It’s that time of year when we gather with others to celebrate the season. Sometimes it’s just a few people at a time, but every few years I get a hankering to throw a really big open house … as in, inviting over a hundred people and hoping they don’t all come at once!
Here are my tips on planning a successful, casual holiday mingle that won’t have you run off your feet. After all, the best parties are the ones where you enjoy the gathering along with your guests.
Oh, don’t worry — it’s not too late to plan your own open house. I organized my first one on only two weeks’ notice, and you’ll be able to take advantage of everything I learned from that experience.
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You can entertain a lot of people in a relatively small space because they come and go at different times and many will stand. Inevitably, at some point you’ll have a crush of people, so keep the holiday décor to a minimum, but still showcase your personality and style. A charmingly child-decorated gingerbread house is a great conversation starter. And don’t forget to cue an upbeat holiday playlist to set the tone!
You and your guests will enjoy the mingle even more if you serve a relatively restrained selection of simple dishes that you can prepare in big batches in advance and easily replenish over the course of the afternoon. Choose food that’s easy to eat cocktail party-style, with one or two wow factor offerings to jazz up the holiday vibe.
Baby, it’s cold outside! These festive roasted red pepper and tomato soup shooters will help your guests warm up. Just keep the soup hot in a slow cooker on the buffet station and use a metal turkey baster to serve it neatly in shot glasses or espresso cups. Rent or borrow extra if you need to.
Hot Hors D’Oeuvres
Talk about wow factor: guests ooh and aah over gougeres, classic French cheese puffs. You don’t need to tell them how easy it is to crack out the eggs and make them! You can freeze gougeres unbaked weeks in advance and bake them off throughout the afternoon. Ask a friend to help; circulating with trays of piping hot hors d’oeuvres is a sure way to be the most popular person at the mingle.
It’s always fun to serve a dish that may be new to some guests, like Middle Eastern muhammara. Featuring creamy roasted red pepper, the nubbly texture of walnuts and sweet tang of pomegranate molasses along with a spicy kick, this dip will get the crowd talking. Make it a day ahead and refrigerate so the flavours have time to develop.
Be An Accommodating Host
Your guests with dietary restrictions appreciate having suitable food options. This chunky guacamole with tomato packs a big punch of bright flavour. You can serve it on crostini, tortilla chips, sliced vegetables or porcelain spoons. Just make it a little less chunky to lessen the tumbling guac risk factor. It’s vegan, gluten-free, vegetarian and raw. The omnivores in the crowd will love it too.
Spiced nuts are the quintessential holiday nibble, especially with a glass of bubbly or beer. Scatter dishes of these throughout the party space for people too engrossed in conversation to head over to the buffet table. Bowls of clementines also look appealing and offer a fresh alternative to rich food; just put out plates for the rinds.
Subject to the tastes of your crowd, generally about 75 percent of the food you serve should be savoury. That said, no holiday party is complete without a tray or two of sweets. Keep them small so your guests can sample everything (and surreptitiously have seconds). Holiday treats don’t need to be highly decorated to be festive, as proved by these sultry, sparkly gingersnaps that you can freeze in large batches ahead of time. They might even lure Leonard Cohen to your mingle.
It goes without saying that there must (must!) be at least one chocolate offering on the serving table to keep your guests happy. These elfin brownie bites in festive petit four cups, topped with a chocolate swirl or other party-perfect adornment, are yet another make-ahead offering that will free you up to mingle with your guests and be the life of your own party.
I first wrote this article in December 2014 for publication on the Food Bloggers of Canada website, and I’m happy to share it with you here today.
More Holiday Hospitality Tips
If you’re thinking of having a crowd over for brunch, why not check out this post I wrote about a holiday brunch I hosted 14 years ago for over 30 people?
This post from a couple years ago provides more tips for hosting a casual holiday mingle.