I can’t speak for other people shown on TV and pictured in print magazines hosting holiday parties. They may be faking their smiles. But mine is genuine. While entertaining can induce up-all-night anxiety and nightmares of charred, inedible turkey, welcoming loved ones into my home, especially during the holiday season, is one of my greatest pleasures.

But if hosting your family and friends during the holidays leaves you with cold sweats and heart palpitations, what you need is a good strategy. Real Woman is here to arm you with the expert knowledge you need to relax and actually enjoy yourself. Here’s the secret: You don’t need to be a party planner or hostess extraordinaire to enjoy entertaining.

Now I do have a head start—entertaining is my job. I work as the official “entertaining expert” for the NFL and regularly appear on NBC’s TODAY show to share my tips and tricks on throwing parties, and I can tell you that expecting to entertain like a pro on your own is downright crazy. I would never try to manage a hedge fund or diagnose medical symptoms. Over the years, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to making sure guests have a great time at a party. Full disclosure: It takes planning, effort, time, and a good sense of humor. Don’t worry about being perfect—if you have fun, your guests will too.


Put on Your Hostess Hat

Some of the most common party pitfalls creep up because we bite off more than we can chew. So start off by being realistic about what you can accomplish, and don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help from family, friends, or even a catering service. Do not, under any circumstances, wait until the day of your event to prepare. Whether I’m hosting my family for Sunday dinner or 100 people for a backyard bash, the party bus starts moving days—if not weeks—before the guests actually arrive. Here’s a list of all the things you can and should start doing to get ready to entertain. This list may seem long, but believe me, taking on one or two of these tasks each night is so much more enjoyable than trying to achieve them all in one day. Here’s your entertaining to-do list to help prep for game day:

et-tableClear away the clutter from one room per night. Even if you’re planning to only host your guests in the kitchen or dining room, this will help you keep organized and maintain a clear idea of the tasks ahead.

Queue up the music. More than any-thing, music instantly creates ambiance, and the right set of songs can set the mood for your gathering with the push of a button. I’ve even gone so far as to create rotating playlists for regular events, such as dinner parties and book clubs, using reggae for a summer night, Sinatra for a Sunday dinner, and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats for a Friday with friends.

Make your menu. Writing down your menu will keep you on track in the kitchen and help you figure out a shopping list so you’ll be sure to have everything you need.

Decide what you’ll wear. This may seem vain, but last-minute preparation often leaves little time for the hostess to get herself ready. If you pick something a couple of nights ahead of time, it alleviates stress and ensures you look and feel good when your guests arrive. No one wants to be greeted by a harried host.

Go shopping. Never leave this task for the day of the event, because it always takes longer than you think. I prefer two or three quick shopping trips rather than one massive haul. You can pick up all your non-perishables, drinks, and paper products a week in advance, then save fresh items like baked goods and flowers for the last minute.

Cook ahead. Anything you can make in advance, you should. Serving the meal hot and on time is easier if you do what you can ahead of time.

Set up a drink station/bar. Tray up your glassware, and set out a pitcher for water, an ice bucket, and a bottle opener for easy access throughout your party. There’s no need for a million types of glassware. If you are hosting an intimate event, offering a variety of glassware for different drinks is lovely. But if your gathering is more than 10 people, stick to one all-purpose wine glass and another that can be used for everything else. Remember, you are neither a caterer nor a professional dishwasher.

Set the table. If it’s a buffet, pull out all your platters and serving utensils, stack your plates, and gather your napkins and glassware. If it’s a formal gathering and you can’t set your table until the day of the event, then you can still gather what you’ll need so set-up will go quickly.


Don’t Worry, Be Happy

You may be up all night before the big event, and that’s even true for certain well-seasoned hosts (not mentioning any names!). But if you do your prep work, you should be able to actually enjoy the last-minute preparations. Here are a few tricks of the trade for a perfect pre-party setup:

ocktails1.   Don’t overthink the drinks. Prepare one signature cocktail in a big batch and have on hand a red wine and a white wine, as well as one beer offering.

2. Remember the teetotalers! I always keep sparkling water and a small bowl of sliced lemons and limes on the bar for my designated drivers, expecting friends, and non-drinkers.

3. Create the right ambiance. Make sure you have some tunes on, and even light a candle or two to create a good vibe. Avoid over-scented candles and choose music appropriate for your party.

4. Guests come hungry, so always start with a snack. Choose an appetizer that can be served at room temperature. This is a snack, not a full course. Easy, elegant appetizers can be made with just three or four ingredients, or you can simply put out a selection of store-bought antipasto.

5. Take a minute to be grateful for the opportunity to host your family and friends, for the home you’ve created, and for the good time you’re about to have. Put on some music, dance around, kiss your partner, and enjoy the ride.


Food for Thought 

Once your party is in full swing, getting the various dishes out at the right temperature and at the same time can be tricky. It’s important to create a timetable and stick to it. Things like cutting bread, putting out butter on a dish, and filling water pitchers can be done hours in advance. Choosing dishes that aren’t time- and temperature-restrictive—or that all require the oven or the stovetop—will make timing things a lot easier. For instance, a first course can be a composed salad that’s already dished up in the fridge, or a warm appetizer that you are keeping in the oven on very low heat. If your first course needs the oven, your second course should be a stovetop dish or something that can be held at the same warming temp. Finally, keep in mind that dishes that work logistically for dinner parties (unless you are hiring a chef and kitchen crew) are one-pot/pan dishes like elevated pastas, curries, beef stew, and coq au vin.


Tips for Tabletop

Here are four rules for elevating your party and your dinner table:

Always set the table. This is part of what makes a dinner special. A dinner party is different than other gatherings because of all the special little touches.

Add a little color. It’s easy to completely transform your table with a pop of color using linens or a table runner. You can easily change your table from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve by starting with linens that include fall colors. Then change out for Christmas or Hanukkah colors and again for New Year’s by adding more gold and glam with sparkly linens.

Keep it lively. Bring the outdoors in with simple fresh-cut flowers and branches—even rocks are fun additions to table décor. You should be able to see your guests, so everything on the table should be below eye level.

Layer up or go bare. Use a tablecloth or fabric for a richer, layered feel on the table. If you are entertaining outdoors, let nature guide your décor and go for bare-wood tables.


Happy Endings 

At some point, your hostess hat will need to come off. Just use these shortcuts to wrap up the evening on a sweet note:


Prepare dessert ahead of time. Serve a make-ahead dessert, or if baking isn’t your forte, buy one. Pre-scooping sorbet or ice cream into pretty dishes or glasses and putting them in the freezer lets you serve something sweet with ease.

Offer a dessert drink. Coffee was the standard for ages, but now a simple digestif (a.k.a. after-dinner drink) can be poured for guests to linger a little longer at the table.

Keep cleanup out of sight and out of mind. Tray up your dirty dishes and cookware and cover with a linen, or fill the sink and do the same. You don’t want to end your evening having your guests watch the hostess turn into the maid. Plus, it’s more fun for you to enjoy a final toast and do the dishes in the morning.

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