We all have a friend who makes entertaining seem absolutely effortless. We'd love to hate her, but then we wouldn't get invited to her parties. And these are can't-miss events: From the canapés and cocktails to the show-stopping centerpiece, no detail is spared for an unforgettable evening.
If you've been tapped to host this year's Christmas dinner or New Year's Eve cocktail party, you've already been given the best gift of the holiday season -- the chance to prove your martini-mixing, flower-arranging and chicken-roasting talents. But you may be a little rusty. Say the last time you entertained was that Academy Awards party when Jodie Foster won the Oscar for Best Actress. Or, you might be feeling the pinch of a down economy. Either way, you could use some advice from Clinton Kelly, host of TLC's "What Not to Wear" and author of "Freakin' Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate, and Generally Be Better than Everyone Else."
With his biting wit and practical recommendations, Clinton dismisses the notion that entertaining is an impossible feat. Follow his 10 tips, and people won't be dreaming of a white Christmas -- they'll be dreaming of an invitation to your holiday party.
10: Be Mindful of Space
You want your party guests to mingle, but you don't want them literally rubbing elbows. This isn't your fifth-grade birthday party, so you don't have to invite the whole class.
In "Freakin' Fabulous," Clinton proposes a formula to determine the perfect number of guests for a cocktail party. Divide the square footage of your home by five (the approximate number of feet each guest needs in personal space). That number equals how many people can fit comfortably in your home. Then, assume that 80 percent of your invitees will accept the invitation, but that five of those people won't end up coming. For example, if you've got 100 square feet of space in your home, you can fit 20 guests. But really, you can invite 25 because just 16 will plan to come in the first place, and one will claim to be violently ill the day of the party.
Dinner party planning requires less math and more spatial reasoning skills. "Unless you have a gigantic room," Clinton warns, "avoid the urge to go gigantic. I've been to many parties where the homeowner's dining room was so packed with the table, the chairs, the armoire, the credenza that moving around the room was nearly impossible."
Don't be fooled: There's a difference between accommodating guests and hosting them. Accommodating someone involves sticking the leaf in your dining room table so that an extra person can sit down; hosting someone means providing a comfortable place at the dinner table so that he or she can get up and move freely around to the bar, powder room or patio. Your guests are there to have a good time -- not to calculate how many trees died to furnish your dining room. "I mean," Clinton wonders, "do you really need all that furniture? You can't keep your plates in the hall closet? You have to have a 7-foot hutch?"
Improvisation is the name of the game on the next page.
9: Think Outside the Dinner Table
Some of you might be saying, "Pish-posh! A 7-foot hutch? I don't even have a dining room table." When it comes to entertaining, a lack of furniture is the least of your worries. As we learned on the previous page, ample square footage means more space for revelers. Just skip the seated dinner and host a standing-room party with heavy hors d'oeuvres and a signature cocktail.
But this isn't your only option. If you don't have a table, you can improvise. "I've been to Thanksgiving dinners held on folding card tables and dinner parties held on two sawhorses and wooden planks," Clinton shares. "If it can hold your food and can be covered with a tablecloth," he continues, "who the hell cares what's underneath?"
You can also skip the table altogether for a truly unique party. Arrange lotus blossoms on a low coffee table, and seat guests on bamboo mats. Tell your guests to wear their parkas for a winter wonderland picnic, drop the thermostat to 40 degrees (optional), and spread a white blanket on the floor for everyone to sit on. Or, you could do a 1950s flashback theme, with a TV tray designated for each guest and dinner served on plastic trays with separate compartments for meat, starch and veggies.
Just be considerate when making party arrangements. If your guests will be sitting on the floor, let them know well in advance so no one shows up wearing sequined miniskirts and so you can make alternate arrangements for anyone who can't sit comfortably on the ground.
We've seated our guests. Next, we'll find a way to get them food and drinks -- stat!
8: Plan for Very Thirsty, Very Hungry Guests
Whether you're hosting a cocktail party or a dinner party, within the first hour your guests arrive, they're going to be putting down some drinks as they mingle.
"You don't need a bar per se," Clinton explains. "But you do need to devote some area of your space to alcohol if your guests drink." To avoid traffic jams in your living room, it might help to stick the bar (whether it's a dresser you've borrowed from your bedroom, a console table or a proper drinks cabinet) in the corner of the room. If nary a piece of furniture can be appointed for the job, clear some space on the kitchen counter. The bottom line is that no matter where you put the bar, people will find it.
In "Freakin' Fabulous," Clinton advises getting a bartender for parties with more than 30 guests in attendance. And he tosses around some more numbers, so pull out your calculators. At cocktail parties, anticipate that your guests will down two drinks apiece in the first hour, then one drink per hour for the remainder of the party. As for food, allot 10 appetizers per person for cocktail parties and six per person for dinner parties. Whether you're passing hors d'oeuvres or arranging them on a buffet, having plenty keeps guests happy.
