The holidays happen but once a year, so when celebrating, there is ample reason to pull out all the stops to share the cheer. But then, before you know it, you’ve racked up thousands of dollars on lavish dinner parties, holiday hostess gifts, gourmet goodies to tempt all those impromptu visitors, and decorations.
Holiday celebrations and large credit card bills, however, don’t have to go hand in hand. From making smart choices when planning the menu to taking a cue from nature when decorating the table, there are a number of ways to cut back on some areas of traditional holiday excess without sacrificing style or snuffing out all of that festive energy.
Here are some of my top tips for hosting a get-together of any size:
Think about the format of your party. Hosting a dinner party and trying to keep costs down? Cut back on the cocktail hour and multiple trays of passed hors d’oeuvres.
To keep the cost of stocking a full bar down, serve a signature cocktail that you can make en masse. Then offer some inexpensive bubbly along with beer for additional options.
When purchasing holiday decorations, make sure that the items are multipurpose. To add lots of color and glam to a party, nothing beats Christmas lights. Will they ever go out of style? Wrap them around indoor plants, trees, mirrors, garlands, banisters — even down the center of your table.
Need a tablecloth because last year’s was ruined by that spilled glass of wine? Don’t worry about spending $500 on a white linen one that might only make an appearance a couple of times a year. Head to a fabric store and make your own. Measure your table beforehand, and then pick up a few yards of a deep jewel-toned fabric in green, burgundy, red, or blue. You don’t even have to hem the edges if it is long enough to pool on the floor (and the edges are trimmed clean).
When creating centerpieces or decorating mantels and bannisters, use lots of organic elements like branches, foliage, berries (above), and winter greens to bring a bit of winter inside (minus the cold!). Arrange natural elements from outside in containers, or spread them along flat surfaces. Sprinkles of pine cones, pomegranates, and bright red cranberries add a festive pop of color, while gold and silver napkin rings and chargers lend a wintery twinkle to the entire scene. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Muffet)
Have a holly tree nearby? Cut a small sprig of holly and tuck it in between the napkin and napkin ring. Don’t have napkin rings? Use a bit of red ribbon instead.
Creating the Menu
Don’t feel obligated to pull out all the stops when hosting friends. There are a number of ways to serve something festive that are inexpensive and easy-to-assemble, and keep the menu from exploding in size (and extravagance).
For a dinner party, keep it simple and small. Serve a main course, like roast chicken or baked salmon, along with a salad, and a simple dessert like chocolate with dried fruits or brownies with peppermint candy ice cream. A hearty soup with bread and salad will also fill guests up without leaving you trapped in the kitchen.
For a cocktail party, serve lots of small bowls of fresh crudités along with tasty nibbles like toasted almonds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. I love passing around bite-sized wedges of a thin-crust pizza made with flatbread. Plus, with vegetable crudités, any leftovers can be recycled the next day to make soup.
To dress up the traditional offerings, offer a build-your-own grilled cheese station, saving you time in the kitchen and reducing waste, as guests will eat only what they want. Offer a couple of sliced breads, a variety of grated cheeses like smoked Gouda, Swiss, and Cheddar. Put out a variety of small bowls of pesto, mushrooms, caramelized onions, prosciutto, arugula, and sun-dried tomatoes so everyone can customize their own. Popcorn bars are a great idea, too, especially when presented in nice bowls with to-go containers.
Dress up your cocktails, too. Use fruits that are in season, like pears and pomegranates, to add a festive touch. Serving wine? Pour a glass of wine that pairs well with your entrée so it transitions to the dinner table rather than opening multiple wines that you may end up wasting.
Liza Utter is an award-winning restaurateur and a celebrated host, and is dedicated to bringing her unique brand of “celebrating every day” to aspiring hosts across the country with her Life of the Party classes. Visit her site at Liza America’s Host to learn more.