Now that Thanksgiving is over, it’s official that we are sprinting into a full month of to-do lists, shopping and parties. If you’re like me, I’m guessing a lot of you will be hosting a party in the next month. And, I’m also guessing that like me, some of you are wondering, how the heck can I host a party and enjoy the festivities too? How can I take a packed schedule, add in a dinner party and make it all seem as effortless as Blake Lively’s hair. Or something like that.


For an expert opinion, I asked Vermont caterer and all-around entertaining sorceress, Lisa Danforth, of Hot Betty BBQ and The Wooden Spoon Creative Catering for any tips she could offer us this entertaining and holiday season on how to plan a party with ease.


Lisa says it all starts with smart menu planning, “Know that you need something that’s cold, something that’s warm, and something that’s hot. If you can do things ahead of time, do anything that you can possibly do. For example, bacon wrapped dates can be made ahead and you can freeze them. The biggest thing is, don’t produce food that you have to really work on during the party. Because what happens is that you think you can do it, and then you’re not there with your guests. You can’t enjoy your party! You’re supposed to be entertaining!” She goes on to say, “It’s also important that you plan a menu that you’re comfortable with. If you’re doing six hors d’oeuvres, don’t try four of them that are brand new to you.”


She really got me thinking, and so I decided to come up with twenty-two tips for effortless entertaining to share with you. These are ways to stay organized that have helped me keep my cool when I have a big group over. I have used these strategies to stay organized and make entertaining enjoyable.

holiday table

22 Tips for Effortless Entertaining

  1. Make lots of lists. Having everything written down will automatically reduce your stress level because youre sure won’t forget anything.
  2. Plan your menu so that most of the cooking can be done ahead.
  3. Take special diets into consideration. Are there any gluten free folks or vegetarians in the group? Make plans for a balanced menu and any ingredient substitutions in advance. For example, serve a side that can double as a vegetarian entrée.
  4. A week before the party, buy non-perishables.
  5. Keep your grocery list organized by sections in the grocery store. Mark items off your list as they go in your cart.
  6. Know your wine guy or gal and get great recommendations for crowd pleasers that work with your menu.
  7. Spread your prep work out over several days. A lot of dips and dressings can be made several days in advance. I like to make a prep list for each day leading up to and including the day of the party. Do the bulk of your cutting and shredding the day before. Make your salad in the morning, and lay a damp towel over it in the fridge.
  8. Consider outsourcing dessert or appetizer. When someone offers to bring something, take them up on it! Have a friend bring an appetizer. Or I’ll buy gorgeous macaroons and arrange them on a platter with some garnish. But serve them with a home-made sorbet that you can make a week ahead.
  9. If possible, put someone (like your spouse) in charge of buying ice and beer.

10. Iron linens and set the table the day before. It gives you time to focus on the things that can’t be done ahead. It will also ensure that all your forks aren’t in the dishwasher as the guests are arriving

11. Arrange fresh flowers. This is a nice touch, and it only takes a few minutes. I like to make a small arrangement with clipping for the bathroom too.

12. Set a cozy atmosphere: Light candles, start a roaring fire in the fireplace and create a playlist or Pandora station. Again this is a great job to outsource to your spouse if possible.

13. Put cocktails out for guests to help themselves. Set up a big bucket with ice, cold seltzer, beer, wine and mixers. That way you don’t have to remember to make everyone a drink as they come in, or keep an eye on refills for that matter.

14. If they offer to help, give guests jobs, like filling waters glasses before everyone sits down.

15. You will not go to culinary purgatory for choosing to use your microwave. Seriously, don’t be afraid of making something ahead and giving it a blast in the microwave to heat it up before serving. This is a great trick with mashed roots or squash.

16. Heated plates are a nice touch, and your guests will notice! You can do this in a quick rinse setting with your dishwasher or you can do it with a super cool but less-environmentally-friendly plate warmer.

17. Set up decaf in the coffee maker in advance, and turn it on as you sit down to eat, or better yet, set a timer.

18. Consider traffic flow, don’t set the bar up in a place where you don’t want people to congregate.

19. Consider serving buffet style. Let people choose what and how much to put on their plate without the extra table clutter of family style.

20. Choose your serve ware in advance. I always put out a basket with a napkin for the bread so that I won’t forget it in the oven. I even choose serving spoons in advance, so I don’t have to scramble at the last minute.

21. When setting up a buffet, start with the starch and end with the protein. That way you won’t run out of the entrée. Guests will take less of the meat if there isn’t much room left on their plates.

22. Don’t forget to set a timer for anything that’s cooking! You’ll be having so much fun, you may just forget you’re in charge of the food!


Effortless Holiday Menu

Smoked Salmon with Maple Pickled Onions on Black Pepper Crackers

Low Fat Ranch Dip with Usual and Unusual Crudités

Beautiful Cheese Board with Cheeses, sliced pears, dried apricots and dates and artisanal crackers.

I like to choose a variety of locally made artisanal cheese which is easy for me because I live in Vermont–the awesome cheese capital of the world. If you’re stumped the best thing to do is ask your cheese monger for samples and suggested pairings.


Tuscan Pork Loin with garlic, rosemary and lemon with Vermouth Pan Jus.

Barley with Shitake Mushrooms

Recipe below. Prepare through step two before your guests arrive. Continue with step three just before serving.

Chopped Winter Salad


Peppermint Meringues with Chocolate Filling, Old Fasioned Hermit Cookies

Purchased Pear Ginger Sorbet




barley with shiitake mushrooms
Rate this recipe
Average: 0/5

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

Yield: 6 cups

To make ahead: Prepare through step two before your guests arrive. Combine the two and continue with step three just before serving.


  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 ½ cups unsalted chicken stock
  • 1 ½ cup pearled barley
  • 1 ½ teaspoon coarse kosher salt, divided
  • 1 large leek, diced and cleaned, see tip*
  • 3 cups shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded and caps sliced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 ounce finely shredded Romano cheese
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Freshly ground pepper, to taste


  1. Heat one tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic, and cook, stirring until the garlic is fragrant but not browned, 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil over high heat. Add barley and 1 teaspoon salt and return to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer gently until until the barley is just slightly undercooked and most of the liquid has been absorbed but still soupy, 25 to 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add leeks, shiitakes and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cook, stirring often until softened and starting to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat.
  3. Stir the mushroom mixture into the barley and continue simmering, uncovered, stirring occasionally, , about 10 minutes longer. Remove from the heat and stir in Parmesan, parsley and pepper.


Tip* To Clean a Leek: Cut off dark outer greens leaving just the white and light green part. Slice lengthwise, and then slice into strips crosswise. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and swish around to get all the dirt out from between the layers.  The dirt will fall to the bottom of the bowl.  Lift the clean leek out leaving the sand at the bottom of the bowl.  Lay out on a clean towel to dry.