You can crunch numbers galore to get rough estimates for your party, but don't get consumed by the Goldilocks-like preoccupation of having things just right. In Clinton Kelly's immortal words of wisdom: "A host who worries too much throws a tense party."
As your guests drain their aperitifs and pull their chairs up to the table, you'll want the mood to be electric. It can fall flat in an instant if you commit the ultimate faux pas on the next page.
7: View, Unobstructed
When pressed to give the biggest mistake people make when setting a table, Clinton admonishes, "A centerpiece and/or candles should not block the view across the table. Yes, you can have a large centerpiece or tall candlesticks but move them off the table once people sit down!"
It may sound like Entertaining 101 -- even Clinton concedes, "I'm surprised that everyone doesn't know this, but it still happens…" Sure, the centerpiece is supposed to be the focal point of the table (more on that later), but it doesn't make or break a dinner party like good conversation can. And how do you talk to your fellow dinner guests when you can't see the ones on the other side of the table?
If you insist upon a towering, dramatic centerpiece, don't be a bad sport about moving it to a nearby credenza when guests sit down. And remember the lesson of the 7-foot hutch: If you're dining room isn't that gigantic, you probably don't need a humongous centerpiece. Keep the arrangement in proportion with the size of the room.
If you didn't get all the wedding china you registered for, we've got some consolation for you on the next page.
6: Invest in Cookware
The ideal table setting isn't about putting your finest family silver and Tiffany china on display. By all means, if you have those accoutrements at your disposal, use them. But you don't have to empty your bank account to set a beautiful table; rather, as Clinton says, "It's more about the way you combine what you already own." For instance, everyday white plates get an instant boost from metallic chargers and visually pop against brightly colored placemats on a formal table.
If you have some funds at your disposal, Clinton's advice is to invest in quality cookware. He explains that "the quality of your food affects your dinner party the most. And some cookware is beautiful enough to do double duty as serving dishes." Glossy Dutch ovens, white Apilco dinnerware and even Pyrex dishes can go from kitchen to table. Passing around dishes family-style is a good conversation starter and makes the mood cozy.
While we're on the subject of family-style, you might be wondering how to entertain knee-grazing guests -- that is, if you've invited children to the party. Get a few ideas on the next page.
5: Create a Child-friendly Zone
Many of us would love to throw Holly Golightly-like parties in our high-rise apartments year after year, but at a certain point, even if you've been drinking too much champagne to notice, many of our friends become parents. If you entertain quite a bit and those friends bring fabulous hostess gifts, you might want to consider inviting their children to your next party.
You've got a couple of options here. You could hire a baby sitter to keep the kids entertained in the rec room or a spare bedroom. Some board games, chicken fingers and a stack of kid-friendly DVDs will keep kids occupied long enough for their parents to enjoy a few cocktails and dinner courses. Or, you can set up a kids' table adjacent to the adults' so everyone can have dinner together. If you're going this route, keep a few things in mind. First, in case things get messy, spread a sheet or painter's tarp under the table. Second, kids will appreciate a special place setting, too, so add personalized place cards at their designated spots. An activity will keep them focused, so top the table with a long sheet of butcher's paper, and give the kids plenty of crayons to draw with. When you're ready to serve coffee and dessert over at the adults' table, supply the kids with a platter of sugar cookies, tubs of frosting, colored sugar and sprinkles.
Cater to the kids as much as you like, but don't let them use your fine china. Clinton advises, "Never put anything at a children's table that might cause you to be upset if it broke. There's some great plasticware on the market right now. Plus, it puts the kids' parents at ease if they don't have to be watching their child like a hawk."
Paper and plastic are fine for kids, but equip adults with something more luxurious. Next up: must-have linens.
4: No Napkins but Linen
Nothing turns down the volume on an elegant dinner party quite like paper napkins. When you're entertaining, nice napkins are a non-negotiable. Choose off-white linens, Clinton hints, because the color "shows fewer stains, party after party." He adds, "[The napkins] should be soft but not leave lint all over your guests' clothes." A thoughtful hostess will have a stash of black napkins for guests wearing dark-colored clothing.
To prepare your linen napkins for dinner service, you've got to iron them. (Yes, it's a hassle, but each little detail adds up to a perfect table.) Drape a terry-cloth towel across your ironing board to create an even surface, and iron with the weave of the fabric [source: Martha Stewart.com]. Use a little starch to get a crisp finish; it will also serve as a stain-blocker.
As the hostess, there's a good chance you'll have to excuse yourself from the table during the meal to check on your chocolate soufflé or grab another bottle of wine. Mind your manners, and place the napkin in your chair -- not on the table or the back of your seat as some waiters are apt to do in restaurants. As Clinton reminds us in "Freakin' Fabulous," "Nobody at your table wants to see a napkin smeared with lipstick and puttanesca."
Starching napkins is one of the least glamorous aspects of entertaining. You're probably itching to see what wonders can be wrought with a big glass vase, amaryllis and taper candles. Next, we'll chat centerpieces.
