9 tips for a fabulous, cost-effective holiday party

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Ah, holiday parties. ‘Tis the season, and nobody wants to be a Grinch, but hosting-phobia and budgetary constraints often give us pause when planning seasonal shindigs. Arlene Stewart, private chef and runner-up on the chef competition show Chopped wants to remind you that you are not alone.

“People are afraid of parties because they fear the whole organizational side, and they fear overspending,” the owner of the eponymous Arlene Stewart & Co. catering company in New York City said, “so just make it simple. Keep your numbers small and don’t do anything that will overwhelm either you or your budget. Also, I suggest sticking to a theme for your party; it will help keep you focused.”

It figures that she would know a thing or two about throwing a great bash. Here are a few more of  Stewart’s favorite tips.

How Many and How Much? “Before you get started, think it through and be honest. What kind of party are you truly up for? Are you planning on 10 people, or 20, or more? Think realistically about what you and your wallet can handle and still have a good time.” Getting a headcount and putting a cap on a budget are the first steps.

Plan Ahead. “Ideally, the only thing you should have to do right before your guests arrive is fill an ice bucket and light candles; plan ahead of time as much possible,” Chef Arlene told theGrio. Anyone who has ever run around like a maniac searching for things during a party knows that this step is key. Get your extra chairs out of storage, make sure that you have enough bowls and platters for each of your dishes, enough serving utensils, the right amount of plates, glasses, and cutlery; also, check that your tablecloth or table runner are clean and ready to go. “This is also the phase where making a detailed list will be your saving grace. Be sure that you write down all of your recipe ingredients and spices, the right amount of beverages, ice, etc. Writing it down also helps you stay within your budget because you should only be buying from that list. No distractions.”

Be Preppy. Once you get all of your items home, figure out what prep work you can do a day or so in advance. “If you need to season your meat, do that the night before. If you have time to chop up garlic, onions, or any vegetables you need for your recipes, you can do that and store them in the fridge. That way you will not be overwhelmed on the big day.”

Ask for Help. “People, women in particular, seem to think we have to be superwomen and do everything on our own. Wrong!” Stewart said. “If friends offer to help you do anything, whether it’s bringing a dish, passing  around appetizers, or helping clean up, just say yes.” Even a small helping hand can make a difference. Speaking of small helping hands… got kids? Get them to help. “Even the youngest child can bring some napkins to the table, pass out silverware, or take people’s coats. It’s a good lesson for them too; it shows them how to be a good host!”

Make it Pretty. “I’m all about making things beautiful, but it’s really in how we present things, and it doesn’t have to be expensive,” the catering expert said. “When you see sales, stock up on white platters and bowls, or clear glass, which go with everything.  Even your local discount chains can have great deals on plain tablecloths, glasses, candles or small cocktail-size plates. Paper is fine in a pinch, but the real thing makes guests feel special, like you’ve gone all out. [N]ot only do you save money [in the long run], you’re also being a little greener.” Stewart also likes decorating with empty bowls or jars filled with lemons, limes, or pine cones. Rosemary sprigs and other herbs make nice touches in small vases. Old glass containers and jelly jars can make whimsical, inexpensive vases.

Music, Maestro.  “Get your playlists ready. Music is such an important part of a party. It really sets a tone,” Stewart stressed. “Try to keep it on the mellow side at the start, then built it up for later in the evening if you want to get people on their feet.” She emphasized the importance of making the lists ahead of time so that you can sit back and enjoy them with your guests, instead of jumping up every few minutes to change the music.

Clean as You Go. “It’s a lesson I learned in my grandmother’s kitchen in Trinidad that I brought with me to my work in New York restaurants, as a private chef, and at home, and it’s the best tip ever. Honestly, it doesn’t take much to do a quick wash of a bowl or spoon, or put away a few ingredients, but it will be a big deal if you wait,” Stewart warned. Indeed, there are few more horrible post-party moments than walking into a kitchen piled with dirty pots and dishes. “Make sure your counter tops are clear and that your sink is clean and ready to go. Also, have garbage and recycling bags on hand.”