Preparing for the Holidays

As cool weather settles in for the long haul, signs of the season can be found everywhere. Whether it's the sudden increase in school concerts, plays and pageants ... the huge holiday displays that reach out to you in every store you browse ... or the large number of party invitations showing up in your mailbox, it all means one thing: the holidays are fast approaching and it's time to get a game plan.

If the thought of entertaining during the holidays brings thoughts of sheer terror to your mind, you need to stop and take a look at how you prepare for them. If you have the right blend of items prepared in advance and the cool head it takes to assemble them at a moment's notice, you can find yourself looking forward to having family and friends over not just once, but many times throughout the season.

First, it's time to stop and realize that if you spend all of your time in the kitchen, you're likely to miss out on the visiting and festive moods that make get togethers so fun. So, take the time now -- before you find yourself in the midst of stress city -- to make some items for your entertaining menu. Here are some of my favorite make-ahead and buy-ahead food items for quick and fun party planning:
  • Cookies - Everyone loves something a little sweet. I try to make five to eight different varieties that freeze well late in October and early in November. Then I freeze them in half dozen batches and pull out as many as I need when I know company will be coming. Heck, if I'm having company in the early afternoon, a large plate of cookies, some party mix, and assorted beverages I have on hand can be more than enough to keep everyone happy while we visit. They also make the perfect ending to a simple meal with friends. If you're like me and don't like having to roll out cookies by hand, use a small ice cream scoop and you'll have clean hands, perfectly round cookies and much more time!
  • Party Mix - Another quick treat that's loved by most guests is party mix. Whether it's made from a treasured family recipe or borrowed from a box of cereal, party mixes are usually easy to make and they store well. Simply pour the cooled mix into resealable bags and remove as much air as you can. Then, pop in the cupboard and be confident the next time the doorbell rings unexpectedly!
  • Quick Meal Ingredients - Stress-free entertaining requires a little planning. My favorite quick meal is simple penne pasta tossed with a tangy tomato sauce and topped with grilled chicken pieces. You can make the pasta sauce and grilled chicken in advance and freeze them. Just make sure that you have dried penne pasta on hand in your pantry.
Now that you have the makings for fast and tasty meals, it's time to think about decorating. Having a nice centerpiece doesn't require a trip to the florist. Simple, yet elegant centerpieces can be found in unusual places -- from your backyard to the produce section. Here are some of my favorites:
  • Fill a large colorful bowl with fruit, autumn leaves, pine cones or evergreen branches. Place it in the middle of the table on a placemat or table cloth.
  • Place a collection of candles and tumbled stones on a glass plate. If you'd like, you can put some leaves under the plate to add more interest.
  • One of the best centerpieces is a beautiful decorated cake that ends up serving two purposes by the end of the day! Make your own or spruce up a bakery special.
  • A pretty basket filled with the cards, letters and photos that have been received during the holiday season can be a fun way to share with your loved ones.
Since it's also the season of giving, small gifts of candles, preserved foods (ideally from evening's menu), or seasonal things like ornaments or jars of potpourri will be appreciated by your guests. Wrap them creatively with homemade papers, in small reusable tins or boxes, or in simple scarves. They are sure to make a lasting impression.

To add a musical mood to your entertaining efforts, make sure that you have four to eight appropriate albums on hand to help make a comfortable atmosphere. Keep them near your CD player or in your party closet. You do have a party closet, don't you? For more information about party planning, check out It's Party Time in the Seasoned Cooking archives. It's got information about that mysterious party closet and much more.

With all that said, I want to wish you all a enjoyable and stress-free holiday entertaining season. Spend a little time planning and you'll be able to enjoy your guests. And, after all, isn't that what it's all about?