Illustration by Sol Cott
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From lavish soirees to intimate dinner parties, the holiday season is overflowing with opportunities to gather together to celebrate and connect with those you care about most. This season can get so busy so quickly, but no matter the amount of time you have to prep, there are ways to make the night come together nicely to create fond memories for everyone. Our editors, dinner party gurus, and professional entertainers have gathered to share their most successful hosting strategies to help eliminate stress, amp up the atmosphere, and allow you to enjoy every single moment. Because it’s not just the dinner itself that matters, but also the whole ambiance of the event. This includes layering lighting, tidying up, making playlists, and so much more. With some special touches and thoughtful additions, you can create a get-together that feels intimate, warm, and cozy for all.
1. Share a Blessing
Even if you’re not religious, it can be a nice gesture to mark intimate gatherings with a moment of gratitude for everyone at your table. “I don’t believe in saying grace per se,” says Anna Stockwell, fuss-free dinner party guru and author of the cookbook For The Table. “But I do think it’s lovely to engage in an inclusive ritual to signify the beginning of a meal, especially when you’re gathering for a special night.” This could take the form of reading a favorite poem or passage, holding hands around the table and bowing your heads, or just offering a simple toast of thanks to your guests for joining you before you dig in. “Whatever it is, it should be your way of saying, ‘We are gathering here together by choice, and we are going to be present in this moment at this table,’” says Stockwell.
2. Set Up a Drink Station
Welcoming guests with a drink can be a lovely ritual to set the tone for the evening, but juggling cocktail orders is sure to make even the calmest host lose their cool. Thankfully, Stockwell has a simple solution: “I offer two choices: seltzer and, depending on the occasion, either a spritz, a martini, or a glass of wine.” Spritzes, which are low in alcohol but big on flavor, are a particularly great way to ease guests into the evening. To make your job even easier, Stockwell suggests setting up a spritz station, with all the elements laid out so that guests can easily mix their own. All you need is a bottle of aperitif (such as Campari, for a delicious Campari Spritz), some dry sparkling wine, seltzer water, and a bucket of ice. Bonus points for festive stir sticks or prepping a fully-stocked bar cart.
3. Go In With a Game Plan
If you tend to turn into a big ball of stress during your party, your guests will probably pick up on it. The secret to calming that internal noise? Having a bit of a plan in place. “We’re big believers in making lists and always doing a mental dry run the day before,” says Karen Suen-Cooper, designer and cofounder (along with her husband, Martin Cooper) of the stationery and entertaining brand The Punctilious Mr. P’s PlaceCard Co. Another trick from pro stylists: Put sticky notes on any bowls and platters you plan to use and label them with what’s going to go into each one. Then, when it comes time to serve, there won’t be any last-minute scrambling.
4. Appoint a Second-In-Command
The point of a party is for everyone to enjoy themselves—yes, even you! So don’t be afraid to ask for help, urges Suen-Cooper. “Martin and I have been doing this for so long that we have our roles down, but if you’re hosting solo, call on a friend or put together a mini team. Who’s going to take the coats? Who’s going to serve the first drink? Deputizing someone always helps the flow of the evening.”
5. Layer Your Lighting
To maximize the cozy factor, approach the lighting in your home in layers, advises Martin Cooper. Start by softening any harsh ceiling lights with a dimmer switch (yes, even in the bathroom!) and then fill in dark spots with a mix of lamps and candlelight. On the dining table, a small tea light by each place setting will place a nice glow onto the beautiful feast.
6. Record Your Family’s Stories
Does Grandpa tell the best stories whenever you get together? This year, why not play archivist and record him—and the rest of your family, big and small—to document and pass down to the next generation? Just push the red button on your mobile phone’s voice memo app and you’re good to go! You can then write these stories down later in a big family scrap book, or combine all the audio clips into one to create a video memorabilia.
7. Build a Board
It’s a universal truth: Everyone loves a charcuterie board. But you shouldn’t have to limit yourself to just meat and cheese. Los Angeles–based caterer Lauren Delp uses the format to prepare everything from Belgian waffle boards to smoked fish platters for clients through her company, Silverlake Socialite. “People have been laying out food like this since the Renaissance. It’s just such a social and visually beautiful way to feed people. When you put out a few different kinds of boards, the meal becomes its own centerpiece.”
8. Encourage Fun and Games
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking games are only for kids’ birthdays. No matter the age of your assembled guests, adding a little fun and games to your holiday gathering is a great way to spark conversation and keep spirits bright. At her gatherings, Stockwell prefers to stick to classics, like charades, telephone, and even musical chairs! “It can really help keep things lively if you switch who you’re sitting next to at least once a night,” she says. “So when the moment feels right, clink your glass and announce it’s time to switch places! Everyone has to grab their plate and utensils and move to a new seat at the table.”
9. Say “Yes” To Assigned Seats
It might seem formal, but using festive place cards at the table to mark assigned seats can actually be a considerate way to take pressure off your dinner guests—and spark new connections. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it,” say the Coopers, “but with place cards the table never feels awkward, like the school lunch room.” Some strategies they suggest are seating spouses across from, rather than next to, one another, and pairing introverts beside extroverts.
10. Turn Off Your Tech
Studies have shown that just the presence of digital devices—even if they’re switched off—can inhibit face-to-face conversation. So if you want to encourage connection, declare your gatherings a phone-free zone. Keep the mood light, not as if you’re scolding, by placing a pretty basket near the door, and appoint a guest (or “hire” one of your kids) to work the phone-check station. Concerned about missing out on candid snaps without phone cameras handy? Set out an assortment of disposable point-and-shoot cameras on the table and party like it’s 1999!
