By Bruce Weinstein & Mark Scarbrough
A holiday party. Were ever three nicer or more frightening words written! Who doesn’t love to get an invitation? But who doesn’t pause at the thought of throwing one? Oh, the prep, the cleanup, not to mention the inevitable bloat from too many salted nuts, and Aunt Matilda’s obscure grievances with Woodrow Wilson.
It needn’t be so. Here are seven EatingWell tips to make your party a success. (We make no promises about Aunt Matilda.)
1. Keep your guests awake. Once, we served an enchilada buffet: six kinds, chips too. By 8:30, everyone was in a carb coma. Did someone really unbutton their pants? Researchers at the University of Manchester have found that some brain cells are actually sluggish after too much food. Fluctuating glucose apparently affects those cells’ production of proteins called orexins, which regulate levels of consciousness. Perhaps that explains why unlikely romantic matches occur at holiday parties. Not paying attention, are we? Solve the problem of drowsy brains by serving lighter fare and plenty of vegetables so your guests can enjoy the party—and not pair up in socially awkward ways.
2. Shop quickly. Grocery stores are madhouses at the holidays. There’s no sense in traveling to several to find vindaloo paste, organic blue-foot mushrooms and snails from a muddy pond east of Poughkeepsie. Plan on menu items that take standard, easy-to-find, but still healthy ingredients. Our party food always sneaks in several convenience products: cooked cocktail shrimp, the meat from a rotisserie chicken, prepared pizza dough. Who can clean, make everything from scratch and set the table in one afternoon? Well, who besides some celebrity with a battalion of sous-chefs and production assistants?
3. Plan on something for everyone. Once, we threw a party and made all seafood: steamed shrimp, crab cakes. One guest walked in and turned green. Not the best how-do-you-do. Hand on mouth, she mumbled that she’d grown up across the street from a fish cannery. Make sure you check with your guests about possible allergies and phobias, then plan a well-rounded menu that keeps everyone in the pink: vegetarians, carnivores and fish-phobes alike.
4. Serve all night. If you put everything out at 8:00 p.m. and pour the Cosmos, the food’s going to run out and someone’s going to be donning a lampshade by 9:30. Researchers long ago reached the conclusion—known by the rest of us in praxis—that food in the stomach slows alcohol on its trip to the small intestine, where it is most efficiently absorbed. So put food out all night to balance the wine, beer and cocktails. Keep some food back, a surprise to come—and better for your guests’ health anyway.
5. Refill platters often. For food-safety reasons, as well, you should hold back some food in the refrigerator. Nothing’s ickier than a platter of shrimp left at room temperature for five hours. You don’t want your guests to get food poisoning. One bathroom downstairs and 20 invitees? You do the math.
6. The dishes can wait. We have a friend who makes a lovely meal, takes one bite and runs for the kitchen to start cleaning. Not exactly scintillating dinner conversation. Those dishes will be there later anyway—and you’ll be fortified to attack them after an evening of grazing on cocktail-party treats like radicchio cups filled with chicken-and-potato salad.
7. Celebrate at your own party. If you’re in the kitchen at 9:00 folding phyllo dough into bolero jackets and fezzes, stuffed with a 19-spice Moroccan fandango, you’re ruining your own party. Make most things ahead; have just a little last-minute assembly. That way, you can be a guest at your own shindig. That’s a modern miracle: good friends, good food and time to enjoy them.[pagebreak]