit in tupperware at the back of the fridge, Archambault suggests transforming them into something new. Got a bunch of remaining turkey and crudités? Use them to make a big batch of warming soup that you can have as a light meal in between decadent holiday dinners. Or, if a recipe calls for a small amount of fresh herbs, but you've purchased an entire bunch, mix what's left into some soft, room temperature butter, roll it up in plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer for a few hours. This will give you an elevated accoutrement to serve with fresh bread at dinner, meaning you'll have already made use of your leftovers before the party's even started.

Fuss less

The organizational elements involved in hosting a large gathering are enough to unleash Type-A tendencies in all of us, it's true. But attempting to make every aspect of the evening just so can prevent us from actually enjoying the company we wanted to celebrate with in the first place. Our experts argue that fussing less can actually up the ambiance of our affair.

For instance, when it comes to decorations, instead of filling your space with garland, bows and other lush accessories that will live in boxes for most of the year in, Calder suggests focusing on lighting to create the same sense of warmth. "Ikea has gold candles right now, these big, fat gold candles. They burn down beautifully," she says. "You fill the house with that kind of light, you dim everything else, you make magic immediately… It's amazing how calming that little flicker can be." 

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The same goes for the food. With any big board or spread, Bolton believes that keeping the pieces unmanicured will actually enhance the presentation. "Don't cut the cheese into small cubes, keep it whole," she argues. "Don't choose mechanically peeled baby carrots, choose ones with some greenery on top. Mother Nature does a great job and the less we mess with it the better, I think, it looks."

And if you really want to embrace a more minimalist approach to your menu, Calder suggests something wild: making sandwiches instead of offering a multi-course meal. Not just any sandwiches, of course — "Nordic open-faced" ones that create visual interest while allowing for variety. "You get different breads, you cut them in nice squares, and then you put different things on top," Calder explains. "You might have sardines on one with red onion, or you can have egg, you can have piles of different things… And then you have this big spread of these open-faced sandwiches and that's it. But they're all so different that it's exciting." 

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Elevate with eclectic touches

Of course, fussing less when it comes to food and decor doesn't mean that you can't incorporate some thoughtful elements that will make your soirée stand out. If you're serving a table dinner and want your set up to look Insta-ready without a lot of effort, Harris and Inglett recommend layering your dishware beyond the basic serving and salad plates. "Inverting a smaller bowl inside a larger one is a common hack to help 'fill in' a dish without needing copious amounts of food," they say. Even if you're doing family-style dishes, the pair also suggest garnishing with microgreens to give them a real restaurant-quality flair. "Baby sorrel, indigo radish and micro basil are all favorites," Harris and Inglett add. "They're fairly easy to find these days, and add an undeniable finished look to just about any dish. There's a reason why most pro chefs keep these stocked in their restaurant kitchens, after all." 

If you're going the charcuterie and hors d'oeuvres route, why not sprinkle your drink table with cheese-pairing options that will complement each beverage? For eggnog, Afrim Pristine, Toronto cheesemonger and author of the cookbook For the Love of Cheese, suggests going with a blue cheese. "Eggnog is so rich and thick, I think you need something salty and acidic to compensate." Alternatively, a fruity big-batch punch requires the opposite approach. "I'd go with a creamy, full fat cheese… a stick-to-your-hips kind of brie," Pristine explains. Mulled red wine, another seasonal go-to, calls for something in the middle. "An aged gouda, locally made or from Holland, is nutty like salted butterscotch," Pristine says. "You know how mulled wine is just a comfy, warms-your-belly kind of thing? So is this aged gouda." Not only will these pairings enhance the flavour of your fave holiday sippers, creating a station like this is a perfect way to make use up of varieties of cheese that you've already purchased for your spread, and it offers something your guests won't find at every other party they attend this year, too.

Oh, and if you're looking for a little something on the decor front to cozy-up your space despite going light on gack, Calder suggests dispersing a few shawls or blankets throughout the seating area that guests can reach for when they get a chill. They don't all have to match — the pops of prints and colour will keep things looking homey and lived-in.

Focus on the feels rather than the stressors​

Even if you take a more minimalist approach to your big night, it's natural to have some anxiety around planning something with so many moving parts. That being said, as Harris and Inglett point out, "there's nothing worse than being at a dinner party where the host or hostess is stressed out over the meal… that's why charcuterie boards were invented in the first place!" And while you definitely don't want to cheapen the experience for your guests, you want to ensure you're having fun, too.

In order to temper those nagging little thoughts before they take hold, Calder recommends trying not to use terms like "stress" or "worry" when speaking about the party preparation as a way of tricking your brain into not associating them with what's to come. "Don't say 'this is stressful'," she argues. "Just get rid of those words, and say this is a joyful time of year and embrace it."

Once the guests are gathered and the party is underway, quell your instinct to fret over the small stuff by turning your attention to how those in attendance are feeling. "You have to be constantly sensitive that someone's not being left out or someone's not taking over," Calder explains. "It's about being a good listener and being warm, and making people feel like they belong." After all, once every last appetizer is eaten and the candles are blown out, what's left is the spirit you helped cultivate — make sure to let yourself relish in it, too.


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