11. Embrace The Mocktail
Whether for reasons of wellness or just personal choice, more and more folks are becoming interested in low- or no-alcohol drinks. It’s official: The mocktail has gone mainstream! And it’s especially thoughtful to think of your alcohol-free friends at gatherings where alcohol is usually abundant. “We always prepare a nice nonalcoholic beverage for our non-drinking guests,” says Karen Suen-Cooper. Their go-to? A homemade grapefruit-ginger shrub made from fresh juice, sugar, and apple cider vinegar that’s easy to put together a few days ahead of time. It can be adapted seasonally by using different fruit juices and is delicious when simply mixed with seltzer.
12. Personalize a Playlist
Music can make or break a party—but you don’t have to shoulder the role of DJ all on your own. Instead, entertaining expert Kimberly Schlegel Whitman recommends, try an interactive approach. When you extend invites, ask each guest to share the name of one song they love. Then, along with a few additions of your own, compile a customized playlist you can play throughout the party—and share after the festivities end. “All you have to do is text the Spotify link,” says Whitman. “It’s like a mixtape for the 21st century—but a collaborative one!”
13. Keep The Menu Simple
The next time you find yourself wild-eyed in the kitchen hours before your party starts, remember that throwing a great holiday gathering is rarely all about the food—it’s about bringing people together and making them feel welcome. “In the ecosystem of a party, an amazing menu is definitely nice, but it’s not the main event,” says Martin Cooper. His not-so-secret weapon is appetizers from the Trader Joe’s frozen section and an air fryer. “You can get creative: Buy samosas to accompany a South Asian menu, or brie en croûte pockets for a more European French spread. The bottom line is there’s no shame in keeping the menu simple if that buys you time to socialize with your guests—which is really what they came for.”
14. Engage All The Senses
Setting a mood isn’t just about lighting. “You really want to consider every one of your guests’ five senses when they come into your home,” says Schlegel Whitman. That could mean anything from setting a woodsy scented candle near the entryway to placing cuddly throw blankets on chairs to cut the chill. “The taste of the food and drink, a serene and tidy space, the way things feel at the table (glasses that are cold to the touch, napkins that are soft)—these things all set a subtle mood.”
15. Pamper the Powder Room
When you’re entertaining, the powder room—or whatever you’re using for a guest bath—should feel like a sanctuary where guests can slip away for a minute. Lean on the little touches (fresh flowers, fancy hand lotion, special linens) that will make guests feel pampered. “One of the best hostesses I know always leaves a box on her powder room vanity filled with everything from sewing kits to breath mints to Tide pens—all the little things a guest might be embarrassed to ask for. It doesn’t get more thoughtfult han that,” says Schlegel Whitman.
16. Make Dishes Do Double Duty
When you’re prepping the meal in the days and hours ahead of a party, think strategically and, whenever possible, choose attractive oven-to-table cookware that can go straight to the dining table when it’s ready to serve. Not only will it help streamline your workflow—and look beautiful—but it will also mean fewer bowls, platters, and pans to wash when the party’s over.
17. Don’t Be Afraid to Outsource
No one says you have to do it all. We’re living in a golden age of mail-order treats, so this season, cut yourself some slack and outsource dessert. Does rolling pie dough make you break into a cold sweat? Let Chicago-based bakery Justice of the Pies do the work for you. Their decadent caramel apple crumble pie is a best-seller for a reason. More of a cookie family with no time to bake? Get some backup from New York City’s Ferrara Bakery with their best-selling assorted cookie tin (rainbow cookies, pignoli cookies, fudge-topped cookies, and raspberry donut cookies).
18. Take the Party Outside
Hosting a small family dinner gathering? It can be tempting to curl up on the couch to nap or chat after the meal. But to keep your body, and your guests, feeling good during the holiday season food-and-drink marathon, you might be better off taking the opposite approach. There’s piles of scientific research showing that walking—or any kind of gentle movement—after meals offers a range of positive effects, from regulating blood sugar to aiding digestion and elevating mood. So this year, invite guests to join you for a stroll around the block or a backyard session of boccie or cornhole after dinner.
19. Offer a Parting Gift
Remember: There’s no age limit for party favors! Whether you’re hosting overnight guests or just having folks to your house for dinner, sending company home with a little treat is always a special surprise. And there’s no need to be extravagant. “Do you have a great recipe for granola or special caramels that your grandmother always made? Prep a batch a few days ahead of your gathering and wrap them in little bags or in pieces of pretty paper,” the Coopers suggest. Want to go the extra mile? Print out recipe cards to go with them so your guests can make their own (and remember your good times together) whenever a craving strikes.
20. Send a Sweet Follow-Up
No matter how hard you try, it’s inevitable that during any party, you won’t get as much one-on-one time with each person as you might like. As lovely as it is to get thank-you notes, it can also be a sweet touch for hosts to send a quick, intimate note of appreciation to guests a few days after the gathering. The idea is to touch base and let them know how glad you were for the time together. Want to make it even more personal? If you managed to snap some candids during your soiree, upload them to a shared online album so everyone can see—and share—the memories.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Drew + Jonathan Reveal, Drew & Jonathan’s home and lifestyle magazine.