Holiday Entertaining Tips

'Tis the season for holiday gatherings. Whether you set your table formally or casually, these practical tips will help you make your get-togethers memorable.

The Right Party for You

The secret to a successful party is orchestrating the occasion so it doesn't stretch your resources, and you feel comfortable and in control. Here are some pointers:

Limit the size of your gathering so you can manage your party easily. If you live in a small house or apartment, consider several intimate parties rather than a large open house.

Plan festivities that fit your budget and schedule. If you don't have the time or money to prepare a full-blown, sit-down dinner or a lavish buffet, consider a single-course affair such as a soup supper, dessert party or appetizer buffet.

Choose decorations and tableware that fit your lifestyle. If you enjoy collecting elegant crystal and china or heirloom Christmas tableware, use your holiday gatherings to show off your treasures. But if informal is more your style, feel free to create a festive atmosphere with informal fabrics and china, or paper and plastic dinnerware.

Select your guest list carefully. Don't try to repay all your social obligations at once. Include a variety of ages and a good mix of listeners and talkers. Invite guests by mail or phone or, if everyone is online, you can send out "e-vites," or e-mail invitations. Make sure your written invitations include all the important information: date, time, place, type of party, address, phone number and an RSVP request. Include a map showing how to get to your home. For phone invitations, try to call everyone on the same day, so no one feels invited as an afterthought.

Planning the Menu

Be sure to choose a menu that pleases your guests, but doesn't keep you locked away in the kitchen.

Build menus around dishes you know how to make, and add one or two new recipes. Plan as many make-ahead dishes as you can. That way, you'll have time to enjoy your party. Combine foods with contrasting colors, textures and temperatures. Avoid dishes that are all the same color or all creamy or all crunchy. Plan a combination of hot and cold foods.

Be sure your home smells pleasant and inviting by avoiding foods with overpowering aromas. Also, simmer some or your favorite potpourri or some stick cinnamon and whole cloves in water to create an appealing holiday scent.

For guests with diet restrictions, include some foods to meet their needs. For example, offering fat-free angel cake with a fruit topper as an alternative to pumpkin pie will please anyone on a low-fat diet.

Convenience is no. 1 when you're deciding how to serve food. Choose the style of service that's best suited to the type of party and number of guests you're having. For example, a sit-down dinner is an elegant and relaxing way to serve four or six, while an informal buffet is a practical and easy way to serve 25.

For a smooth and efficient buffet, arrange the foods so guests can help themselves easily. Position the foods in a logical order: salad, rolls, main dish, vegetables, relishes and beverages. If you have the space, put out two sets of plates and so on and two dishes of each food, arranged so guests can serve themselves from either side of the table.

There are few hard and fast rules about centerpieces. You can use everything from a sophisticated floral arrangement to a simple collection of greenery, pine cones and cranberries. Or take a look at the knickknacks around your house. A favorite Victorian candy dish filled with tiny baubles may work perfectly. For sit-down dinners, remember to keep centerpieces low enough that guests easily can see each other.

When it comes to table coverings, use your imagination -- just about anything goes. For formal occasions, think about fine linen, lace or heirloom quilts. At informal get-togethers, turn to homey place mats, holiday runners, large printed handkerchiefs or even big squares of colorful paper.

Making Your Guests Feel Welcome

Set the stage for your party with little touches that add to the feeling of fun. Items such as luminarias lighting the front walk, a festive door wreath, or candles and flowers throughout the house go a long way toward creating an inviting atmosphere.

Use a simple garnish to add sparkle to each of the dishes you serve. Make sure the garnish contrasts in color and texture with the food. It should enhance the dish, not overpower it. Orange or lemon wedges or slices, fresh herb sprigs, edible flowers, radish roses, thin slices of carrot, sliced green onions, toasted nuts, toasted coconut, grated chocolate and dollops of whipped cream all work well as quick, attractive garnishes.

Treat guests to small favors that they can take home as mementos of the evening. A small mesh bag of nuts or candies, a colorful ornament, a frame for a wallet-size photo or a small decorative candle are all inexpensive, enchanting gifts.