Professional party planners have to create fabulous events with limited budgets all the time, so they have the best tricks for creating a festive atmosphere without breaking the bank — and without painting the hosts as cheapskates. We asked them to spill their secrets, and they obliged.
For dishes, think small, eclectic, and fun. Save the fine china for another time. Use a selection of bread, salad and dessert plates for serving; it’s totally OK that things don’t exactly match. Smaller plates are an old-school caterer’s trick to keep people from going overboard on the portions, says Jaclyn Bernstein, president and partner at Empire Force Events. Using your own dishes also frees you from having to buy holiday-themed disposables.
If you have a collection of martini glasses, use them instead of regular bowls to serve items like macaroni and cheese or seafood salads. They’ll look elegant and — because of their relatively small size — stop guests from taking huge helpings. “Soup shooters” presented in a collection of shot glasses are also popular, says Isabel Schechter, owner of Attention To Detail Event Productions. “It’s a great way to get that warming, comfort food feel with the ease that fits a party, and soup is a really great budget stretcher.”
Make a signature cocktail. Stocking a full bar can be pricey, and may also lead to the necessity of hiring a bartender. As an alternative, pro party planners suggest offering help-yourself beer and wine, plus soda, juice, and seltzer so guests have non-alcoholic options, along with one or two seasonal drinks made in advance in large quantities. Set out a bowl of spiked eggnog or punch, or mix a pitcher of your favorite flavored green- or red-tinted martini.
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Encourage mingling. Instead of a big sit-down dinner, offer a lineup of hearty hors d’oeuvres and allow guests to snack away wherever they please. “Cheese and jam stations are really hot right now — everybody’s really into cheese,” says Liron David, founder and CEO of Eventique. If you want to serve a pricey item, make that the star of the show by putting it at the center of your buffet and surrounding it with filling spreads like hummus and tapenade served with flatbreads, Schechter says. Ditching the formal dinner table also lets guests mingle more easily.
Rise and shine. If you really, really want to have the whole crew gathered around the table for a sit-down party, the pros recommend serving brunch. Pancakes and eggs are obviously more affordable than crowned rack of lamb, and mimosas and Bloody Marys will suffice if you want to serve alcohol.
Play with your food. A limp, isolated platter of crackers or baby carrots can seem sad. So elevate an ordinary cheese plate by placing it on a mirror, picture frame, large pieces of tile or slate, says Howard Givner, executive director of the Event Leadership Institute (they teach people how to do this stuff for a living). Embellish it with big displays of in-season fruit, suggests Eventique’s David. “Fruits and vegetables aren’t necessarily expensive, but if you have a lot of them, it looks grand. It becomes décor.”
Channel your inner graffiti artist. Metallic spray paint is great for turning junk into holiday decorations, David says. Poke around in thrift stores for old vases and picture frames. It might look like a hodgepodge when you get it home, but hit it with gold or silver paint — and voila, it becomes a collection for your table or mantel. Go for an eclectic variety of sizes and shapes for the most visual appeal. You can fill vases with bare branches or pine boughs, either painted or left au naturel.
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Have an enlightening moment. Real candles add a dash of class and festivity to any holiday party. “Votive candles are an event planner’s secret weapon,” Givner says. “You can place them on window sills, bookshelves and coffee tables to create a nice, warm glow throughout the home.” (Just make sure they’re not in the path of kids or pets.)
If your buffet table is in close proximity to an electrical outlet, another option is Christmas lights, Bernstein says: Pile a string of them in a big glass bowl or stretch out a string of lights artfully across the table for an instant, festive take on the usual table runner. Be sure to tape down the cord or somehow keep it hidden.
Go to pot. Fresh-cut flowers, while beautiful, will probably go to waste by New Year’s. Live plants, on the other hand, can brighten up a holiday party and be around long afterward, says Jennifer Squeglia, owner of RLC Events. You can do traditional poinsettias or amaryllis, or get a tiny balsam, blue spruce or holly bush in a pot. Next spring, you’ll have a new addition for your garden or yard.