If you’ve ever hosted a family holiday celebration in your home, you know how stressful it can be! From preparing the menu to cleaning the house to welcoming overnight guests — there are so many factors to account for. With all those to-do’s, it’s no wonder many hostesses dread these big celebrations; they are so busy coordinating that they don’t have time to participate!
Hosting an event is bound to come with some stress, but you can employ some tricks and tweaks to make the process easier and, ultimately, more fun. Let’s make your next family holiday get-together a success with less stress so that you can actually enjoy the festivities.
A personal note: This article is dedicated to my mother, who has hosted countless family and holiday celebrations throughout her life. Thank you for teaching me how to make guests feel welcome and comfortable, how to plan and organize events, and providing a few cheats along the way.
Plan and prepare for the event
There is no denying that a lot of work goes into hosting any event! Prevent overwhelm beforehand by doing some preemptive brainstorming, planning, and engaging others for assistance.
1. Make a high-level gameplan
First thing’s first, you need to have a game plan for the upcoming event. You know those birthday party invitations we used to fill out by hand as kids? Let’s summon up that mindset to establish the Who/What/Where/When/How for your event.
Who is invited and how many people are they bringing? Are there children, teens, or adults only? Are there any allergies or health concerns you need to be aware of?
What are you celebrating, and what activities are included? Is this an all-day event, a three-hour holiday meal, or several days of hosting family?
Where will the event be? If you are hosting at your house, do you have room to seat everyone?
When is the big day? What time are you starting? How long will your guests hang around?
Be clear about the plan from the beginning and communicate expectations to everyone involved along the way.
2. Create a timeline & task list
Now that you have the basic questions addressed, create a high-level timeline for time up to and the day(s) of the festivities. Start penciling in guest arrivals, meal times, activities, and anything else that will occur during your celebrations.
Start a to-do list to keep adding to and access on the go as you continue planning. I personally organize my entire life in ClickUp because I love that it integrates with my Google calendar and I can access the handy app anywhere. Plus, you can easily collaborate with others (see #3!).
Keep this task list and timeline handy as you prepare for your event —you will need to keep adding to and refining it as you make more decisions before the big day.
Have you tried it yet?
3. Recruit assistance
If you want to make your family holiday celebration as low-stress as possible, recruiting help from other family members or guests is a must! Just because you volunteered to host the event does not mean you have to do it all yourself.
Ask trusted guests for their assistance preparing for and during the event. Enlist your sister or mom to help you plan the celebratory meal to get recommendations and assign others specific dishes to bring. Ask your twenty-something niece to come up with signature cocktail and mocktail recipes. Divide breakfast, lunch, and dinner responsibilities with out-of-town guests so you get a break from the kitchen. Entice the kids to help set the table by sponsoring a napkin-folding competition; the winner gets first dibs on dessert. Recruit your husband and brother-in-law to prepare the turkey outside in the fryer to free up space in the kitchen for the chefs to cook other dishes. (Trust me, throw in some cold beer and the gentlemen will most likely jump at the chance to get out of the house!)
If you feel inhospitable asking others for help, just remember that the primary goal for any family celebration is to spend quality time together. More often than not, your guests want to assist! (How often do you get the “What can I bring?” question when hosting a party? See, people want to contribute.) You already have plenty of work to prepare the house and organize the event, so get over your aspirations of hosting a Pinterest-perfect celebration all by yourself and let others help!
4. Plan for seating and space
Once you have a general expectation for how many people will attend, create a comfortable seating plan for meals and socializing.
How many people can you fit comfortably in your current table setup? If you expect more guests than you have seating for, get some folding tables and chairs to accommodate the whole party. Folding chairs also move around quickly, so they are fantastic to supplement seating in the living areas where people may congregate! Ask around to see if you know anyone who can spare extra sets for your event, or look to rent from a local event planner.
Will you have a kids’ table, or will everyone dine together? Do you need to plan for any highchairs or booster seats? What about wheelchairs or walkers? Think about your party members in advance so that you can accommodate any special needs and ensure everyone is comfortable!
