Relax, It's Just a Holiday Open House

Don't stress out over a formal sit-down dinner. Instead, connect with friends and family in a relaxed atmosphere where everyone can share a drink and something good to eat, and guests can come and go as they please.

Photo By: Matt Armendariz ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Tara Donne ©FOOD NETWORK : 2012, Television Food Network, G.P.

Photo By: Matt Armendariz ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

A Win-Win for All

Want to entertain this holiday season without the major stress? An open-house holiday party is the way to go. Not a sit-down dinner for just a handful of friends, and not a frenzied cocktail party either — but rather, a leisurely stretch of time with people coming and going as they please, enjoying a self-serve bar and an array of tasty treats. Everyone’s time is so stretched in the final month of the year, and this kind of party allows people to stop by when it works for them and stay as long as they wish. It also allows you to host a lot of people in one day (e.g., knock off all those IOUs for the times you’ve been their guest) without trying to cram everything and everyone into your house at once.

Date & Time

Pick a date and a stretch of time that works for you. If you are planning this for a weekend, you might think about an afternoon party, perhaps 2 to 6, especially if you are including a lot of families with kids; for the evening, 4 to 8 or 5 to 9 is a good option. A four-hour time frame allows for a nice flow of people coming and going, and hopefully means that you will be able to spend some real time with each guest. Send an invitation — either paper or online — with all the details.

The Menu

Start by thinking about buffet-style food that can be served at room temperature — or, if served warm, can cool to room temperature and still be appealing. Don't feel the need to have an enormous menu — four or five offerings are just fine, but consider making more than one platter of each dish. You can swap out the picked-over plate as the party goes on, and switch in a fresh new plate. And of course, everything needs to be made ahead. You don't want a house full of people while you dash around the kitchen sauteing salmon or whipping cream. Think about color, things that make sense together on a plate, and make sure you have something from all the food groups. Don't forget to have an offering for those who are vegetarian and gluten-free, if you know some of your guests will be looking for these options.


Think in terms of bite-sized options, since all the food will be served at once. You may decide that all the food should be served as finger food, or at least in individually sized portions. Make a hot dip the day before, and heat it as guests arrive. Or, use your slow cooker to make savory meatballs. (You could even serve them and keep them warm in the slow cooker.) Old-school pigs in a blanket are always a safe bet. Make them ahead, freeze and heat in batches as your guests roll in.

See: Make-Ahead Appetizer Ideas

The Main Course

Choose a main course (or two) that can sit happily for a while, and not lose its stage presence or taste appeal as it cools, like a juicy pork loin or a serious muffuletta sandwich. Serve it in batches and replenish as needed, so that it doesn’t sit for too long.

Crowd-Pleasing Mains: Muffuletta

Salads & Sides

Salad is a host’s best friend, whether it's a mix of fresh greens, hearty vegetables, pasta or grains. Make more than just one — people are always happy to have a few varieties to choose from.

Get the Recipe: Spinach Salad with Goat Cheese and Walnuts

Vegetarian Options

Make sure you have one or two meatless choices, like a frittata, lasagna or quiche.

Passing It Along

If you want to hire some help (or if you have kids who are willing to pitch in), you also can think about passed hors d’oeuvres. This is my son, Charlie, making himself useful.

Potluck Option

You can also consider making it a potluck. You will probably lose some control over the menu, because even the most-organized host can’t always direct who brings what (and you don’t want to feel like you’re micromanaging your guests). If you do want to make it a potluck you might consider using a website like SignUp Genius or VolunteerSpot, which allows you to tell your guests what you need with some guidelines that are as specific or general as you wish. For instance you might put up three sign-up slots for side dishes and leave it at that, or you could put up a slot for a Vegetable Side Dish, one for a Grain Side Dish and one for a Green Salad, and let people know more concretely what is needed. But plan to provide a substantial number of food offerings on your own (people can get forgetful during the holidays!).

Go Sweet

You can have a dessert area, or you might want to just make it a dessert party, either afternoon (starting at 2-ish) or late night (8 to 11, for instance). This is easier to manage in terms of make-ahead-ability (yes, that’s a word). And if you choose to make this a potluck, you can assign specific items, or give people categories like Pies & Tarts, Cakes & Cupcakes, Cookies, Bar Cookies, Chocolate and Fruit Dessert.

Satisfying Sweets: Caramel Apple Cake

Make Lists

1: Lists of what to buy (and when — shop for nonperishables, including all drinks, as far in advance as you can).

2: Lists of tasks that need accomplishing — everything from buying and arranging flowers, to ironing linens, to setting up the bar, to figuring out where people will hang their coats, to stocking the bathroom with towels and soap, to buying and putting out candles. Plan out what can be made ahead, and especially what can be frozen.

3: A timeline for the day of: what needs to happen and what gets served when, so nothing gets lost (and name who is responsible for each item!).

If you’re not so clear about how much food to buy and serve, check out this helpful guide.

Get the Buffet Ready

Set out all the platters and serving utensils at least the night before. Use Post-Its or scraps of paper to label each platter with what it will hold, and put the serving utensils on top of each dish. This eliminates the last-minute scramble for the punch bowl, or the serving dish that’s way up on the top shelf. It also lets you see how you want to lay out the food on the buffet, or throughout the room. Don’t forget bowls for chips and nuts, and if you are serving things with toothpicks, like little meatballs or shrimp, remember small bowls for people to discard their used picks. Take a mental walk through your whole menu. 

Plates, Silverware & Glasses

Put out the glasses, plates, forks, knives (if necessary; if you can, stick to fork food only), napkins, etc. Don’t have enough of any one kind? That’s OK! There is a great deal of charm in mixing and matching the various items you own. Napkins in different colors actually look great together and bring colorful energy to the room. If you don't have enough, you can also rent all these items. Also, you absolutely should feel fine about using plastic and paper — whatever makes sense for the number of people you will be having and the amount of dishes you are willing to face the next day.   

The Bar

Set up the bar ahead of time. You’ll want to put out glasses and an ice bucket, plus a few small bowls that will hold things like citrus wedges and olives. Do not feel obligated to offer every beverage under the sun. For instance, Scotch, vodka, a Bloody Mary mix, and then red and white wines, along with sparkling cider and sparkling water, is a nice selection. You might consider making one large-batch cocktail, which always feels very festive, and storing it in big jugs in the fridge, refilling a pitcher on the bar as needed. Make sure you have a couple of nonalcoholic choices for the kids and for anyone who’s not indulging at the moment — that’s a very gracious thing to do. Don't have a real bar space, and running out of room? Clear off a bookshelf and make that the bar for the evening — it looks quite cool.

Color, Flowers & Candles

Pops of color are something to think about, if, like most of us, you’re not thinking about a full-on decorating theme. And while you can certainly get lavish with flowers, you can also buy some supermarket flowers and put them in low vases or containers and sprinkle them throughout the room, and they will look great. Color can come in the form of food as well, not just the dishes you choose, but also some beautiful ingredients: bowls of apples or pears or clementines or grapes; some winter squashes on the table, or a pile of bell peppers; a few small containers filled with cranberries. Candles bring light and also can add color. And of course pretty tablecloths or linens really make a table look great.

Feeling a Little Better?

Put one foot in front of the other, streamline (more is sometimes just more), ask for help, and do as much as humanly possible ahead of time. You can do this!