Planning Your Small, Sophisticated Holiday Dinner Party

5 years ago

The holidays can be overwhelming with shopping, hand-writing holiday cards, making travel arrangements and seeing folks. Instead of picking that one date in December, smack in the middle of craziness, to host a holiday bash, why not throw a few smaller gatherings during the season?

Every time we leave a holiday party, we converse about the same topic. It was nice to see everyone, but we certainly did not get a chance to have real conversations, which are just as momentous as the cheese platter.

Once we moved into our new home, we vowed to change that. Instead of inviting everyone at one time, we would host smaller and more intimate dinner parties, where you would not only enjoy the food, but the company.

As I mentioned before, it can be hectic and challenging with all of the other tasks of the season. Fortunately, I have made the process so seamless, and I am going to share my secrets with you.


Keep the groups small, maybe two or three other couples. Mixing different groups of friends can be fun, but it is amusing to have some similar interests. Just imagine this scene: you invite four people who are regular rock-climbers, and two more who aren’t active at all, who prefer to read or take in the cinema in their spare time. You kind of see where this is going.


After attending a lovely dinner party, where the host asked if we had any food preferences, I decided to do the same. All I can say to you now, is DON’T! While it may seem like a wonderful gesture, it opens an entire can of worms. Instead, ask if anyone is allergic to anything. I always plan a dinner party with a mix of meat and vegetarian options.

I also try to make dishes that require very little prep. I keep the appetizers light, just small nibbles, usually a bowl of warm olives and a cheese plate or gougeres. All three are elegant without being overly filling. I like to keep the main entree simple. I tend to lean towards “peasant food,” such as hearty stews or meat pies, in the winter, roasted tenderloins or chicken in the spring and fall, and grilled meats or pizzas in the summer.

Have a few recipes on hand that you are exceptionally good at, that will have your guests leaving already wanting to eat that roast chicken again. My side dishes are heavily influenced by seasonal vegetables, fruits and grains. I tend to serve one of two desserts, either a pavlova or a flourless chocolate cake. Both can be made seasonal, by changing the fruit you use. Keep in mind that hosting a dinner party is not the time to try out new recipes. Trust me, I have been there, and the results were not pretty.

Sample Menu
  • White Cheddar Gougeres or Sage, Rye or Blue Cheese Log
  • Roasted Lemon Chicken
  • Harvest Salad with Persimmons
  • Roasted Butternut Squash with Tahini Dressing
  • Sautéed Kale with Pomegranate Seeds
  • Flour-less Chocolate Cake with Sugared Cranberries


It is fun to plan festive cocktails, both alcoholic and non-, to be served as guests arrive, even a glass of sparkling wine or a spritzer to celebrate the holidays. I make sure it is something that will complement the appetizer we serve. For the menu above we served Champagne for our drinking guests, and a rosemary spritzer for our non-drinking guests.

When your guests ask what they can contribute to the menu, ask them to bring a bottle of wine to be served during dinner.


We are minimalists, and our dining table reflects this. We decorate it with simple tealight candles, and a seasonal floral arrangement. I like to use small pumpkins scattered around the table in the fall. Winter may find miniature fir or rosemary trees, while spring and summer calls for small arrangements of seasonal flowers. Always use white or beige dinner and salad plates as they makes all food look stunning.

Make dessert time more fun by using mismatched plates, and splurge on some great cloth napkins. I have assorted designs during the year, and an assortment of plaids for the holidays.

Your setting can go from casual to elegant by merely changing the type of wine glass you use. Stemmed wine glasses are more elegant, stemless more casual. Always have water glasses at each place setting, as well as two pitchers of water, one for each end of the table. I add slices of lemon or fresh cranberries to the water to jazz it up.


Always have some music playing in the background, but make sure that it is low enough that you can still carry on a conversation. A jazzy holiday mix is perfect for this time of the year. I like to set up the appetizers and cocktails away from the dining area. We have a small island in the kitchen that works perfectly, and it makes sense to have them there, because people gravitate to the kitchen anyway.

The most valuable thing to remember is to breathe, relax and enjoy yourself. Everything else will fall into place gracefully.

This post is part of BlogHer's Holiday Parties editorial series, made possible by Cracker Barrel.

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