Expert Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Entertaining

Holiday get-togethers should be fun, not frantic. Entertaining expert Rosanna Bowles, founder of Rosanna, Inc., gives her tips for having your Christmas party and enjoying it, too.


As each new season begins, have in the back of your mind at least one go-to meal -- something that's not terribly expensive, easy to pull together, and foolproof. One example: pasta, a great salad, bread, a nice bottle of wine, and ice cream for dessert. Armed with that plan, you're halfway to a dinner party. Then, just make a phone call. You'll be surprised -- people are delighted by an impromptu invitation.

Here's how to prep before the first guest arrives.

Ready a Serving Kit

Pull together your favorite serving pieces and utensils and place them in a special spot for a stress-free holiday. Rosanna recommends you gather:

-- An oval serving tray

-- A couple 8-inch bowls for side dishes

-- A large bowl for salad

-- A low pasta bowl

-- A few platters for cookies

Prepare a Hostess Kit

Gather all the little tools a good hostess needs before you've got a table full of guests waiting for you to open the wine. Include matches or a lighter, a candle snuffer, a corkscrew, a wine bottle collar, etc. Put it all in a lidded box or basket that's pretty enough to leave out during your party.

Prep the Restrooms

Give the restroom your guests will use a little preparty TLC. After a thorough cleaning, make sure it's stocked with plenty of toilet and facial tissue. Then lay out a fresh hand towel, great-smelling hand soap, a scented candle or two, and a bunch of flowers. A small bowl of packaged mints is a nice touch, too.

The table can be the centerpiece of conversation -- make yours special (without the stress) with simple embellishments.

Use Red Carnations as Centerpieces

Stumped for a holiday centerpiece? Don't be. Red carnations are the answer. They're cheap, festive for Christmas, and practically foolproof. Buy two or three dozen at the grocery store, cut the stems short, and bunch a few together in sugar bowls placed all around the dinner table. Or mass up 24 of them in a vase. They're inexpensive and last longer than roses. Just remember to change the water every couple of days and give the stems a fresh cut.

Go with Ribbon

For an easy, inexpensive table decoration, use spools of ribbon. Good-quality, wide satin ribbon can transform even a white tablecloth and white dishes into something festive and fun. Run several strands down the center of the table, tie ribbons around napkins or glass cylinders full of flowers, or make simple bows for the backs of chairs.

Rosanna's Tip: When the party is over, iron the ribbon and roll the pieces back onto a spool so you can reuse them.

Details can make the scene -- prep a pretty party with these basics.

Tablecloth Care

Hate ironing tablecloths? Here's how to cut the job in half:

-- Wash your tablecloth

-- Machine-dry it for only about five minutes

-- Take it out while it's still damp and hang it over the shower rod

-- Pull the edges of the cloth tight to smooth out the wrinkles and let it air dry

-- Store it folded over a plastic or wooden hanger (not wire, which will leave a crease)

Selecting Glasses

Of the dozens of different styles of glasses out there, all you really need are red wine and water glasses. Stems are optional on the water glasses, but they should be something a little dressier than your everyday glasses. Use the wine glasses for both white and red wine; use water glasses to serve iced tea, milk, or even tall mixed drinks. Make sure you try them in person before you buy. A glass should feel good in your hand and on your lip. The thinner the glass the better -- but not so flimsy that it will break easily or won't survive the dishwasher.

Rosanna's Tip: Crate and Barrel has the best, most affordable selection of glasses.

With a home prepped for a party and the table settings figured out, there are only a few more things to check off your planning list.

Add Scent with Winter Greenery

Fresh winter greenery makes your house look and smell like it's ready for Christmas, but you don't have to have an elaborate garland or expensive wreath to get the effect. Just clip small branches from the back of your Christmas tree, snag them from your yard, or scoop them up off the ground where you buy your tree (ask first, of course). Crush the cut ends with a hammer so they'll take in water better; stand the branches up in sturdy, high-sided vases; and set them out all around the house. They'll scent the air and delight your guests -- all for a fraction of what fresh flowers cost.

Rosanna's Tip: Try the same idea in spring with flowering branches, in summer with hosta leaves, and in fall with turning leaves.

Set the Scene

Before the first guest arrives, dim the overhead lights, light a few candles, and put on some music. (Not only will it make everybody -- hostess included -- feel more relaxed and festive, but low light masks a less-than-perfectly clean house.) Jazz, classical, opera, and instrumental movie soundtracks are great choices for dinner music. Or tune into Internet radio sites such as pandora.com or stereomood.com, which will play an evening's worth of just about any kind of music you want, and you won't have to worry about changing CDs.


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