Back to all from the test kitchen

Grace's Holiday Entertaining Guide

Entertain in style during the holidays

    Photo by Grace Parisi

    We reserve special gratitude for those who host, especially around the holidays. The brave souls without whom our annual banquets, cocktail soirées, and cookie parties would not be possible, who look upon the chaos of holiday festivity and think, “Yes, I want that in my home.”

    By way of thanks, Culinary Director (and seasoned hostess) Grace Parisi offers up her best tips and tricks to plan and host the feast of your dreams — without resigning you to the kitchen all night. To make it even easier, we’ve drawn up some printable planning tools that you can use to keep track of your ideas, plans, and tasks. 

    Whether you drew the short straw or righteously volunteered, whether you’re feeding four or a crowd of 20, whether you’re excited or full of dread— we’ve got you.

    The bottom line: No matter the guest count, think ahead. Even a rough game plan will minimize both mess and stress.


    • Confirm your guest list and inquire about any allergies or dietary restrictions — a great celebration is one that reasonably accommodates all in attendance. You don’t have to make a tofu turkey! A meat-free soup and more than one vegetable side (please!) will suffice. Feel free to use our printable Guest List Template below:

    Click on the images to save and print the files.

    • Pick menu items that match your skills, stick to a budget, and ensure your needed ingredients are available locally. Avoid overambition and be honest about your time commitments! If you work 13 hours a day, making four pies might be idealistic. However, if you want to make four pies, pivot and plan in advance (see below). Don’t shy away from a challenge if you can handle it, and try out our printable Menu Plan Template (below):
    • Plan your menu at least a few weeks ahead of time to source in-demand ingredients.


    Once your menu is finalized, outline your tasks for the days leading up to the event and create a schedule. Grace recommends organizing your to-do items by how far in advance you can prepare them. To make it easier, we’ve condensed this list into a handy printable cheat sheet and created a template where you can outline your own schedule:

    • 1 Month Ahead:

    Reserve any specialty items that will be in high demand. Order all seafood boxes, turkeys, or roasts well in advance. Stock up on non-perishable items that might be less readily available the closer you get to the day.

    • 4-7 Days Ahead:

    Certain menu items can be made ahead and frozen. Fish cakes or crab cakes can be assembled and even breaded — you don’t even need to thaw them before frying. Soup stock keeps in the freezer for weeks, as do unbaked lasagnas, pie doughs, and compound butter.

    If you have the willpower, make your cookies ahead of time. They’ll keep (if you can leave them alone) at room temperature for two weeks. And certain dips, like our elegant salmon rillettes, actually take on more flavor if you make them several days in advance.

    • 1-2 Days Ahead:

    Good flavor takes time to build. Make sure to marinate anything that needs it and to move frozen items to the fridge to thaw. Additionally, any dishes with a long cook or cure time can be prepared now. If you’re looking for a show-stopping appetizer or Christmas breakfast, gravlax is simple and delicious, and we’ve got a perfect recipe right here.

    Take care of essential tasks that might slip your mind on the big day. Prepare condiments and toppings, toast nuts for salad, make croutons and vinaigrettes, and wash and dry greens. Get prep out of the way, too. Chop roasting vegetables and refrigerate. Mashed potatoes are better fresh, but a gratin can be assembled ahead of time and baked day of, as can cakes and pies. Pro tip: fruit pies will keep at room temperature for a day or so, which will save you fridge space. Just give them a few minutes in a warm oven before dessert.

    Chill wine and beverages. As anybody in a colder climate will know, you can save on fridge space by leaving unopened beverages outdoors. Just make sure to monitor for temperature shifts and, well, critters.

    Lastly, clean common spaces and pull linens, serving utensils, and tableware the night before. This will save you precious cooking time.

    • The Big Day:

    Set the table, but we recommend enlisting another adult to set the table (no fumblefingers, please). Assemble hors d'oeuvre platters and charcuterie boards and refrigerate.

    Roast large cuts of meat early enough to allow about an hour to rest and use that time to rewarm other items. Save time by cooking your sides early in the day and reheat them then. Keep track of the temperatures the different dishes require to bake, as you may not be able to cook them at the same time. To rewarm, tent your dishes loosely with tin foil and heat at 300°F for 20 to 30 minutes depending on size.


    Photo by Kelsey Chance.

    Our ambitious readers may recoil at this piece of advice, but there’s no shame in delegating. In fact, the best way to feed a crowd is to pot-luck it. Grace recommends assigning specific dishes to avoid repeats and making sure to include the number of servings to prepare. She also advises that you have a thank-you gift handy for any helpers.

    Honestly, it takes a lot more than cooking to pull off a holiday celebration. Enlist partners and older kids for vegetable prep, last-minute grocery runs, and cleaning. This is a team effort! As for clean-up, we think it’s perfectly appropriate to ask guests to pitch in. Defer to your instincts on this one, but you are feeding everyone! Sending them home with lots of leftovers is not a bad way to say “Thanks for helping”.


    Maple Cider Baked Salmon with Sweet Potatoes.

    • For hors d’oeuvres, use store-bought ready-made dips, spreads, cheeses, and crackers. Because this is a special occasion, we’d recommend decanting them into nicer bowls or platters (but you do you).
    • Stick to wine and beer for beverages. For added convenience, buy them chilled.
    • Simple, fresh salads make a light and lovely first course. Buy pre-washed greens, shredded brussels sprouts, or kale and top with toasted nuts, dried cranberries, and a simple dressing of lemon juice, a hint of minced garlic, and olive oil.
    • For the main course, we recommend a simple one-pan dinner that combines fish, veggies, and starch. Try this or this.
    • For dessert, keep it simple. Affogatos are delicious and easy to assemble. Just pour a shot of espresso over a scoop of vanilla ice cream and serve with imported butter cookies or shortbread. For a homemade feel, shave some dark chocolate on top.


    • Opt for high-yield, low-effort recipes that can either be prepared ahead or in stages. Make a big pot of seafood stew (cioppino), bisque, seafood lasagna, or seafood pasta.
    • Prepare cocktail bases or punches ahead of time and serve them with mixers at cocktail hour. We’re talking sangria, Moscow mules, or margaritas.
    • Go for big-batch casserole desserts like tiramisu, trifles, cobblers, crisps, crumbles, or bread pudding. All are delicious, comforting, and holiday appropriate.


    Food containers by S'well.

    After so much gluttony, it’s a relief to send your guests home with leftovers. Avoid the hassle of chasing down your containers afterward by buying extra or asking guests to bring their own. We lean towards the latter: nobody needs the additional clutter, and the planet certainly doesn’t need the extra plastic.