5. Organize activities and entertainment
While you don’t have to plan anything elaborate, you should make sure there is plenty for your guests to do. Creating entertainment stations around the house allows everyone to stay busy and keeps your home in order.
Set out some fun board and card games for guests to play as they like. (Our family loves Cover Your Assets for any gathering!) Make an art station for the younger kids to color or paint. Create a space outside to play cornhole, basketball, or pickleball. Establish a TV area (or two!) to put on the game for the guys or start a movie for the kids. Make a video game room for the older kids to hang out. Have multiple areas (outside the kitchen!) for guests to sit comfortably and talk.
Have your family and collaborators help guide guests to the various activities and designated areas. The last thing you want is to have your guests bored or helping themselves to whatever they find around your house!
6. Account for your furry friends
As much as you love your fur babies, take a moment to think about how they will interact with your guests.
Will your 65-pound puppy be a safety hazard around small children or elderly family members? Are there any pet allergies you need to account for? Do you have a safe option to keep your pet contained and out of trouble during meal time?
You know your pets better than anyone, so be honest with yourself if your four-legged friends should be invited to the celebration. And if not, make other arrangements.
7. Clean and prep in advance
Anyone hosting guests can tell you that cleaning and preparing the house is the biggest chunk of the work outside of the food and entertainment. So, instead of spending the 48 hours before the celebration frantically deep cleaning and readying your home, try to break up these efforts into smaller projects throughout the month leading up to the event.
Make a list of any large, non-routine cleaning or house projects you want to tackle before your guests arrive, then start tackling a few each week. Declutter and organize the kitchen. Steam clean the rugs and carpets in the living areas. Touch up the paint dings in the front entryway. Trim that pesky tree branch in the yard. Do a deep clean of all the common areas and dust under the furniture. If you need help and can afford to, hire a cleaning service or handyman to check off the items on your list.
Do whatever tasks you’ve been putting off to get your home ready to entertain. Not only will your house be beautiful and guest-ready, but you will also enjoy your refreshed space!
8. And then clean (again)
I know I already said clean, but this is your friendly reminder to do a day-of cleaning session. Wipe all the countertops down. Scrub the toilets and clean the sinks and mirrors. Run the vacuum or Swiffer and mop over high-traffic areas.
Hopefully, with all the prep you’ve been doing, this will be a quick last-minute cleaning sprint!
Welcome out-of-town guests
Unless your entire guest list lives within a 50-mile radius, you will likely have some out-of-town visitors. Whether they stay with you or not, here are a few tips to make these guests feel welcome.
9. Provide a list of places to stay nearby
First note concerning out-of-town guests —it is not a requirement to let everyone stay with you! Providing a list of local hotels and AirBnB’s to your guests is always polite and reasonable.
Perhaps you don’t have the room to accommodate everyone, or you prefer not to have your sloppy brother-in-law in your guest room. Even if you enjoy hosting overnight guests, some people would like to stay elsewhere to have some space. It’s simply nice to have options of where to stay when traveling.
Don’t feel bad (politely) suggesting that out-of-towners find another place to stay. Your house, your choice.
10. Test the accommodations yourself
Before you let anyone sleep in your guest room or use the extra shower, give your spare accommodations a test run yourself. Especially if those facilities haven’t been used in a while.
Try out the guest room bed to see how comfortable the mattress and pillows are. Do you need to purchase or borrow additional sheets and blankets to make the room cozier? Is the mattress too firm and in need of a foam topper to make it softer? Do you need to adjust any A/C or heating vents to achieve the desired climate?
Use the extra bathroom a few times to troubleshoot any issues. How are the water pressure and temperature in the shower? Is there adequate space to store toothbrushes and other toiletries? Do you have hooks to hang damp towels?
Take the time to test the accommodations yourself to ensure your guests feel comfortable during their stay.
11. Stock the sleeping areas and bathrooms with the essentials
Ensure none of your overnight guests have to scramble through your house in their pajamas (or worse, a bath towel!) looking for everyday items.
