Advice and Tips on Hosting Your First Holiday Dinner

Hosting a holiday meal is a special chance to extend hospitality to those you love most. However — especially if it’s your first time — it can also be pretty stressful. Even for the most casual affairs, there is a lot of planning and prepping to accomplish. After all, a holiday meal isn’t just any dinner party! It’s an extra-special occasion with its own traditions and rituals attached.

Because every family’s approach to the holidays is unique, there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to host. This is your moment to put your own mark on the day, weaving together cultural influences and customs that are significant to you and yours. You know, just because your great aunt always made a cheese ball doesn’t mean you have to!

That said, here are a few things to keep in mind as you start planning your hosting duties:

The Food

For many of us, the food is the highlight of the holidays, but also the source of the most stress. About a week before the gathering, set some time aside to sit down and make a game plan, scheduling when you’ll shop, prep, and cook each component of the meal. This mindful practice will help you identify what you can make ahead, and which elements you might be able to outsource or assign to another guest (more on that in a sec).

Serving Ware

During any regular meal, you might need a few plates and a big bowl for a pasta dish or a platter for saucy chicken. During holiday meals, which are generally served family-style, you will need way more dishes for serving than you might imagine, including glassware, ladles and tongs, and flatware.

 A few weeks ahead of time, do a quick inventory of what you’ve actually got on hand. Make a list of what you need, and see if you can borrow anything from neighbors or friends (after all, do you really want six serving bowls cluttering up your cabinets during the rest of the year?). Or, if you’d like to invest in more serving ware, head to your favorite shop, thrift, or vintage store, to pick up what you need.

In general, you should plan on using:

  • 2 plates per guest at dinner: one for salad, one for the sides and mains
  • 1 dinner fork, 1 butter knife, and 1 steak knife (if serving meat) per guest, 1 to 2 forks/spoons per guest for dessert and coffee/tea after the meal
  • 2 napkins, cloth or disposable, per guest
  • 1 water glass, 1 wine glass, and 1 coffee mug per guest (and cocktail glasses, if needed)
  • 1 bowl or platter and 1 serving utensil per dish, including smaller bowls for cranberry sauce and a gravy boat
  • 1 set of salt and pepper shakers per every 6 guests
  • Plenty of food storage containers for leftovers

A note on formality: If you have a big matching set of dishes, perhaps handed down from an older generation, a holiday meal is the perfect time to use them. However if you don’t, mixing and matching dishes is fine, and can make for a charming, unfussy look.

Setting the Vibe

If you love a good tablescape, holiday meals are a perfect excuse to break out the tapered candles and splurge on flower arrangements. Just remember not to clutter up the table too much, as you’ll need space for all of the food! Also, be careful with candle placement if there are kids attending.

In some cases, vibey lighting and music might be welcome; in others, perhaps not. You know your family best!

Bonus Hosting Tips

Many hosting rules are outdated, but a few are pretty timeless!

  • Take guests’ coats and wraps: Have a designated spot to put everyone’s coats so they don’t stand around holding them or throwing them on the couch.
  • Stock the bathroom: The last thing anyone wants is to have to ask for more toilet paper! Make sure the loo has ample provisions, like TP, hand soap, and towels.
  • Have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages: You never know when or why a guest might be choosing not to imbibe. Make sure the fridge is stocked with fun zero-proof beverages, like mineral water, kombucha, iced tea, and sparkling cider.
  • Accept contributions: Hosting is a heroic task and people will offer to help. Take them up on it! Be honest about what you need (extra ice, desserts, and wine are always big ones) and have no shame about accepting the assist.

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