How to Throw a Holiday Open House Party

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Woman dipping shrimp into sauce on festive holiday table.

There are many ways to entertain friends and family, but during the busy holiday season, it’s the open house party that I gravitate to. Not a big sit-down meal, not a frenetic, crowded two-hour cocktail party, but rather a gentile stretch of time with people coming and going as they please.

Shrimp dish, cocktails, and other foods and drinks on a holiday table.

This kind of party allows people to stop by when it works for them and stay as long as they wish. It also allows you to host a lot of people in one day, hopefully in a nice gradual flow.

With a serve-yourself bar and an array of (mostly) room-temperature food, you can create a relaxed atmosphere that makes people understand that the whole real point was to get together to connect for a little while and share a drink and something good to eat.

Woman dipping shrimp into sauce on festive holiday table.

Here’s how to put together your own Open House party.

Time and Date

Invitation for Holiday Open House Party.

Evenings are festive, but consider an afternoon party if you are including a lot of families with kids. A four-hour time frame allows for a nice flow of people coming and going and hopefully means that you will be able to spend some real time with your guests. Send an invite — either paper or online — with all of the details.

Plan Ahead and Make Lists

Holiday Open House menu printed on paper in pink ink.
  1. Write down all tasks that need accomplishing, everything from brining the pork loin to buying flowers to stocking the bathroom with towels and soap.
  2. Make a list of what to buy (and when to buy them — shop for non-perishables, including all drinks, as far in advance as you can).
  3. Plan out what can be made ahead, and especially what can be frozen.
  4. Note down a timeline for the day of, what needs to happen, what gets served, and when, so nothing gets lost (and name who is responsible for each item!).

The Food

Bacon, Leek, Mushroom and Cheese Mini Quiches
Bacon, Leek, Mushroom, and Cheese Mini Quiches

The keywords are make-ahead and room-temperature. You might pick one or two things to serve hot, like mini quiches, and pop a few batches of those into the oven over the course of the party — or not! Hot dips, like Hot, Creamy Spinach and Goat Cheese Dip or Hot Corn Queso Dip, are another easy, warm offering.

Dipping cracker in bowl of Hot Clam Dip.
Hot Clam Dip

Start by thinking about a buffet and what kinds of foods are happy to sit out for a while. Don’t feel the need to have an enormous menu; 4 or 5 offerings are just fine. You will likely want to make backups of certain dishes so you can swap in a fresh plate as the party goes on and new folks arrive.

Also, think about color and things that make sense together on a plate. Make sure you have something from all of the food groups — and don’t forget to have an offering for those who are vegetarian and gluten-free if you know some of your guests will be looking for these options.

Pile of Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies on platter.
Mexican Hot Chocolate Brownies

Have a few dessert options as well (utensil-free things are good — brownies and cookies and such), and find a separate area for those if possible. If people ask if they can bring something, you can’t have too many desserts during the holidays, it seems!

The Buffet

Set out all of the platters and serving utensils at least the night before. Use Post-Its or scraps of paper to label each platter with what it will hold, and put the serving utensils on top of each dish. Take a mental walk through your whole menu.

Plates with labels set on table for holiday open house buffet.

Put out the glasses, plates, utensils, napkins, etc. Don’t stress about not having everything match — there is a great deal of charm in mixing up the various items you own. Many people turn to plastic for larger gatherings, depending on the number of people you will be having, and the amount of dishes you are willing to face the next day.

The Bar

Set up the bar ahead of time. Put out glasses, a bucket for ice, and small bowls for citrus wedges and olives.

Pouring cranberry juice into pitcher for a Cranberry Orange Shrub.
Cranberry Orange Shrub

Consider filling a large container or bucket with drinks and ice so that everything stays cold and people can help themselves. Do not feel obligated to offer every beverage under the sun — pick a few alcoholic beverages and a few non-alcoholic ones, and just make sure you have enough in total. But offering one special cocktail can add a nice little flair to the evening.

Color, Flowers, and Candles

Pops of color are something to think about and can be as simple as some supermarket flowers in low vases, bowls of fruit, and some votive candles spread throughout the space.

White flowers in glass vase on table.

Other Tips

Be prepared to replenish the food as needed so that the platters look appealing and don’t sit for too long.
Divide up responsibilities within your family, or think about hiring some help (local college students are often looking for some holiday income).
Don’t have a real bar space and running out of room? Clear off a bookshelf and make that the bar for the evening — it looks quite great.
Make a garbage can visible.

Feeling a little better? Plan ahead as much as you can, and make sure to enlist some help. And take a moment to look around to see how many great people you have in your life.

Cocktail bar set up on book shelf.

About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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