3: Arrange an Attention-getting Centerpiece
Perhaps no element of your table makes a bolder statement than the centerpiece. If you're hosting a cocktail party, you'll still want to have a few arrangements on the buffet or bar to help set the mood. If you're working with a large budget, you can certainly commission a florist's help creating an elegant centerpiece, but that's not necessary. Natural elements from your backyard -- vibrant leaves, gnarly branches, hardy acorns -- can be artfully arranged for a show-stopping Thanksgiving centerpiece. For Christmas dinner, a big glass bowl filled with brightly colored ornaments looks festive.
Or, you could always recreate a Clinton Kelly original. For a fall celebration, he recommends "a centerpiece of mums or gourds," "a glass vase with acorns" or a drift of "leaves across the table" with "pattypan squash as place card holders." As for Christmas dinner, "Last , I kept it pretty simple," Clinton shares. "I filled a crystal bowl with pomegranates, pears and whole walnuts and flanked it with a small bouquet of white flowers on either side and some low candles scattered around the table." A lovely touch during the season of gift-giving is a special token by your guests' plates. At Clinton's table, "every place setting" got "a German-glass ornament that my guests could take home with them."
When it comes to centerpieces, Clinton says, "You're only limited by your imagination." If seasonal stressors have drained your creative reserves, there are plenty of places to turn for inspiration. Cruise the produce aisle for ideas. The beautiful, organic shapes of pears and artichokes, for instance, look gorgeous in arrangements. Think about unique vessels you have around the house, such as an old pewter soup tureen or straw basket. You can even use a teapot, drinking glass or pitcher for your arrangement, as Clinton recommends in "Freakin' Fabulous." If you're using non-fragrant flowers, consider other sources of fragrance you can include in the centerpiece, such as pomanders, clove-studded citrus fruits. Cinnamon sticks tossed with miniature gingerbread men and bright red cranberries in a tall cylinder vase would look as good as it smells.
But if you want your guests to fully appreciate your centerpiece, you're going to have to illuminate it. More about that on the next page.
2: Illuminate with Candlelight
In the dark days of autumn and winter, light conveys feelings of warmth and comfort, but the artificial kind can be too harsh.
"I cannot emphasize enough the importance of candlelight," Clinton says. "I have not met a person yet who does not look better in it." In "Freakin' Fabulous," Clinton explains that overhead lighting "makes everyone look old and tired." But he also warns against placing candles in "high-traffic areas." He confides that a friend "once burned her angora sweater on a candle at my birthday party. was probably my fault for putting the candle too close to the edge of the table. I didn't tell her that because I didn't want to pay for the sweater. Shhhh."
Anecdotal evidence aside, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has some sobering statistics on candle safety. Since 1990, the number of structural fires caused by candles is up 300 percent [source: Fire Chief]. Nearly one-third of those fires were caused by unattended candles, one-quarter of the fires occurred from combustible materials coming in contact with the flame, and 6 percent were caused by human interference with the flame. The NFPA recommends that you keep candles away from curtains, Christmas trees and other decorations. Always place candles in sturdy holders.
As you circulate with a platter of canapés, take a visual survey of all your candles to ensure they're burning safely. A fabulous hostess never lets her party go up in smoke.
Next, we'll leave you with our final and most important entertaining tip.
1: Let the Party Reflect Your Taste
Entertaining is really just about putting your taste and style on display. Clinton explains, "Your table is a reflection of who you are as a host, just as your wardrobe is a reflection of who you are as a person." If you've got a signature color, incorporate it in the table setting. Perhaps you're never seen in town without your pearls -- weave long strands of faux pearls with strung cranberries, and use the garland to outline the table runner.
Maybe you can't quite figure out how to parlay your taste into a decorating scheme or signature cocktail. Don't try to force it, or you'll only strike a false note. As Clinton jokes, " Crystal stemware and bone china won't look right in a room with Metallica posters on the wall, or if you're serving Buffalo wings and beer."
Let's not overthink this point. As the hostess, the most important thing you can do is put your guests at ease. Clinton says, "Ideally, you want your guests to know that everything has been taken care of -- they have all the flatware, glassware, plates and condiments they will need over the course of the meal, as well as enough room to eat comfortably and converse with other diners." A room full of cozy, well-fed guests equals one happy hostess. And during the frenetic holiday season, you couldn't really ask for more than that.
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- "Ironing Tablecloths and Napkins." Martha Stewart.com. 2005. (Nov. 2, 2009).http://www.marthastewart.com/article/ironing-tablecloths-and-napkins
- Kelly, Clinton. "Freakin' Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, and Generally Be Better than Everyone Else." Simon Spotlight Entertainment. 2008.
- Kelly, Clinton. Personal interview conducted by Candace Keener. (Oct. 27, 2009). "NFPA: Candle Fires Up 300% Since 1990." Fire Chief.com. Sept. 28, 2004. (Nov. 2, 2009). http://firechief.com/news/candle-fires-up987676/