The most important thing to serve your guests is your smile. This means remembering that how you are feeling is felt by everyone in your home, so do all that you can to remain calm and cheerful. Do things in advance, like setting the table, completing any décor ideas, and prepping any vegetables or dishes that can be stored in the fridge for a day before the event. Remember to get some good sleep the night before, drink lots of water, and wear an outfit that makes you feel and look good. Then put on some nice music, and open the door with a big smile. Hugs all around! Your genuine joy at having these people to your home is what they will remember much more than the meal itself. So keep your focus on them, and not just the main dish.
Here are some tips for a festive ~ and joyful! ~ dinner with guests:
Be creative with your décor and use what you have on hand. A few red apples or ornament balls look festive in a clear bowl. And rather than decorating the whole house, just focus on key areas like the entry, living room and dining table. Make place cards for the dining room table by tying paper ‘leaves’ with names written on them to the stems of apples or pears. Or tuck a tag into the crack of a walnut shell. Just do it the day before and not on the day of your gathering. It’s just not worth the stress that could generate!
When cooking for guests only prepare dishes you’ve made before and are comfortable making for a crowd. Search out make-ahead dishes and do as much prep-work the day before as possible. After many years of having made holiday turkey dinners as well as baked ham dinners with scalloped potatoes, I have found some meals are easier on me than others. If I am feeling a bit tired in the week before hosting a family gathering, or if I just want to spend more time visiting and less time in the kitchen, I select to make a ham dinner. It is still special but somehow much easier on me than turkey with all its last minute details. So whatever you prepare, plan your menu with some thought to keeping your stress level low. And don’t feel compelled to make everything yourself! Perhaps make it a potluck. Prepare one or two main dishes and assign each guest a different item to bring.
Limit your cocktail selection to one special drink. Perhaps an eggnog punch or a mulled wine. And set up a self-serve bar area outside of the main part of the kitchen, like an island, sideboard, dresser or desk. Even a small folding table can be covered with a tablecloth to serve up drinks temporarily. Place glasses or mugs, a ladle for the punch bowl or crockpot, and whatever else guests need to help themselves. At my house a couple of hours before guests arrive, I start apple juice (3 litres/quarts) heating in the crockpot on low with some mulling ingredients: 2-3 sticks of cinnamon and a tea-diffuser (or cheesecloth bundle) filled with 5-6 whole cloves, ¼ tsp of whole allspice, and 1 Tbsp of brown sugar. This is a delicious non-alcoholic beverage that also makes your house smell divine. (For any adults who might like it ‘spirited’ offer an ounce of brandy or spiced rum as an addition to this festive mugful of cheer.)
Make it easy to accept offers from guests who want to help in the kitchen by leaving some last minute tasks like assembling the salad or putting some pickles or cranberry sauce into a pretty dish, for example. I like to include water glasses for everyone at my dinner table and I happily accept help with filling those glasses with water and ice in the last 15 minutes before everyone comes to the table.
Gratitude is a worthy topic for every gathering, and is a nice way to include an ‘around the table’ element to a grace or before dessert. Encourage everyone to share something they are grateful for this year. And here’s a different idea for generating some discussion and including an activity either before or after dinner, or before dessert is served: Make a Thankful Tree! Ahead of time (a day or two before) prepare a twig tree in a pot of clean gravel or sand and cut out plenty of paper leaves, enough for everyone to have at least two leaves. Punch a hole near the tip and tie on a large loop of twine or ribbon. Have pens (or child-friendly markers!) on hand and welcome everyone to write down what they are thankful for and hang it on the tree. Have fun!
And I encourage us all to keep the HAPPY in our holidays.