10 Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Entertaining (That Actually Work)

holiday table setting

Talia Helvey Photography

An expert decorator and entertainer shares advice that won’t make you dread the festivities.

“Entertaining is all about being together,” says Nathan Turner, decorator and author of I Love California, a lifestyle guide and paean to his home state. “It’s important not to lose sight of why we do this. What good is it to throw an amazing dinner or party when everyone is having a great time except you?” 

At a recent holiday-themed workshop at Alisal Ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, Turner showed guests exactly how to focus on the fun — instead of the work — part of the season. Besides, he says, no one wants to be around a stressed host: “It sets the tone for the party and people feel that.” 

Fretting about having a flawless event? You can take that possibility off the metaphorical table right now. “Just know not everyone will go exactly right,” says Turner, citing a paella party where he burned the star dish and had to order in pizza — and all the guests had a blast, including him. “If people are judging you that hard on what you’re doing and serving, you shouldn’t have them to your house anyway.”

Here are Turner’s tips for taking the stress out of the season, so you can enjoy yourself alongside family and friends.

1.) Make a game plan. Turner recommends beginning early, and with a tabletop theme; at the workshop, his was “Scandinavian Holiday.” First choose fabric (he used his own Scandinavian fabric), then focus on the centerpieces, plates, flatware, and glasses, and take each out of storage so you can view everything together. “I get my bar ready, my buffet ready, I figure out what platters, cake stands, and bowls are for what,” says Turner. “I literally take a picture of each serving dish with a Post-It note of what it’s for, so an hour before guests arrive, I know where the food goes.” The same goes for people: Count how many your kitchen and dining tables will seat, your sofas, and even coffee tables with floor cushions (which he says is a cozy way to dine at a more casual party). Then map out where your guests will sit for dinner, Nathan says. 

Different levels of lovely decor at Turner’s event

2.) Scour your yard to decorate your table. “I love greenery during the holidays,” says Turner. He suggests working with whatever your yard offers up, without being too finicky. “Olive branches, eucalyptus, and magnolia leaves are really pretty; if you’re in the mountains, look for pine branches.” If you’re lucky enough to live in a warm climate like Florida or California, Turner says that citrus leaves and fruits make a holiday table look festive. “I don’t even know what half the stuff I find is, but if I find a tree with pretty leaves,” he admits, “I’m going to cut some branches for the house.” 

Bringing the outside in with some greenery

3.) Make big-batch cocktails before guests arrive. “I love making a giant pitcher of festive cocktails or a big punch,” says Turner (who adds, “Punch is such a 50s thing — it needs to come back”). Make your version holiday-ish via slices of citrus or floating cranberries on top, and keep a second batch in a giant Tupperware in the fridge for refills. And as with any bar, Turner says, the idea is to put all the beverages, cups, and tools out and let people help themselves. (Hide extra soft drinks under the bar table.) Or if you don’t love self-service, hire a bartender.

4.) Create a holiday playlist and sort out your music system. And figure this all out before the party, when it’s nice and quiet — who wants the pressure of connecting Spotify to Sonos with people watching? Turner does a dry run of the audio a couple of days before: “There’s nothing more annoying than having to crawl under furniture and connect wires at a party.” 

Turner’s Scandinavian wonderland

5.) Holiday parties are all about the buffet. “I’m so over a sit-down dinner; you only get to talk to two people,” says Turner. “A buffet naturally lends itself to getting up and moving around.” Set out serving plates and serving pieces beforehand. 

Chips and dip in an easy self-serve spot

6.) Serve customizable meals. Offer up a giant polenta board, like the one Nathan created at his workshop, or a chili board with all the toppings and baked potatoes. Set everything out and let the picky eaters choose what they will and won’t eat. “People love to build their own meal.” During his cooking demo, Turner poured hot polenta onto a wooden countertop from IKEA, used crinkled parchment paper under veggie add-ons, and surrounded it all with fresh herbs as décor, like bundles of sage and rosemary. 

Turner’s delicious polenta bar

7.) Set up your dessert table. Stack plates and forks next to the cakes and cookies, making it pretty by varying cake stand heights; then tuck in greenery as décor. “Greenery ties it all together, plus it’s inexpensive and festive,” says Turner. And you don’t have to bake every sweet yourself: “I absolutely buy some desserts, like the Swedish wedding cakes from Solvang Bakery,” he says. “That’s the fun of it: buying super-decorative things that mix in with homemade.”

Decadent holiday desserts

8.) Enlist your friends. Ask guests to bring something, like wine or a dessert, but be specific so your meal doesn’t end up as a hodge-podge of flavors and plates. And let them pitch in on supplies, too. “If you need to borrow a punch bowl or a big cutting board, don’t be afraid to ask,” says Turner. (Just ask them to come a bit early or drop it off beforehand so they’re not showing up with prep items during your party.) And if you’re making a labor-intensive dish like polenta, get your BFF to do the stirring for you, like Turner did.

9.) Get help with cleanup. “There’s no getting around the fact you have to clean up after a party, so it’s nice to have someone help you do it,” Turner says. He even recommends “hiring” your kids and their friends to bus glasses and wash dishes. And as tempting as it might be, don’t leave cleanup for the next morning; it’s so much better to wake up to a fresh and tidy kitchen.

10.) Prep your décor for next year. Wash all your linens before storing, wrap delicate feathered and fragile items in paper or bubble wrap, and place everything in a Container Store bin with a label on it. “I keep it all, except the greenery,” Nathan says. “It’s like a little system. And then next year, you’re ready to roll.” 

Follow Nathan Turner and Martha McCully on Instagram.

Images by Talia Helvey Photography