Stock your bathrooms with plenty of toilet paper, towels, and tissues. Place bars of soap, shampoo, and conditioner in the showers. Create a guest basket under the sink with extra toothbrushes, toothpaste, and razors. If you have an old hairdryer or handheld mirror, keep those handy for your guests.
Keep extra pillows and blankets in the guestroom or sleeping areas. Make life a little easier for your guests by placing a Wi-Fi password sign front and center for them (before they have to ask!). Additional comforts that are a nice touch (but not a must) include water bottles, snack bars, magazines, and extra phone chargers.
12. Create more space (as needed)
Are you determined to host your guests overnight but short on space? Create additional sleeping areas in the space you do have.
As a general rule, offer adult guests a space where they can enjoy some privacy. (As in, they can actually shut a door!) Make your office into an impromptu guest room with a solid air mattress, or move your children to the playroom for a few days to free up their bedroom.
You can get a little more creative for kids and teens by creating space on the floors of living and play areas. This is an excellent opportunity to create meaningful memories by letting all the kids have a sleepover! Have the little kids make forts to sleep under in their sleeping bags, or get a foldout bed (or maybe this fun human-sized dog bed!) for the tweens and teen bunch.
13. Make mealtime easy
Assuming your guests will be staying for more than one day, there will be a lot of meals to coordinate and mouths to feed. Let everyone chip in on planning and preparing the meals.
Divide meal assignments so everyone can have a turn sharing their favorite dish (and sharing the workload). One night, you and your kids can prepare your famous Chicken a la King casserole; the next night, your sister’s family makes their delicious meatloaf.
Make breakfast easy with pre-made egg casseroles, assorted cereals, muffins and fresh fruit. Create a sandwich assembly line or get out the leftovers for the lunchtime rush.
And if you run out of food or the energy to feed the horde, there is no shame in calling out for pizza.
14. Caffeine (Need we say more?)
Anytime you have guests overnight, stocking up for the morning caffeine intake is a must!
Ensure you have enough coffee and tea for all under-caffeinated guests each morning. Take inventory of your mugs to make sure there’s enough for everyone. Purchase some half-and-half or creamer for guests to prepare their morning pick-me-up.
Set out a variety of coffee and tea options for the self-serve Keurig machine so visitors can try something new. Let the kids grab a mug of yummy (unleaded) hot chocolate or apple cider.
And if you prefer to prepare one big pot of coffee every morning, just make sure everyone knows where to find the supplies to make that second pot. You are going to need it!
Coordinating the celebratory meal
Whether hosting a one-day or multi-day holiday gathering, you most likely have at least one big celebratory meal on the calendar. Thanksgiving, Diwali, Kwanzaa, or Christmas —what’s a holiday without the feast?
15. Plan your menu
Step one of any feast is to lay out the menu. Work with your hosting collaborators to create a comprehensive menu for the big day, from the appetizers to the main course to desserts.
When planning your menu, you must be realistic about how much cooking you can do and what you might need help with. If you are a master chef and planning a gourmet three-course meal is your jam, go for it! For anyone else (me!), feel free to supplement the menu with the following two tips.
16. Feast Cheat #1 —Let everyone help with a potluck
Ask every family to bring a dish or two to share so you don’t have to cook for the masses alone. Ask one family to bring a potato dish and a salad, another one to bring a dessert and an appetizer, and so on …
People usually want to help when someone else is hosting, so this is a great way to get them involved. Plus, most families have a few favorite recipes they would love to share with others!
And if you have any visitors that are allergic to the kitchen, ask them to bring a couple of bottles of wine. I doubt they will go to waste!
17. Feast Cheat #2 —Order a prepared meal or side dishes
If you are hosting a smaller group, you can order a fully prepared meal, or even just a few extra desserts and sides, to cut down on kitchen time. Check with your local grocery store to see what holiday meal packages they offer, or go with a nationwide vendor such as Whole Foods, Harry and David, or Omaha Steaks.
My family and I have started using this handy cheat over the past few years. We cook a large turkey or ham ourselves, make our family-recipe scalloped potatoes and green bean casserole, and make a few of our favorite pies. Then we order the other dishes from the grocery store —so much less stress!
