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Party planning 101
Tips for holiday entertaining from those who’ve been there.

By Alexandra Fluegel
Photography by Michael Buck

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – right?

u’ve ever planned a holiday party, you know that between RSVPs and hors d’oeuvres, things can get a little less than cheery. Let’s be honest, we can’t all be blessed with the natural ability to dress up a room, and trolling Pinterest is only fun for so long before you start to get frustrated (“who has the time to do this?!?!”).

Let us help take some of the guesswork out of your party planning. We’ve collected tips from local event planners, hosts with the most and all-around party people to get you on the path to having the best holiday party ever.

Plan, plan, plan
The key to throwing a successful party (while keeping your sanity) is to plan ahead.

“Don’t wait until the last minute,” said Jennifer Behrens, assistant catering manager for Martha’s Vineyard Catering.

Whether you’re planning an intimate dinner for close friends or a cocktail party for your office, organizing the details is priority No. 1.

“I’m a big list maker,” said Cathy Holbrook, executive director of St. Cecilia Music Center, who plans a small, annual holiday dinner party. “Putting the who, what, when and where down on paper gives you something to refer to as plans come together.”


Jaye Beeler, cookbook author and former food editor for The Grand Rapids Press, puts finishing touches on her dining room table.

Giving yourself deadlines is a great way to make sure you’re not running around on the day of the party. Things to have done a month in advance are sending out invites, securing your location if you’re not having it in your home, and drafting a menu.

Once you know what food you’ll be serving, head to the store.

“I’m not someone who wants to run to the store at the last minute,” Holbrook said. She makes sure she has every ingredient she’ll need in the house at least a couple of days beforehand and always buys more than she needs. “You’ll end up with leftovers, and that’s OK.”

No-nonsense nosh
Does the idea of preparing the food for all of your guests make you want to take a holiday vacation? Fear not. For smaller parties, asking attendees to bring a dish to pass isn’t a party faux-pas; it’s actually a great way to get your guests involved.

“People love to bring things; they want to be a part of the event,” said local author Jaye Beeler, who hosts great get-togethers all year round. She suggests giving guests the task of bringing a favorite Michigan-made cheese as one way to not only lighten the host’s workload but also to help create a conversation starter.

“To help the guests choose, tell them to find something old, something new, something goat and something blue. People really get into the hunt, regaling the others with their search and the fun that was had — normally, there’s a journey involved.”

Behrens adds that family-style meals are gaining in popularity, so instead of worrying about 20 different appetizers, focus on creating a few delicious dishes everyone can dig into together.

“People will always love cheese and crackers, but giving them other options that are a break from the norm are a great way to make it a memorable event,” she said.

Beeler said one of the most memorable meals she had as a party attendee was a midnight breakfast. “It was a midnight southern brunch. There were biscuits and gravy, waffles, fresh fruit, cheese grits, and it was so different that it created a kind of excitement.”

Go local
Serving locally sourced food and drinks is another sure way to get guests engaged and talking, even if they weren’t involved in bringing the goods. “Everyone wants things from local farms, and in the winter in Michigan, that can be challenging,” said Behrens.

Michigan beer, wine and cheeses are easy to find any time of year, and Beeler also suggested harvest-themed options. “Think hibernation foods,” she said. “Go for dairy, pastured meats, beans, collards and root vegetables.”

Your décor also can incorporate finds from local artisans and greenery or floral arrangements. There’s no shortage of trees and wreaths right now, and it doesn’t take much to spruce up a room — no pun intended.

Cranberries can be used to make tarts and as garnishes for practically anything and as a no-fuss way to add a bit of holiday color. Adding them to a clear vase creates a classic centerpiece or place the berries in small dishes at each table setting and use them as anchors for name cards.

Set the tone
One of your most important jobs as a host is to create a fun, comfortable environment for your guests. This involves everything from lighting and music to making proper introductions.

“Inviting a great group of people is key,” said Cynthia Hagedorn, executive director of Square Peg events.

She suggests mixing in as many generations, neighborhoods, job descriptions and incomes as you can. “Having a diverse group really adds something,” she said, but noted it’s important for the host to make personal introductions once everyone arrives.

“Get people beyond the typical ‘so what do you do?’ Try to point out similar interests, connections, and even go to their personal side. Talking about their family or where they’re from immediately makes people more comfortable.”

Lighting is something that can easily be overlooked but can add a major wow-factor to any gathering. Beeler suggests using a variety of lighting sources to create an intimate yet glamorous glow.

“Use candles, put lights on the piano, lights on the mantle — think of the stars and being outside,” she said.

Votives can be used to achieve a playful, overall glow, while larger items like candelabras and rope lights can be used to draw attention to other décor, like a tree or staircase.

Candles also can be used to create the scent of the holidays. Keep your eyes out for fragrant ones that smell like pine or gingerbread.

And if you have a fireplace, use it.

“Keep the fire going. It smells so wonderful, and the crackling … just adds another layer of the holiday vibe.”

Have fun
If there’s a golden rule for a party host, it’s that if you’re not having fun, chances are your guests aren’t either. In addition to thoughtful planning, giving guests something to do is a good bet. People enjoy playing an active role at a fun event, so don’t be afraid to ask a few special friends to join your “hospitality team.” Ask those you trust to help pour drinks, keep up with dirty plates and make sure the music never stops.

Games may seem like child’s play, but for smaller gatherings, they can be the perfect way to get everyone relaxed and having a great time. Try things that help guests get to know one another like Two Truths, One Lie, a game that asks players to write down two things about themselves that are true and one that’s false; it’s up to the rest of the group to decide which is which.

Something special
A good host will make partygoers feel special long before they arrive. “I love DIY invitations,” Beeler said. “They’re something wonderful to discover in the mailbox amongst the junk mail, catalogs and bills.”

She suggests repurposing children’s artwork or using plain cardstock and affixing cut-out stars, snowflakes and other symbols of winter. Personalizing invites is a great way to make your party stand out from the crowd. Adding personalized notes or going the whole nine yards and creating unique invitations for each person are two ways to get your invite to the top of the pile.

After the champagne’s been sipped and the music dies down, it’s important to make guests feel like they made your night.

“Being thankful for every person who came is the mark of a wonderful party; that’s what sets someone apart,” said Hagedorn. Consider take-home gifts like holiday ornaments or wrapped desserts for a midnight snack. Sending your guests away with something can give them a good feeling that lasts all season long. GR

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