Holiday entertaining creates stress and chaos in many homes. Magazines offer tips to help with organizing menus, food shopping and seating arrangements. Turkey hotlines* answer cooking questions, butter and flour companies offer hotlines for baking questions and adult children around the country bombard parents with phone calls begging for recipes and advice.
After several decades of hosting an array of small to very large dinner parties, experience taught me that the mishaps and embarrassments live in the small details. Every guest loves a plateful of food, enjoys a simple place setting or centerpiece, and goes home happy as long as their tummy is full.
To make the holidays flow with ease I offer these simple last minute tips to spare you embarrassment. Keeping a list taped to the refrigerator or inside a kitchen cabinet serves as a reminder.
Assuming you thought about the menu and planned the food selections and market list about a month ago, you already know which items are already in the freezer.
The week of your holiday is the week to defrost some of those foods allowing about 3 days sitting in the refrigerator for large batches of soups or casseroles. Now is also the time, then, to plan and shop for the items that can be prepared a day or two prior to the holiday meal.
Carefully read the label or phone the Butterball hotline (1-800-butterball) if you can’t figure out how long that bird will take to defrost in the refrigerator.
(While I hope and encourage you to buy a fresh free range, organic bird rather than a mass produced farm bird, we all have to do what is economically best for us. The Butterball hotline is still a reliable cooking resource that has helped many a confused cook no matter whose bird you bought.)
Begin by making a map to guide you through your pre-party tasks: a time line for food preparation, drag out and label your serving dishes and utensils (I actually label them with post-it notes), and check all your linens and/or paper goods to be sure things are clean, ironed and stocked for the number of guests.
This is also the time to plan the number of tables and chairs to accommodate invited guests as well as the strays who are left stranded or drop in unexpectedly. Make any necessary arrangements to borrow or rent more tables and chairs ahead of time.
If you plan to dine with candlelight, be sure to have matches or a lighter handy. Keep these out of the reach of small children or your tablecloth will burn like a bonfire as mine did one year.
Expensive floral centerpieces and/or decorations sometimes go unnoticed. Flowers tend to wilt if purchased too far in advance and can emit an unpleasant odor while dining.
(During one unfortunate dinner, my guests did not notice the foul odor until someone dared ask, “What is in this casserole?” in a demanding tone.)
Instead of flowers, keep things simple by filling a glass bowl with an assortment of winter squash or filling some large margarita glasses with fresh cranberries and mint sprigs. They add color to the table, stay within the holiday color scheme and make a delightful side dish the next day.
Buy several extra bottles of wine for drop in guests or the occasional guest who drinks their way through the dinner. Red wine does not require refrigeration thereby saving valuable refrigerator space. After the holiday, any leftover wine becomes a wonderful seasoning for sauces or marinades for family meals.
The leftover wine is also of particular use for a private binge, alone, after the guests leave. This applies especially after family or in-laws go home. Wine is also less expensive than liquor if you need to stay within a tight budget.
Leave small piles of extra napkins in strategic places around your living room, dining room or patio areas. Small snack plates help eliminate crumbs and dropped food too. Nothing is worse than finding an expensive, imported, aromatic cheese morphed as a blot, a forever stain, on your favorite throw pillow or sofa upholstery.
If you serve alcohol prior to the meal, offer your guests some salty snacks such as mixed nuts, cheese and crackers, or chips and salsa.
If you are serving appetizers, however, carbohydrates are best. This helps abate drunkenness before mealtime. The ruin of a dinner party requires only one guest to fall across the folding chairs you arranged with care.
If you are setting out candy dishes, be sure to have a receptacle for discarded wrappers. A simple basket lined with a paper holiday napkin works well and adds color.
Have an ample supply of trash bags for both the kitchen trash and smaller bathroom wastebaskets. Assign someone to periodically check the trash and take it out as it fills up.
If you forget this task, expect to find at least one guest traipsing around with toilet tissue on their shoe on your living room carpet.
The morning of your holiday meal, empty the dishwasher completely. Nothing can ruin the cleanup more than finding a full dishwasher at the end of the evening and having to wash everything by hand.
If you have a small kitchen and tend to store extra pans in your oven or broiler, remove them to a closet or garage. I stress this point; otherwise, your preheating oven will arm itself with any leftover grease or grimy residue from one pan and fill your home with an odious scent.
Remove any appliances such as stand mixers, toaster ovens or electric can openers to free more space on kitchen counters for food preparation or buffet serving.
Place these items in a safe and secure place so that they do not seem like discards for the Salvation Army. It is disheartening to find that a well-meaning, helpful guest placed those items on the curb with the trash. (Yes, it has happened.)
Remove any dirty sponges, scrubbers or water spotted soap dispensers from the sink and toss them out or store them in a cupboard below. Set out new sponges and scrubbers but leave them in the sink out of sight.
If your children’s bedrooms or your own appear untidy, don’t stress. Just shut the doors. Most guests are reluctant to open a closed bedroom door. This is particularly true if you hang a doorknob sign reading, “Baby Sleeping” or “Beware of Feral Animals.”
Be sure your bathroom sinks offer guests liquid soap. The mess from bar soap scum and the idea of sharing bar soap upsets some people. Set out a pile of disposable decorative paper towels rather than forcing your guests to share one or two cloth towels.
Leave facial tissues in easy sight for guests. Also, leave additional rolls of toilet paper available. A surefire party stopper is hearing a guest bellowing from the bathroom for some toilet paper. Be sure to have a clean wastebasket placed in plain sight for your guests.
The last task prior to your guests’ arrival: check the toilet to be sure the bowl is emptied of any waste materials, the seat and outer bowl are clean and the floor lacks any tell-tale signs of near misses. Leave the light on in the bathroom.
If anything burns, whether on the stove or in the oven, quickly pour a few drops of vanilla extract on the warm surface to mask the odor.
Turn on any mood lighting and music before the guests arrive. At this time, remove any Reminder Lists from the refrigerator door. Pour yourself a glass of wine or sparkling cider and enjoy your party.
Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!
(*A wonderful hotline, for any time of year, is Chefsline, 1-800-977-1224. Also the Butterball hotline, 1-800-butterball or the website Butterball.com)