Host Your First Holiday Party With Kids!
Forget everything you know about throwing parties. Jenny Rosenstrach, the mom behind the popular blog Dinner: A Love Story, breaks down the rules for having a successful bash that includes the kids.
Yes, it is possible. So send out your invites, curate the color palette, and set up the snack table. It’s time to celebrate!
BEFORE I HAD children, my husband and I threw the best holiday parties. We’d head out on field trips all over New York City, where we lived at the time, to hunt down finger foods and festive garlands. Weeks before the big night, we’d have menu-planning sessions and discuss pressing issues: knishes or empanadas? Pinot noir or Châteauneuf-du-pape? Store-bought pita chips or homemade cheddar-gruyère crackers we’d read about in that gourmet-food magazine? (Unthinkable to my current mother-oftwo self, the freaking homemade crackers won out.)
When we tried to throw our first party post-kids (“Hey! And bring your kids too!” we told everyone), we didn’t have the energy or the time to do any of that, and as a result, it was a disaster. Instead of ending the night with our customarily glowing postmortem, “I’m so glad we do that every year,” we looked at our toddler decimated house and said, “Welp! Never doing that again.”
We took a few years off. Then, as parents are wont to do, we came back with a plan of attack, which is broken down into the following 16 rules and four slam-dunk tricks, but which can be summarized in this single philosophy: Dial it back and remember why you’re doing this—to celebrate with the people you love most.
RULE 1 Choose your own adventure.
You can have a holiday dinner party with four of your closest friends and their kids. You can have a party where you invite 15 to 20 people and limit it to neighborhood friends (or work friends, family, or whatever crew seems manageable and thematically cohesive). You can also move all your furniture to the perimeter of the house, throw the doors wide open, and invite everyone on your Facebook feed. Pick your party style, then embrace it, keeping in mind that when there are young kids in the mix, there’s a fine line between “good energy” and “total mayhem.”
RULE 2 Commit!
Send out the invitation one month before the date, and don’t spend hours on Evite or Paperless Post shopping for the best design. This is where the concept of “First idea, best idea” comes in: Don’t overthink color scheme or the lyricism of your words. Make sure you have the correct date, time, and address, and be done with it. The important thing here is the act of committing—you are signing a contract with your future self and that future self now has no excuse.
RULE 3 Try not to be too proud.
When people inevitably ask you “What can I bring?” take them up on it. Be specific (“A bottle or two of pinot noir would be amazing”), be strategic (“You got a punch bowl?”), be grateful (“YOU ARE A GODDESS!”), and keep track of the offers so you know what to buy and what to skip come shopping time.
RULE 4 If it can be done ahead of time, do it ahead of time.
That doesn’t mean just food. And that doesn’t mean just an hour or two before guests arrive. It means picking up cocktail napkins when you’re in the supermarket anyway. It means pulling out a few serving platters during naptime one afternoon the week before, washing them, and figuring out which delicious thing will be served on each. It means emptying bathroom trash cans and bringing out the coat rack the day before the party. It even means filling a bunch of sippy cups with water and stashing them in the fridge, because it’s just easier to say “in the fridge” than “on the second shelf above the dishwasher behind the juice glasses.” The point is: If you chip away at your tasks, you’ll be much less likely to wake up on party day with the urge to walk out of the house and never return.
RULE 5 Pick a two-color palette.
And make sure one of those colors is gold! It is the color to infuse your house with a festive feeling, whether you plan to decorate a lot or a little. The color restriction will target your shopping and minimize agita.
RULE 6 Create an instant party vibe with string lights.
Hang them around door frames and windows. Do it right after Thanksgiving to kick-start holiday spirit—and half your party decorating is done.
RULE 7 Clean only the rooms that people will see.
Why exactly are you scrubbing the tub in the master bath? I love you and I’m here for you, but that’s cray-cray.
RULE 8 Pick places to be fancy.
No one is going to think less of you for using disposable plates and forks, especially if they are biodegradable (I like both Earth’s Natural Alternative and Bamboodlers), but there’s no faster way to up the party’s grown-up-ness quotient than by renting two items: wineglasses and small plates for snacks. (Bonus: Many rental agencies don’t require you to wash the dishes before returning them.)
RULE 9 Hire a sitter.
Earmark some cash for one teenage babysitter for every eight to ten kids. It will be the difference between your grown-up guests having a great time and their saying to each other on the way home, “Why did we bring the kids again?”
RULE 10 Outsource, outsource, outsource.
Some foods will never taste as good homemade no matter how much time and effort you put into them. This is where you begin to compile your “what to buy” list. Pigs in a blanket and mini quiches from Costco? Yes, please! Present them on a pretty platter, and don’t look back.
RULE 11 Choose snacks that are good at room temperature.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be some warm things, but a holiday party menu when kids are involved should be designed with the idea that you probably don’t want to wear oven mitts with your new dress the whole night, and you don’t want to obsess over buzzers and timers and gougères that go from golden to charred at the very second you are greeting your best friend at the door. Psst ... It’s yet another reason to consider a snack board (see page 110).
RULE 12 But if you’re turning on the oven, go big.
One hot dish is not going to overtax you, especially when it’s a melted-cheese-covered crowd-pleaser and delicious even when it cools from hot to warm. No individual canapés here. Instead think: queso fundido or hot artichoke dip.
RULE 13 Raise the bar!
I like to come up with a themed make-your-own appetizer bar, which appeals to a range of tastes and takes very little time to put together. Two ideas to try: Order latkes from your favorite deli and fill dishes with minced red onion, capers, applesauce, sour cream, smoked salmon, shredded horseradish, and, if you’re feeling fancy, caviar; or lay out a pile of crostini bread with toppings like ricotta and roasted tomatoes, smashed white beans with rosemary, and pâté. I generally start a few for people so they get the idea but avoid assembling every one caterer-style.
RULE 14 Empty the dishwasher.
So you (and your loyal helpers) can clear as many dirty dishes out of the guests’ line of vision as possible and prevent the Jenga-like slag heap of sauce- and chocolate-smeared plates. (FYI: I find this rule is as applicable for a small dinner party for eight as it is for a 100-person holiday kegger.)
RULE 15 Make sure it gets documented.
Hire a teenager or tell your friends to take as many photos as they can. Take it from someone who has watched all the neighborhood children go from singing “The Wheels on the Bus” to driving actual vehicles: You’re going to want to revisit those holiday memories with neighborhood families and friends a thousand times down the road.
RULE 16 Record and reflect.
The next day, take the morning to bask in the high of your party, then start writing down everything that worked and didn’t work so your next year’s self will be ahead of the game. (Put your notes right in your digital calendar.) Give that future self a few words of encouragement, i.e., “I know you are dreading this, but trust me, it will all be worth it.”