Diane Phillips knows how to throw a terrific, stress-free holiday party. "The key to a great party is a relaxed host," she explains. How to be a happy host? "Do as much prep ahead of time as you can." Phillips should know. She’s catered, taught hundreds of do-ahead cooking classes and she’s written the book on it—actually several: she is the author of Happy Holidays from the Diva of Do-Ahead, the James Beard Award-nominated Perfect Party Food and others. If holiday entertaining makes you feel frazzled, don’t fear: the Diva of Do-Ahead is here with a few of her foolproof tips. —Gretel H. Schueller
Make a plan. Use a blank calendar, mark the day of the party, then fill in the days before with things that need to be done, even the most mundane like cleaning the house, selecting music, grocery shopping. Decide how many people, what kind of party (sit-down, buffet) and then gather your recipes. Make a shopping list and don’t forget the nonfood items, such as napkins, paper towels, candles, etc. Here’s a quick guide to help you with your shopping and planning.
Party Math Made Simple:
Give yourself permission to outsource. If you aren’t fond of making desserts or rolls, find a great bakery or a talented friend.
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Always start the party with a clean sink and an empty dishwasher and trash can in the kitchen. Nothing is worse than having to take out the garbage during the middle of a party, and the sink and dishwasher are great places to hide dirty dishes.
For sit-down functions, set the table a day or two ahead of time, then cover with a sheet. For a grazing party, make sure the platters you will use will fit on the table. Do a dry run with empty serving platters, arranging them in a pleasing manner, then mark the spots with sticky notes. This serves two functions: you know that the serving pieces will fit and when someone asks, "May I help you with something?" you can smile and say, "Would you please put this on the table where the note is?"
If you have lots of drinks to cool and a full fridge, fill your washing machine with ice in the morning of the party and chill in there. Bring drinks out as you need them. The washing machine will drain as the ice melts, and you won’t have to stock coolers all night or empty all the melted ice the next day! (Works with front loaders too.)
To keep dips cold, slice off the top from a round loaf of bread and remove the inside of the bread, leaving a 3/4-inch shell. Put the round in a freezer bag and freeze. The day of the party, pour the dip into the frozen bread round. It will keep the dip cold for 4 to 6 hours. To keep items like meatballs or mulled cider warm, put your slow cooker to work, on the "warm" setting.
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