By Judy Sutton Taylor
10 expert tips for stress-free holiday entertaining, whether you’re hosting a cookie swap, cocktails, dinner, or an all-out soiree
1. Plan ahead to get your house in tiptop shape
If you’re thinking of hiring a preparty cleaning service, schedule a month ahead for coveted time slots like Fridays, suggests Kimberly Monesinos, owner of Crystal Klear Cleaning in Naperville (crystalklearcleaning.net). “If your home has not been thoroughly cleaned in a while, begin with a deep cleaning,” she says. “This is a longer, more detailed appointment that includes hand-cleaning ceiling fans, baseboards, windowsills, cabinet doors, inside/out appliances, and so on. Many of our customers request this prior to hosting an event. Occasionally, we clean the day before an event and then again after for quick maintenance of high-traffic areas [kitchen, bathrooms, floors, etc.].” And tidying up before your cleaning service arrives will maximize results, Monesinos adds. “The more organized the home is, the more effective the cleaning service will be. If clutter is a challenge, hire a professional organizer before the cleaning. The combination of the two will lessen accidents and spills when entertaining and ensure a smooth holiday entertaining season and beyond.”
2. Bake it (or fake it)
Come up with a plan for cookie exchanges, which are especially popular this time of year but can require a lot of prep work and bake time. “Keeping baking and other pantry essentials on hand is the key to being prepared during the holiday season,” says Morgan Tyschper, the owner of DeEtta’s Bakery (425 W. Fifth Ave., Naperville). “Make your ingredient lists early and stay stocked up to avoid additional stress.” Consider making one homemade treat to share and buying another (popular holiday options at DeEtta’s include Kolacky and butter cookies) to prevent feeling overwhelmed and lighten your workload just a little, she suggests.
When you’re planning your menu, try to include choices to suit a variety of tastes. “Have a chocolate item and a nonchocolate one, fruit and nonfruit, something very sweet and something a little less sweet, to ensure everyone can find something they can enjoy,” Tyschper says. With all that in mind, be sure to check ordering and pickup deadlines from local bakeries and add them to your calendars, she adds.
3. Make your event extra special with printed invitations—and mail them early
The “mailbox moment” is back in style, according to Kathleen Toomey, the owner of Mighty Violet Design (mightyvioletdesign.com), a local stationery company that makes festive preprinted and custom cards and invitations. “Colored envelopes create a drumroll in mailboxes,” she says. But when it comes to holiday invites, the turnaround time on custom orders can be unpredictable, she cautions. Jump-start the process by collecting addresses and then placing orders as soon as possible. “Mail party invitations right after Thanksgiving, keeping in mind that the post office is extremely busy during the holidays.” You also want to make sure you get on your guests’ social calendars before the hectic month fills up.
4. When it doubt, order out
“Absolutely—and I can’t stress this enough—do not feel obligated to prepare every single item on your menu during the overwhelmingly busy holiday season,” says event planner Cindy Shanholtz, owner and creative director at Effortless Events (effortless-events.com). You can make your menu creative and fun with minimal effort, too. “Consider ordering Chinese food and arranging the dishes into takeout containers with chopsticks. Take your serving pieces to the restaurant and have them directly place the items into your containers.” A good rule of thumb in winter is to serve a menu of 70 percent hot and 30 percent cold items, she adds.
Another easy serving suggestion: charcuterie boards. “They’re still as hot as ever,” Shanholtz says. “Everyone will love at least three of the items. And having a few displayed items—crudités and dip, roasted vegetables—allows people to graze throughout the evening.” If you’re having a cocktail party, Shanholtz says to estimate that you’ll need five to seven bites per person per hour—slightly more if you’re serving shellfish since it’s lighter. “Hit all the categories: beef, chicken, vegetarian, gluten free, and dairy free,” she says. “You want something for everyone.”
5. Shop your own closets for interior holiday decor
For a unique twist, look beyond the usual plastic bins filled with ornaments, lights, and festive knickknacks you haul out once a year to less obvious items that easily can be repurposed for a holiday party, suggests Mark Allen, owner of Warehouse 55, a vintage home furnishings store with locations in Aurora (55 S. Lake St.) and Chicago (1819 W. Grand Ave.) “It’s all about looking at things you already own with a fresh eye,” says Allen, who has shelves of housewares in his own home that he pulls from for year-round occasions. “Candles and fresh fruit always look great as a part of seasonal decor—holiday parties are a great time to use collections of vintage candlesticks. And I like to take mirrored trays I use elsewhere in the house throughout the year and dust them with fake snow, then add tabletop decorations for a layered look.”
Even decorations that you think have seen better days can have new life, he adds. “I take that ugly green garland that everyone hates and add a ton of red berry stems and fake cedar sprays to transform it for draping on the stairs.” Allen also wraps empty boxes to fill up the look under a Christmas tree. Another tip: Add one vintage element—an old-timey Santa at the doorway or a flock of penguin figures on a stairwell, for example—to more modern decor to provide a fun photo op for guests and a guaranteed conversation starter. “Christmas brings out so many feelings of nostalgia for people.”
