THE BLOG
12/07/2012 06:48 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

Get Your Holiday on: Entertain Like a Pro This Season

There's that time in life where you transition from being the guest at holiday galas and get togethers to being the host. You realize that it's a project, to say the least, when you're the one planning, shopping, preparing, cooking and serving all of those tasty holiday favorites to any number of guests. The day this time-honored tradition falls into your hands, you will likely call your parents or grandparents and thank them for the years (and years) of effort and commitment to putting the season's eats together no matter what the celebration.

Having hosted a fete or two here, you quickly learn that it's all about the approach and execution. If you're playing host this holiday season, fear not. You can look like a pro in the process.

First, frame the event with a sense of who, what, when and where. Is it a dinner? Drinks? Breakfast? Brunch? Whatever it may be, getting this set is key. Next, you'll want to start a guest list going -- not just for number and size, or who will be on hand, but also so that you've got any meal or dietary exceptions top of mind before you start menu planning and shopping for what you'll serve. Will there be kids on hand or adults only? That's another important piece.

After you've got your guest list set, now it's time to think out the space and location. If it's at your home, what room? What are you going to need to accommodate everybody in terms of space, seating, storage for coats and what not?

Now, you're onto the menu. A great way to approach attacking this element of a get together is to plan it from start to finish, beginning with what guests will nosh on and drink when they arrive, to the meal itself. This is where your previous step of sussing out your guest list will come in handy. If there are kids, vegan eaters, gluten free, etc. now is the time to work what you'll need to serve into the plan.

Everybody arrives hungry and ready to eat, so map out your pre-meal snacks and munchies. This doesn't have to be complex. Ready-to-eat items are a sneaky way to pull it off without the hassle. Just put them on a pretty plate and arrange in a serving area. Boom! You're set. One easy favorite are gourmet olives. Put a twist on yours with stuffed options from Santa Barbara Olive Company, which add a kick of flavor. Forget the old school classic pickle and work in Lynnae's Gourmet. Classic or spicy, guests will love it.

You'll also need to have plenty of drinks on hand. For adults, skip mixed drinks to keep things easy and opt for wine and champagne instead. It can be easy to default to whatever is on sale, but skip this temptation with the wine -- you can get great options without breaking the bank.

"For holiday entertaining, it's important to select a versatile, well-balanced wine that can be easily paired with a variety of dishes," said Bernard Hickin, Chief Winemaker at Jacob's Creek. The company's Reserve Adelaide HIlls Chardonnay makes it easy. It works with virtually everything.

For red wines, again its all about the food. We like Hall Wines 2009 'Kathryn Hall' Cabernet Sauvignon because it's smooth and easy. If you want to get creative, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo DOC Colle Morino is a nice Italian option. If you're doing cocktails or something light, try a bottled Sangria -- it's light, fresh and perfect for the holiday. Eppa's option is organic and works with everything.

When it comes to kid-friendly or those who want to skip alcohol, go with a craft or artisan soda. Dry Soda has so many flavors and puts a cool twist on this holiday entertaining staple. When in doubt for kids, drink boxes never fail and are easy for little hands not to spill.

Moving onto the meal, the great news is that decades (and decades) of everybody else making dinner has created a world of endless options for main dishes and sides. Roasts, prime rib, turkey, and ham are all holiday favorites. Pick one and work around it, or if you've got a big enough guest list, go with two to mix up the options. Sides are the fun part -- you can work the classics like mashed potatoes and green been casserole or get creative and serve things that might not be expected.

Don't forget the little ones and your specialty eaters here! If you're not sure what to prepare for vegan or other diets, ask your guest. They'll be thankful that you did.

With the meal plan out of the way, it's time to focus on what happens after. Desserts are in order, along with after dinner drinks like coffee and tea. You can keep it simple with cookies and coffee -- Papa Ben's Kitchen's traditional Mandelbroyt has a bunch of funky flavors to make noshing easy. Or you can do a simple ice cream bar with a few flavors and toppings. Fat Toad Farm's salted bourbon caramel, or traditional vanilla, sauces are amazing. Give guests the choice to add fruits, nuts, chocolate sauce -- simple, tasty and easy.

Now that the meal plan is knocked out, the last are the serving options you'll use -- paper, plastic, your own china, etc.

"If you're having a large party, splurge on renting your china," advises celebrity chef/event planner and Elle France columnist Linnea Johansson, who has worked with A-list hosts like Richard Gere, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Sean Combs and Sarah Jessica Parker. "Best part you can send it back dirty the next day."

If you're using your own dishes, Linnea suggests setting up tubs of soap and water in a garage or outside area to soak dishes after dinner and making cleaning a snap.

Speaking of keeping things clean and festive, Softsoap has a new line of holiday liquid soaps in three season favorite scents. Park these in the bathroom, kitchen and bar areas for guests to wash hands throughout the party as needed.

Now that you're armed with what you need to create your ultimate holiday event, your last step is to think on decorations. Simple balloons and floral arrangements can make it ultra easy to create an experience. On the night of your event, dress comfortable by keeping tops and pants or dresses simple. Earrings and necklaces let you accessorize while keeping your hands and arms free for ease during cooking and serving.

Check out the rest of this week's edition of Condiment at www.getcondiment.com