Expert tips for low-stress holiday entertaining

Nadine Kalinauskas
Shine On
Expert tips for low-stress holiday entertaining

Hosting a holiday party this winter and dreading the stress that inevitably comes with it?

Shine On recently asked Sebastien Centner, entertaining expert and director of Eatertainment Special Events, how to keep stress levels at a minimum when entertaining this holiday season. 

Shine On: How early should we start planning a holiday party?

Centner: The earlier the better! But of course then life gets in the way, doesn’t it? My suggestion is pick the date and send out a invite or save the date as soon as possible. While the planning and organization can always be done closer to your holiday party date, with how busy the holiday season can get you want your party on people’s calendar before everyone else’s! 

When do invitations go out? Do they need to be snail-mailed or are email invites acceptable?

I personally tend towards printed invitations for my events both because you rarely receive printed invites anymore but also because the invitation sets the tone for the event — stylish, elegant, etc. — and a printed invitation immediately shows the effort a host is putting into their event.

However, as we all know how busy a time the holidays are it becomes the most challenging time to plan early enough to get out printed invites. So my suggestion is to pick a different time of year to bring back the elegant printed invitation — an impromptu winter dinner, a summer backyard gathering, etc. — and use email for the holidays so you can spend your time on other aspects of the planning.

For a dinner or cocktail party, can you recommend any low-stress menu/recipe ideas?

There are tons of great low-stress recipe ideas (please see links below) but generally consider a few things which will make your entertaining way easier overall.

  • Pick recipes which can be prepared in advance and quickly finished before serving - this ensures you do most of the heavy lifting before the event and can spend some quality time with your guests instead of in the kitchen.
  • Don’t leave things to the last minute — typically this will increase your costs and your stress level — two things any host would want to avoid.
  • A busy holiday party is not the best time to try something new. Test new recipes or ideas on a smaller group or at a less hectic time of year. The bigger the party the less you want to be experimenting. (Unless, of course, you’re a party pro — in which case, push the envelope.)
  • Set yourself up for success. For food planning, combine recipes for passed items with platters you can simply place for guests to graze from. An all-passed menu will have you serving your guests throughout the night.

Centner’s recommended recipes:

Passed:

Butternut Squash Shooter

Cheddar Gougieres

Honey Roasted Baby Turnips

Appetizer:

Pan-Fried Tomato w/Buffalo Mozzarella

Side dish:

Pumpkin-Fig-Sage Stuffing

Mains:

Rosemary-Dijon Tenderloin

Rack of Alberta Lamb

Dessert: 

Pumpkin Cheesecake Springrolls

Christmas Lollies

Is it ever appropriate to ask guests to bring food?

I was raised by a Parisian mother who would NEVER ask anyone to bring food so typically this is something I avoid. The only time this would be acceptable is for a themed dinner. Last year we hosted a post-trip dinner with a bunch of friends we had travelled to Mexico with. In this case we decided to theme the dinner around our trip and each couple were in charge of a different course. 

While my mother still likely would not have approved, it was fun and everyone really got into it.

For those serving alcohol at a party, how can they keep the bar situation low-stress while they’re busy with dinner/hosting? Stock the bar and leave it alone? Recruit a friend to man it?

I would avoid recruiting a friend, after all shouldn’t your friends all be enjoying the party and not working it?

Firstly, everything should be planned ahead. Besides putting out the chilled beverages last minute or adding ice or garnishes, most everything else —glassware, red wine, spirits — can all be put out well in advance of your guests’ arrival. Also consider setting up a self-serve bar either with a specialty twist — Caesar bar, sparkling cocktail bar, specialty martini bar with two or three featured recipes — or with everything laid out for guests to help themselves. Maybe start by mixing up the first cocktail for a guest then encourage them to refill at their leisure!

What about the kids? How do we keep them happy during a dinner party?

Send them to the neighbours… Just kidding! We approach this in two ways in our house:

1. If the kids are younger, plan something special for them that keeps them busy — movie night for the kids with mini pizzas, flavoured popcorns and mixed fruit juice cocktails — while the adults enjoy their dinner.

2. For older kids, recruit them to help out: with coats when guests arrive, maybe to pass canapés. Likely you’ll only have their attention for a little so take advantage while you can.

As a guest, how can I reduce the host’s stress levels?

Great question. I wish more of my guests asked that same question.

Firstly the thing every host hates are surprises. Have a special dietary restriction, an aversion perhaps to a certain type of food, etc.? Let them know in advance. Then it becomes up to the host to plan accordingly, but at least they are not put on the spot when they find out at the party.

If you are bringing flowers: There used to be a entertaining rule of etiquette to never bring flowers but instead to send them the day before or (even better) the next day. The idea behind this is that likely the host will be receiving lots of flowers at the party so sending flowers a day or so after the party is a nice treat and these fresh beautiful flowers will last a few days as home décor.

If you bring flowers with you, the host has to deal with them — unpack, cut, place in vase, etc. — so if you insist on bringing flowers then at least make sure they are in a vase ready to be placed. 

Are there any other tips or tricks for no-stress holiday entertaining you’d like to share?

My last advice: Entertaining should be fun and a great host should be passionate about making their event extra special for every guest attending. So plan early to reduce your stress, then entertain well…and entertain often.

Will you be entertaining guests this holiday season? What are your tips for making entertaining a breeze?