18. Purchase in-demand items and non-perishables ahead of time
Have you ever been to the grocery store on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving? Between the empty shelves and the chaos of the other last-minute shoppers, it’s not the ideal time to buy turkey and dressing. Don’t make this mistake!
Start purchasing the more significant items (think turkey, ham, or roast) anywhere from a month to two weeks before the holiday. Store them in the freezer until they need to defrost for cooking. Get non-perishables such as canned goods and boxed items in advance as well, tucking them aside until you need them.
Within the week before your culinary extravaganza, do your final shopping. Now is the final food countdown.
19. Cook as much as you can in advance
Take a look at your menu and inventory what items you could possibly prepare early.
Pies, casseroles, and some sauces will taste just as good after freezing for a few days. Make that tedious family recipe the day before the feast and refrigerate overnight.
Do whatever meal prep you can beforehand, then heat the chilled food in the oven or stove before serving. Not only will this prevent a crowded kitchen on the day of, but it frees you up to socialize instead of cooking all day!
20. Outline the day-of meal prep (Get out that timeline again!)
Give yourself enough time to prepare and serve all the items by adding the cooking times to your timeline. Map out your target meal time, then work backward.
Planning to eat at 3:00, but the ham takes 3 hours to cook? Better pencil that in to start around 11:00 to allow for extra time. Need the oven to cook your potatoes au gratin before the ham? Looks like you need to start those at 9:30. So on and so forth, you get the drill.
Lastly, always always designate the last hour before meal time for final preparation! You never know when something will go awry, and you’ll need those precious minutes.
21. Don’t forget about the drinks and snacks
Always have plenty of drinks handy and snacks out for people to nibble on. The party will want some time to chat and catch up before sitting down to the big meal, but they may need a little snack in the meantime. You don’t want anyone getting hangry while you’re carving the turkey.
It’s always nice to have a snack station outside the kitchen and dining areas where people can graze. Set up a card table and a tablecloth with crackers, dips, chips, and a veggie tray.
Get a few coolers with ice to stock full of water, sodas, and juice boxes for the kids. Establish a makeshift bar for the adults with any wine or cocktails available.
Creating designated snack and drink stations reduces confusion for the guests. If they are hungry or thirsty, they will know where to go!
Make the most of the celebration
The time has finally come, and all your hard work is on display. Use these two extra tricks to ensure that you actually get to enjoy the celebration you’ve worked so hard to plan.
22. Carve out time before the big event to get ready or rest
Do yourself a favor —build some time on your schedule for a couple hours before the event to give yourself a break. Do not (I repeat, do not!) plan to work all day until guests arrive and expect to have enough energy to enjoy yourself during the celebration.
Take a bath, read a book, or take a nap to relax. Give yourself plenty of time to get dressed and get ready without having to answer the doorbell mid-blowdry. Enjoy some time to yourself before worrying about entertaining and feeding others.
If you think, “There is no way I’ll have time to relax!” then you have taken on too much. Ask someone else to help or take something off the list altogether. No one is going to give you that break —except for you.
23. Relax and enjoy yourself
The visitors are here, the appetizers are laid out, and everyone seems to have their favorite beverage in hand. Now is your time to mingle and enjoy yourself.
Get the overnight guests settled in their rooms, show them where the extra towels are, and give them some space. Let them know you will be in the other room, ready to play a game of Catan when they are.
With the carefully planned timeline and the assistance of others, you shouldn’t have to be in the kitchen all day. Make sure all the dishes are cooking on schedule, help coordinate the buffet line, and say thank you to those polite family members who volunteered to wash the dishes. Your role as the hostess is not to micromanage the schedule, plan every morsel of food, or orchestrate each second of entertainment; you are there to make people feel as comfortable and welcome as possible. And with all your preparation, you can now enjoy the best part of entertaining —your guests!
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What tips and tricks do you use to make hosting easier? Are there any products that make entertaining smoother? Share with us in the comments!