When it comes to advice on entertaining, there’s no one better to turn to than the Barefoot Contessa herself. Ina Garten has built a career around cooking and entertaining at home, and her stress-free style is impressive and inviting at the same time. And while it’s true she has the advantage of a gorgeous house in the Hamptons and access to some of the best specialty food shops in the world, a lot of her entertaining advice is surprisingly relatable.
Before you plan your holiday party, read through these 13 holiday entertaining tips from Ina Garten herself. All of them will make your hosting duties feel infinitely more manageable. Above all, Garten’s MO is to stress less, mingle more and do as little cooking at the party as you possibly can. (And yes, store-bought is totally fine.)
1. Keep things simple so you don’t stress at the party
“Keep it really simple. People prefer simple food, and it’s easier to make,” Garten says on an episode of Barefoot Contessa. “If the hostess is stressed, everybody’s going to be stressed.” And nobody needs any extra stress over the holidays, amirite?
2. Steer clear of new-to-you recipes
“You’re better off making something that you know you can nail without too much stress than finding some recipe in a cookbook that you’ve never used before,” Garten says on an episode of Barefoot Contessa. It’s fine that you want to impress, but trying something totally new is risky. Add a few partyworthy dishes to your rotation so you have a few to choose from every time you host.
3. Plan your menu, & stay super-organized
“The key to staying stress-free (a seemingly impossible dream!) is to plan the menu really carefully,” Garten told Williams-Sonoma. “I make a list of everything I want to make, and all my guests’ preferences, and then just start crossing things off.”
4. Want a showstopping main? Go with slow-roasted pork
Forget holiday ham and Thanksgiving turkey. Garten loves serving a slow-roasted spiced pork, which you can make ahead of time and serve warm. “It’s great for a crowd, and people go crazy for it,” she says.
5. Make 2 or 3 dishes, & outsource the rest
Turns out sometimes store-bought is more than fine. “I usually say make two or three and buy the rest — or assemble the rest,” Garten says on an episode of Barefoot Contessa. Depending on what kind of party you’re throwing, it might be OK to ask guests to bring an appetizer or dessert. If not, hit up the grocery store for a cheese plate and some high-quality baked goods.
6. Cook as much as you can ahead of time
One of Garten’s cookbooks, Make It Ahead of Time, is filled entirely with recipes you can — you guessed it! — make ahead. If you can, try to only pick recipes that can be made entirely ahead of time. It’s fine if you have to heat a dish or add a finishing touch during the party, but you don’t want to spend all evening in the kitchen.
To keep things seamless, Garten cooks all her party dishes in advance, then puts a Post-it note on each one with last-minute cooking, heating or garnishing instructions. “The key is not to look at any recipes the hour before the party,” Garten tells Tasting Table. “By that point, everything should be either made or assembled, and you just consult the Post-it note for last steps.”
7. Have a few bowls of salted caramel nuts scattered around the room
“Make salted caramel nuts for your next holiday party and watch your guests go crazy!!” Ina posted a video of the nuts on her Instagram a few holiday seasons ago, and we totally understand the hype. “They’re crunchy, salty and sweet, and you can make them ahead. How much fun is that?”
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8. Set the mood with music
“Make sure there’s great music when people arrive,” Garten says on an episode of Barefoot Contessa.
What kind of music, exactly? “I love the series of CDs mixed by the French Hôtel Costes — they’re a combination of American, French, Moroccan music and they have a wonderful upbeat energy,” she told Williams-Sonoma. “During dinner, I like to play Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra quietly in the background, and then later, while we’re having coffee, I’ll play Cesária Évora, which gets everyone going again.”
9. Keep decorations minimal
“I actually keep holiday decorations to a minimum,” Garten tells Williams-Sonoma. “I love lots of candles at night and a few vases of seasonal flowers, but I’d rather spend my time making a delicious dinner for friends than decorating the chandeliers with garlands of evergreens that need to be vacuumed up the very next day.”
10. Flowers are always a good idea
“Flowers in the center of a table always anchor the setting,” Garten said in an Instagram post. She likes to combine dark flowers “with touches of bright green and pops of brighter orange to make the arrangement come alive. Even better – I do my flowers a day or two ahead so they can open for the day of the dinner!”
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Flowers in the center of a table always anchor the setting. Autumn flowers can be difficult because they tend to be dark colors – purples, burgundies, and dark oranges. I like to combine them with touches of bright green and pops of brighter orange to make the arrangement come alive. Even better – I do my flowers a day or two ahead so they can open for the day of the dinner! Have a happy, healthy, and delicious Thanksgiving!!
11. Forget complicated cocktails — drink wine
“If it’s complicated to make a cocktail, just have bottles of wine for people to help themselves when they arrive,” Garten says on an episode of Barefoot Contessa. If you want to kick things up a notch, make punch or another big-batch cocktail ahead of time so guests can help themselves throughout the party.
12. When you’re not hosting, don’t forget to bring a host gift
“My favorite gift to bring people, if I have time to cook, is my homemade salted caramels,” Garten told Williams-Sonoma. “If I don’t have time to make them, I’ll order a box of chocolate-covered salted caramels from Fran’s in Seattle to bring to the host. I want to be sure to be invited back!”
13. Remember that the holidays are about connecting with people, not about food
“Make sure that it’s really about the friends, not about the food,” Garten says on Barefoot Contessa. Those are strong words from a cooking and entertaining pro, and they ring true. Delicious food will make any holiday party better, but it’s so much more important to spend time with your guests than it is to fuss over every dish in hopes each one is perfect.