6. Prebatch cocktails = more fun for the host
“Punch bowls are synonymous with parties, and for good reason,” says Alicia Hague, co-owner of Common Good Cocktail House (560 Crescent Blvd., Glen Ellyn). “Having a large quantity of drinks readily available keeps the host from being stuck at the bar cart and allows you to spend less time mixing and building drinks and more time mingling.” Dispensers work just as well as bowls, she says, and you can set out cocktail napkins, ice, and garnish right next to whatever vessel you choose to create an easy DIY drinks station.
Hague suggests making two drinks to accommodate varying tastes—one boozy and one nonalcoholic. Freshly made mixers can ease the prep process even more. For Thanksgiving, Common Good makes Pear Thee Well (pear, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, maple syrup, lemon juice), and for end-of-year holidays, they offer Holiday Doc (huckleberry, blueberry, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, maple, lemon). “Let’s face it, holidays are tough,” she says. “Sometimes, the easiest route is the best route.”
7. Invest in one showstopping centerpiece—and keep the rest simple
Consider having one quality tabletop holiday centerpieces that can last about three weeks, meaning you can use it (and reuse it) for cocktail parties, special dinners, and everything in between, with some simple care. “You’d be surprised how much more festive your home can feel and smell with a few simple touches of winter foliage here and there,” says Heather Shouse, owner of Bottle & Branch (bottleandbranch.com), a horticulture company that makes centerpieces composed of cut evergreen branches, seasonal botanicals, and accents like holly, winterberry, and birch. Opt for a pop of red or keep things neutral with winter whites. You also can decorate with wreaths (both fresh and preserved) and fresh flowers synonymous with the holidays—think amaryllis, poinsettia, paperwhites, and cyclamen. Beyond that, try adorning picture frames, wall art, mirrors, and mantles with simple greenery from the supermarket.
8. Leave the outdoor lighting (and even decor) to the pros
Why deal with tangles, broken bulbs, and the perils of reaching tricky spots to get your outdoor lights just right when you can outsource this dicey job? “Hiring professionals for your holiday lights is the right choice if you want a beautifully lit home without any hassle, but it can be hard to know what to look for,” says Stephanie Gregoles, the office manager at LightUptheBurbs.com in Plainfield. “You want a lighting company that will create several designs for you to choose from at multiple price points so you can find a look that works for your home and budget.” Scheduling installation early means you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck, she adds. “You simply plug in the timer when you’re ready to experience that holiday glow.”
Matt Baker, owner of Lightville in Warrenville (lightville.com), says leasing programs that include installation, maintenance, takedown, and storage can keep things easy. “We provide pricing options, design mockups, and references to give the client a full understanding of our capabilities.” And lights are just the start, he says: An initial consultation sets the stage for your vision and can include wreaths, garland, lawn decorations, and other elements.
9. Layer scents to level up the festive feel
Manage the mood at your event from the get-go by using a combination of candles, reed diffusers, and room sprays throughout your home, suggests Susi Brucato, owner of the Geneva scent shop Inluro (211 W. State St., inluro.com) “When layering scents, it’s important to choose fragrances that complement each other,” she says. “Try maintaining a cohesive theme throughout your home to create a harmonious olfactory experience.” For candles, she recommends scents that evoke the spirit of the holidays and pair well together, such as cinnamon, pine, and vanilla. “Place them strategically on tabletops, mantles, and even in the bathroom.” Reed diffusers are ideal for small and heavy-traffic areas, such as bathroom counters and hallways. “Opt for neutral scents like balsam fir or citrus to create a welcoming atmosphere. And room sprays are perfect for freshening up spaces before guests arrive,” Brucato adds, noting that scents like mulled wine or gingerbread instantly create a holiday vibe.
10. Get the kids involved (really!)
That may sound counterintuitive to relieving holiday stress, but Jessica Jackson-Nyarko, lead cooking instructor at Kidinary Cooking Academy in Plainfield (kidinarycooking.com), says that keeping squirmy little ones busy with age-appropriate tasks makes them feel like important and included—and keeps them out of your hair. “Even very young kids in highchairs can dry vegetables in a salad spinner,” she says. Preschoolers can mash potatoes or cranberries, rip up greens for a salad, and scoop batter for cupcakes and cornbread, she suggests. “Think about ‘rinse and repeat’ jobs young children can do over and over again—cutting fruit for drinks with child-safe knives, breading foods, and picking and prepping herbs. Find tasks where it’s OK if things don’t end up looking perfect.”
Older kids can order groceries on Instacart to learn about managing budgets and selecting substitutions when needed. Or teach them about mise en place, the French term for “everything in its place,” a common prep practice in professional kitchens. “Have them lay out everything for a recipe you’re making so that it’s nice and organized,” she says. That can extend to setting the table and fancy napkin folding. When it’s party time, kids can continue to help by collecting coats, passing hors d’oeuvres, or even explaining the menu at sit-down dinners.
Photos: iStock images/MelanieMaya (cookies); Mighty Violet Design (envelopes); Getty Images/saemilee (holly); Christy Tyler (Cindy Shanholtz portrait); Kyle Petit Media (Mark Allen portrait); iStock images/YelenaYemchuk (punch); iStock images/Sarsmis (flower arrangement); Lightville; (house); iStock images/Oksana_Schmidt (candles); Kidinary Cooking Academy (Jessica Jackson-Nyarko portrait); Illustration: Greg Clarke