Lemon chiffon cake with raspberries

By Anna Olson, Celebrity Baker and Chef


When my family hosts at holiday time, I take extra care planning the menu, decorating the table (and the house) and thinking about what will please our guests the most. Of course, few holiday meals have more tradition and greater expectations than Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. If you are the cook in charge of your holiday meal, here are some tips on how to make the whole experience stress-free.



Family-style or buffet? Serving family-style means setting a table with plates, cutlery and glasses and bringing the food to the table on platters and in bowls so that guests can help themselves as dishes are passed around. If your group is more than 12, I recommend having two bowls or platters of each item, so that everyone can get a full plate faster. We often opt for a buffet. We set a long table with dinner plates and the delicious items we’ve prepared, and then ask guests to help themselves. They can easily pop up from the dining table to have seconds, and as the host, I can easily see when I need to top up platters, re-warm gravy or consolidate dishes to make cleaning up simpler.



If everyone knows each other, or if your tradition includes designated seats for everyone in the family, your guests can seat themselves. Otherwise, you might choose to plan the seating beforehand and put out name cards to help guests find their seat.



You know your crowd, so plan wine, beer, cocktails and non-alcoholic options to suit your group and your dishes. Whether you are setting up a beverage station for people to serve themselves or designating one or two people to manage the drinks, fill a large cooler with ice to store white wines, still and sparkling water and a selection of non-alcoholic drinks. Set out the appropriate glasses nearby. You can even plug in a portable burner or slow-cooker to hold a saucepan of mulled cider or hot chocolate.



Depending on the time of day and the guests you’ve invited, your gathering might be a long, relaxed affair with everyone lingering over dessert or it could be fast-paced. As the host, you set the tone and pace. If you’re in the kitchen, you could designate someone to get the door, take coats or serve drinks. Or perhaps you prefer to put on some music, introduce guests to each other and stay with them until everyone arrives before you head back to the kitchen. Once everyone is at the table, take a breath, enjoy the moment and the conversation and don’t rush. The minute you leave the table to clear plates or tidy up, people will follow, so gauge whether it’s time for people to jump to help with the dishes or whether you’d rather linger over those last few bites.



If you have kids in your group, or if you’re serving a crowd and prefer to have your guests mingle while you coordinate the meal in the kitchen, put out a cheese board and a few snacks — even just rolls or other child-friendly foods, to keep everyone happy before the main event. Most parents arrive with activities to keep their kids occupied but consider setting aside some space that the young ones can call their own.



You may have your own holiday dessert traditions, but at our house, we take a little break between the meal and dessert to get up from the table, clean up a touch and stretch! To bring everyone back together — and because I always offer a variety of cookies, cakes, squares and puddings — I like to set up a dessert buffet and be on hand to chat with my guests and help serve. Whether everyone heads back to the dining table with their desserts, or mills about informally, is up to you.


This article was originally published in the holiday edition of The Collection. Photo by Janis Nicolay.

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