There are few things I enjoy more than a great dinner party.

I love the smells of roasting and baking filling the kitchen.  The murmur and laughter of fellowship. The fact that it means my house is virtually spotless (although some things may just be hidden in a closet). I love the adrenaline from that last one hour count down before guests arrive. You know the one that zips by at light speed.

I come from a family of people who are “given to hospitality”

as the scripture says, and the holiday season provides the opportunity for some of the best gatherings. I saw a quote that I love, “hospitality is when someone leaves your home feeling better about themselves.” I want guests to leave feeling that way and preferably carrying a to-go plate. Less for me to clean up.

Photo: Coretta J. Gray

While I may enjoy entertaining and have a business as an event planner, I know that a lot of people view it as a big ball of stress. In case you are feeling the pressure, here are a few of my practical tips:

1. Location, location, location.  Do a survey of your home from your guest’s point of view.  Do you have enough space for everyone at your dining table? If you don’t, do you have enough room for people to comfortably maneuver around extra tables and chairs?  Plan accordingly. People like to be where the action is. Usually that means the table with the host and best story tellers.  If you can’t get everyone around that table, do your best to get people as close as possible or spread out the “fun” guests, so it does not feel like there is a VIP area and the rest of us weren’t invited.

While you are checking from the guest’s point of view, also ensure there is plenty of paper, hand towels (and freshener) in the restroom; that you can see over the centerpieces; that guests can easily find the garbage can; that you have a first-aid kit handy and that there is a safe spot for overflow coats and purses. Don’t just throw them on the bed.  A lot of black coats look alike.

Photo: Coretta J. Gray

2. You will be judged on the food.  You’ve heard the jokes about checking to see if you trust the person making the potato salad. In many southern homes, the dressing (or stuffing), the macaroni and cheese, and the greens will also get you judged. Harshly. You already know this, so here is the thing– you do not have to personally cook everything. Even if cooking is your love language, focus on the dishes that are most important to you and supplement the rest with help from your guests or a restaurant.

Delegate, delegate.  That goes for the ice and drinks too.  You have plenty to do.  Just ensure your helpers know your head-count so there is plenty for everyone. And yes, it still counts if you put store bought food on your own serving plates.

You should be focused on making sure people leave your home feeling great. Not on being stuck in the kitchen the entire event.

3. Beware the company you keep. In an ideal world, you hand-pick each guest for the joy and laughter they will add to the event. But, this is the holidays and you don’t get to choose your family. Some people are required for the guest list because it is simply not worth the drama of leaving them off.

Don’t forget the plus ones in your head-count. You can’t invite a person and leave off their spouse or significant other.

Call or text guests with a reminder that you are looking forward to seeing them at the start time. Depending on your group, you may need to give people a time that is an hour earlier. There is nothing worse, as a guest, than being held hostage from the food while awaiting an arrival. I do not believe in that. Fix a full plate for the tardy person and let everyone else say grace and eat.

Don’t invite creepers. Even if they are family. Women are fed up.

Do invite the story tellers, class clowns and those who will dance even without music.

Photo: Coretta J. Gray

4. Let’s decorate! This is my favorite part so it has subsections.

I suggest you start by choosing an inspiration picture and decorating theme and adhere to it. Beware the Pinterest rabbit hole or you will be overwhelmed by ideas! I find having an inspiration picture helpful in making edits and quickly narrowing down options.

Using colored linens and candles makes a table feel dressed even when you have not done much to it. Lighting votive candles or piling fruit or ornaments in vases, are quick and easy looks. A tone-on-tone color scheme also has great visual impact while keeping it simple. If you want to get fancier, try nontraditional holiday colors like warm persimmon and plum or icy blue and white.

If you want fresh flowers my favorite go-to spot in a hurry is the Whole Foods floral department. Single flower floral arrangement are less labor intensive and can be simple enough to do yourself. Just prioritize your time and check your refrigerator space.  If the fridge is full of food, you are not going to have room to store flowers overnight.

Set your table to see how much space you are working with. A fully set table takes up decorating space so you will have less room to fill. If you are doing a buffet, use your napkins at each setting to anchor the look.

Shop  your cabinets and closets. I assure you that you have more at home than you realize. Serving trays, utensils, vessels, vases, plates, flatware, glasses.  Turns out my parents have some amber colored glasses that are currently being sold as “vintage” online.  Review your inventory.  Keep in mind the guiding parameters of your decorating theme and make your selections. You can totally mix and match.  If you need to fill in missing items at the last minute, don’t be afraid to mix high-end with affordable.  I’ve gotten some of my favorite party glasses from a dollar store and some of my favorite  decorating pieces from Target.

Use quality plastic or paper plates if you must.  And silverware. Now, I understand that this is not for everyone.  Purists like me prefer the real china.  This is often the one time of year people open the china cabinet.  But, there are incredible choices in paper, plastic, bamboo, recycled products that look fantastic and will save you so much time on  clean up.  That’s more time spent with your guests. Go for sturdy, plain plates and napkins without colors or patterns. They are more versatile.  Just keep in mind, plastic forks and knives don’t work well for cutting red meat.

5. Relax.  The most important thing you can do this holiday season is breathe and relax (and do your hair and makeup ahead of time).  If something unexpected occurs, keep it in perspective. Did anyone die?  Then you will survive it.  No event is perfect.  There will always be hiccups and happy accidents.  Roll with it and prioritize your focus on what is most important to you.

I hope these practical tips were helpful.  Share this guide and release someone else from their holiday entertaining stress!


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Coretta Gray
Owner and Lead Coordinator at Coretta's Elegant Events
Coretta Johnson Gray is an attorney, activist and entrepreneur. She spent 13 years as an officer on active duty in the Air Force JAG Corps.  She is now the owner and lead coordinator for her boutique event planning company, Coretta's Elegant Events, where she coordinates weddings and events nationwide.