Tips for a Successful Open House

GIVEAWAY OVER. Since today’s post features tips for hosting an open house, it’s only appropriate that I’m hosting a giveaway on my Facebook page right now for a copy of Corey MIntz’s excellent book, How to Host a Dinner Party. This book is not only full of good advice, it’s funny and highly entertaining. I read mine in one sitting. If you’d like to enter the giveaway, head to my Facebook page and click the blue giveaway tab. I won’t mislead you; you need to ‘like’ the page to enter. Don’t delay; the giveaway closes Wednesday, January 8 at midnight, EST.


I’m no social maven, but I’m not daunted by hosting large gatherings. Being part of a big family has given me lots of practice over the years. We don’t have as many dinner parties for friends as I’d like, but when we entertain I like to have six people around the table (I’d prefer more, but a bigger table is on my wish list).

Last year, I realized a long-time goal by hosting my first holiday open house. We invited around 80 people and 40 attended. I enjoyed it so much that I knew right away I’d do it again. This year, we invited 110 friends (I think I frighten the Culinary Enthusiast), with 55 actually joining us. I was expecting about 70, but the weather was bad that day and there are always some people who can’t come at the last minute.

A few comments about the guest list. First, let’s talk numbers. For an event like this, I estimate that somewhere around 40 to 60 percent of the invitees will attend. I monitor the responses (yes, I use a spreadsheet that’s colour-coded for the yes’s, maybes and no’s; this is a serious operation, people) to make sure I have enough food and serving dishes. And, if ever we get 80 to 100 percent attendance, we’ll just roll with it.

Then there’s the not inconsequential matter of who to invite. It seems that our circle of acquaintance gets larger every year, which is a gift. It includes many sub-circles: old friends, new friends, co-workers, business associates, other volunteers, neighbours and more. When the invite list reached 100 we had to make a decision about whether or not to include family. Since there were other family events during the holidays, we decided to limit the open house to friends, with a few very immediate exceptions (like the Offspring).

In case you think we must live in a palatial home to host an event like this, let me set the record straight. We have a bungalow, comfortably sized for empty nesters, but on the small side for raising a family or having big parties. 

The open house is a drop-in event, with our doors open between 1 and 5 p.m. Most guests joined us between 2 and 4. We had limited seating, so a lot of people were standing. Here’s the secret: that was my plan. It’s a mingling type of casual event. So yes, it was often crowded and noisy, but that just makes it all the more fun. Some folks stayed quite a while, and others not so long.

One of the things I like most about our open house is seeing the unexpected connections among our guests. When you invite this many people, some of them are bound to know each other, unbeknownst to you. This year there were at least six connections made among people who knew each other through past work experience, volunteer work or friendships that we weren’t aware of. I love seeing our friends greeting old friends and making new ones. Hearing the laughter and chatter, seeing the smiles on people’s faces and watching them enjoy the food, how could I not want to do this again next year?

This post is not so much about food as it is about sharing some tips for hosting a party like this. I’ll provide the menu at the bottom of the post, with links to the recipes where possible. Most of the food was served buffet style, but we also circulated with serving trays of hors d’oeuvres. But first, here are my tips, and here’s to your success for the next party you host.

Tips for Hosting a Successful Open House

  1. If there is one tip that’s absolutely essential, this is it: remember that it’s not about the food or the decor, it’s about creating an atmosphere where your guests feel special and enjoy themselves. (The best part of our decor was the gingerbread house decorated by the Little Misses – it added just the right note to the party.)
  2. Get your invitations out 3 to 4 weeks in advance. I use email and no one seems to mind (I don’t actually have home addresses for all the people we invite). It’s a good idea to ask them to respond, but make sure they know it’s okay should they decide to come at the last minute.
  3. I learned last year that there should be more savoury food selections than sweet. This year we served about 75% savoury and 25% sweet (pretty much opposite to last year).
  4. Choose a few recipes that can be made ahead in big batches. For instance, I had 240 gougeres and 120 gingersnaps in the freezer, ready to bake off the morning of the party.
  5. Think outside the box. We served two soups in shot glasses. Easy, made in advance and appreciated by guests on a snowy December day.
  6. You don’t have to make it all yourself. (Yes, I said that!) I ordered one of the soups from a local cafe, bought bread crackers for the sausage bites instead of making crostini, and served a cheese tray.
  7. Provide food choices to accommodate various dietary restrictions. Those with special needs will appreciate having safe food options. My menu included gluten-free,  flour/sugar-free and vegetarian choices, along with something for the carnivores.
  8. In addition to the buffet table, place bowls of clementines and nuts in several locations to make it easy for people to nibble.
  9. If you can afford it, rent wine glasses and plates instead of using paper or plastic. It’s the greener way to go and classier too.
  10. Build a little time into the preparation schedule to tidy the house and tart yourself up. You don’t want to have a broom or a mascara brush in your hand when the first guests arrive!
  11. Invite interesting, fun people and your party will be a success.
  12. Have as much fun as possible while tending to your guests’ needs. People will have a better time if they see their hosts having a good time (as long as they’re not being neglected).
  13. Be as prepared as you can, but know that some things may not go as planned. Roll with it, and maintain that sense of enjoyment. I forgot to bake the brie, so just served it on the cheese platter as is. I also forgot to put the frozen raspberries in the punch, but I don’t suppose anyone besides me noticed that.
  14. And finally, arrange for someone to help you prepare and serve the food at the party. Honestly, we could not have done this without my daughter Jennifer’s help (thank you again!).

2013 Holiday Open House Menu

Raspberry Cranberry Punch

Gougeres (these and these)

Yellow Split Pea Soup

Curried Carrot Soup from the Black Walnut Bakery Cafe

Sausage & Garden Relish Bites on Bagel Crackers

Fresh Pea Puree on Carrot ‘Chips’

Muhammara & Pita Chips

Cheese Tray

Cranberry Pecan Coffee Cake

Orange Cardamom Coffee Cake


Cranberry White Chocolate Cookies

Chewy Cocoa Walnut Brownies

Clementines and Mixed Nuts


  1. Happy New Year Marlene!

    You are a very brave woman – that’s a hella lot of people but it sounded like you had loads of fun and I love the tips especially about the ordering of some of the food because I’d be the idiot trying to do it all myself. LOL!

    Your menu sounds awesome. Hopefully I’ll see you this year at FBC 2014.


  2. I haven’t had an open house that big since we left Florida…yours sounds like it was wonderful. Your tips are spot on and I agree with you about seating. The most boring parties are the ones when everyone sits in one spot all night instead of mingling. What did you use to serve your soup shots in since you had so many people?

    • It seems to me that people that sit down at the party don’t have as much fun as the ones standing and moving around! We served the soup in shot glasses. I rented those, along with wine glasses and serving plates. An inspired idea because a) I don’t have enough, and b) the rental company washes them!

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