Even the most seasoned party pros can get sideswiped by entertaining at home, particularly with family and kids providing their unique ability to annoy. So I’m offering these tids and bits with humility, in hopes of saving just one host or hostess a modicum of aggravation.
1. Pace them. Low-alcohol holiday punches are a great way to kick things off, and keep the blowhards at bay—at least for a while. I mix champers with an equal aggregate of sparkling water and juices. A great trick is to buy quarts of good sorbet, freeze the hell out of it (if you have two freezers, turn up one to the max) and use it instead of ice. Keep the bottles chilled right at the station and keep freshening it up. [More punch recipes are here. —Ed.]
2. Feed them early and often. That old idea of saving up an appetite for supper is hell for hosts. Hungry guests grump while waiting, then race through the meal, turning into big, bloated, sleepy cushions that never leave the sofa. Pass foods like crazy. Have a hot food station for when guests arrive. Seafood bisque is good and filling. Sometimes I buy Swedish meatballs at the deli, doctor the sauce, and load up the chafing dish. Kids love to stick their fingers in the Sterno. Everyone’s happy.
3. Make a playroom. Even if you’re only expecting one child, set one room aside where roughhousing, yelling, and candy are encouraged. Balloons send the subliminal message to the young (and young at heart; I always hit the kids room for a break from the boring adults) that this is their spot. Colored light bulbs make a huge impact. Have mini sodas in a giant, brightly colored plastic bin with bananas, apples, and grapes. Kids eat fruit if it’s presented in a fun way. Also try fruit skewers in a watermelon—fools them every time. Have a bunch of toys, but only bring one or two out at a time. Put tons of pillows and blankets on the floor after dinner, or better still, a tent, and if you’re lucky, they’ll fall asleep watching Finding Nemo for the 30th time.
4. Pay teenagers to pass. This is my trick for turning the sullen and angry into cheap labor. Give them a fiver and tell them there’s more coming if they help you. Inevitably, they all conk out, but one or two eager beavers always emerge, and you can ride those ponies all night long. But watch for disapproving parents if, say, you convince some 15 year-old to tend the bar.
5. Think of your guests like livestock. Herd them from space to space. Everyone has one room that never gets used; make that a dessert and coffee station and save yourself the headache of passing. My father always said serving coffee was for suckers—the people that want it will find the pot. Also, to prevent the herd from crowding around the bar, why not set up three to four mini bars all around with glasses, opened wine, beer, and soda? (Throw in vodka if you’re up to it.)
6. Cool it. Monitor your home temperature. If you like it at 70 degrees, then it should be at 65 before people arrive. Once it gets hot, what with the chestnuts roasting and all, it’s hard to go back, but try opening all the windows just an inch or two rather than one swung wide open. And should you find your kitchen a hot, smoky mess, remember that God invented air conditioners for a reason; they work wonders in the winter.
7. Make music. The best parties are when everyone dances at the end. I always have a bunch of maracas and party hats on hand but hidden, if the mood presents itself. Conversely, setting up a dance floor in advance always deters dancing for some reason.
8. Let the dishes stand. I can’t stand it when do-gooders insist on taking to my kitchen to wash every fork in sight. I’d rather people have fun, and the sight of dish washing always makes people feel like it’s time to go. I take the two biggest, greasiest pots, load them up with water and soap, and tell everyone to get out of my kitchen—my priceless pots are soaking.
9. Who let the dogs out? You did. Let the dogs be part of the party and put Aunt Jane upstairs with the coats if she doesn’t like them.
10. Hide the goods. My mother squirrels away all the best cookies in the garage. That way late at night there’s still fresh-looking trays to come out, and if not, they’re all yours for the day after.
Hope this helps and everyone has a great time. But then, of course, they always want to come back.