No place like home for the Holidays—Planning the Perfect House Party

November 2013 View more

N2013_11_01_039LARGEIt’s that time of the year again when our thoughts turn to holiday planning and entertaining. The end of the year has always been a favorite time to gather family and friends to hearth and home. But a few years ago, with the downturn in the economy, caterers noticed a drop-off in holiday entertaining. Now with the future looking brighter, the holiday party is back and stronger than ever.

“Our corporate bookings are getting stronger,” said Karen Garlough of My Chef Catering. “And more small companies are holding their holiday parties in the home of the manager or president.”

Whether you’re planning a holiday event for your co-workers or your family, you’ll want to have all the bases covered. Here is a guide to hosting the event of the season right in the comfort of your own home.

Pick a Date

The holidays are busy for everyone, so it makes sense to choose a date as soon as possible, especially if a caterer is involved. Garlough encourages clients to hold their holiday party in January, as she herself does. “My husband and I call it the ‘Last Christmas Party of the Year.’ People are more relaxed, able to attend and stay longer,” said Garlough.

N2013_11_01_040LARGEChoose a Party Format and Time

Remember the people you invite may potentially have multiple party invitations for the same day. So, while a formal dinner party is always an option, an open house format is a good choice because people can come and go as they please. “95 percent of our holiday parties are buffet,” said Tim Belgio of Belgio’s Catering. “Guests can graze, take the portion size they want, and come back for seconds.” Also, decide on the time of the party. “Typically, 4 to 5 hours is a standard length,” said Belgio.

Build the Guest list

Create the guest list and try not to let it balloon. When you contact the caterer, know the approximate number of guests you are anticipating.

Pick a Caterer—or Not

The choice to cater or do it yourself is a personal one, depending on the size of the party and the host’s own time management and party planning skills. Hiring a caterer is an investment, but according to Belgio, hosts that do it themselves often overlook some of the details that may end up costing them money. “It’s a challenge to have an ample supply of everything, but not too much,” said Belgio. “Caterers supply what is needed and you don’t pay for or store those extra cases of beer at the end of the night.” They also provide those overlooked, last minute details that can add up, like plenty of ice and fresh fruit for drink garnishes.

Caterers also allow the host to be a guest by handling the set-up, serving guests, replenishing food supplies, bartending, and offering other special touches like receiving coats, parking cars, and providing ice sculptures. “We have a martini luge ice sculpture. You pour your drink down the track and into the glass,” said Garlough.

The best part is at the end of the night the host can relax while the staff cleans up. “After we leave, it’s like you never even had a party,” she said.

two red and gold christmas ball ornaments isolated on whiteSet the Budget

Catering costs vary greatly depending on the menu, rentals, and services requested. However, a good estimate is anywhere from $10 to $22 a person for food and additional cost for drinks. Alcoholic bar service can add another $10 to $16 per person depending upon the type of brands served. However, there are many ways to cut the budget even when you are throwing an elegant party. (See sidebar)

Choose the Menu

“I tell clients to plan the hors d’oeuvres menu like a balanced meal, with a selection of protein, vegetables and starches,” said Garlough. Popular holiday favorites include beef tenderloin, shrimp and seafood, imported seasonal cheese trays and slider bars, which are little hamburgers, tilapia or mushroom sandwiches that guests can top with special fixings like BBQ onions and different types of cheeses.

Many caterers are experiencing an increase in special requests for vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free selections. “The trend in eating these days is healthier food in smaller portions,” said Belgio. “For buffets, choose ‘walkable food’ to minimize spills. Skewered food like chicken and fruit kabobs work well,” he said. Belgio also suggests offering smaller portions in greater varieties, like a sweets table featuring smaller-sized brownie bites, cheesecakes, and cannoli.

Plan the Flow

Caterers usually know the best place to set up the buffet so it will not impede the traffic flow of the party. Or, set up food stations as an option to the buffet. “Pasta, salad, or carving stations where guests can make a sandwich work well,” said Belgio.

Sit-down dinners call for ingenuity. Caterers require a private staging area for assembling food and serving dishes, like the garage or laundry room. During the meal, Belgio suggests butler passing—where the serving staff walks the dishes around the table so guests can serve themselves.

inviting doorway with snow on porch stairs and railingDeck the Halls

Having a party is the perfect excuse to go all out on your holiday decorations. Judy Kreidler is a freelance florist who regularly decorates homes for the holidays, including stops on the Naperville Garden Club’s annual Cup of Cheer house walk. “I tell homeowners their accessories are jewelry for the home,” she explained. This year, glitz and elaborate decorating is in, with the use of sparkle, rhinestones, and feathers. Kreidler also offered these suggestions for homeowners:

• Check your cupboards for unique containers like vases, crystal ice buckets, footed cake plates, etc. to decorate.
• Use fresh or silk flowers in unique places like wine glasses and empty cookie jars.
• Scour the backyard for seasonal, natural decorative items like fresh greens and pinecones.
• Try asymmetry on the mantle-—something high on one side and low on the other.
• Don’t overdo the tree. “When I take half the ornaments off the tree, my clients remark that now they can see them,” said Kreidler.
• Don’t buy an accessory without a plan. Chances are when you get it home, it will be too big or too small.
• Decorate functionally, so the family can live with the arrangement.
• Try decorating off the beaten path places like the bathroom.
• Always look for balance and scale when arranging accessories and florals.

Budget Party Planning Tips

• Prepare some food yourself. “Some hosts have their two or three special dishes that they have to make for the party,” Garlough said. “Then they have us fill in the rest.”
• Work with the caterer to provide your own liquor.
• If you are serving alcohol, consider a rider on your homeowner’s insurance just for that day.
• Discuss using your own glassware, plates, and silverware to cut rental costs.
• Serve at highboy (bar height) tables to eliminate the expectation for sit-down fare.
• Hold your party after the dinner hour so hors‘d oeuvres will suffice.
• Ask family and friends to help staff the party.


The Naperville Garden Club Cup of Cheer House Walk will showcase four, professionally decorated homes along with a Holiday Market and Tea on December 5 and 6. For more information visit

Row of gold Christmas ornaments