The invites have been sent and the guest list set—your holiday dinner party is happening. And the last thing you should do during the most wonderful time of the year is lose your head over the event’s planning. We aim to make dinner fun rather than flawless; but why not aim for both if you can manage it?
For advice on hosting the best, we turn to Anna Watson Carl, a master of dinnertime merrymaking and author of the newly-released cookbook The Yellow Table. Watson’s first (and self-published!) title is all about mastering the art of entertaining without losing sight of the reason we host—to foster conversation and community while enjoying good food. Below, Watson shares must-know tips for hosting a successful dinner party from The Yellow Table along with exclusive ideas for the holidays. Oh, and she also offers two party-perfect apps to add to your holiday menu, stat.
Party Advice from Anna Watson Carl
Be festive. During the holidays, I love pulling in seasonal elements for table decor. Pine boughs or holly are pretty on buffets, and on the table—in lieu of flowers—I fill jars with fresh cranberries and votive candles. I also like tying rosemary sprigs with twine onto rolled napkins.
Use place cards. It may seem formal, but I actually like to decide in advance where people sit, and create little name cards. I find that the conversation flows better when there’s some intention about who sits where, and who you think would enjoy talking. New relationships are formed this way, and it avoids old friends sitting at one end of the table, while all the newbies sit awkwardly at the other end.
Host small. Around the holidays, there are so many cocktail parties. I like to mix it up and throw an intimate dinner party instead with just eight to ten people and serve a cozy main course like spinach turkey lasagna or lamb tagine and some light sides. It’s nice to share a meal over conversation (rather than snacking on pigs in a blanket all night!). Sometimes I’ll make it a storytelling dinner party, where I pick a theme (like “travel” or “firsts” or “bad dates”) and everyone has to come prepared to share a 3-5 min story on that topic. Those are a blast.
Keep it simple. There may be ten fabulous new recipes you are dying to try, but a dinner party is not the time to try them all. Feel free to try one new thing, but keep the other dishes no-brainers so you know exactly how they’ll turn out.
Go shopping. There is no shame in buying a few things already made. If you’re making the main course, pick up a dessert from a bakery, orr assemble a cheese platter instead of making hors d’oeuvres. Enjoying your guests is the goal, and they would rather be with you than have you stuck in the kitchen all night.
Keep water on the table. I fill old milk bottles and glass carafes (no need for them to match) and keep them on the table during a dinner party so I don’t have to keep hopping up and down to refill water glasses. Vintage bottles are beautiful, but almost anything will do—you can even use recycled wine bottles.
Put your menu on display. I have a chalkboard hanging in the kitchen that I write the menu on, but sometimes it’s fun to have hand-written menu cards at everyone’s place setting.
Set the ambiance. Light some candles, dim the lamps (which helps disguise those areas you didn’t have time to dust), and have a great playlist going when guests arrive. I’m a sucker for jazz—Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Diana Krall, and St. Germain are all favorites of mine for dinner parties.
Relax. Keep a bottle of bubbly in the fridge and have a glass before guests arrive. Take a deep breath and remember to have fun—otherwise, why bother hosting?
Smoked Salmon “Tartare”
Baked Spinach and Artichoke Dip