If you spend more time stressing out during your holiday soiree than enjoying time with your guests, it’s time to take a different approach to party planning. Believe it or not, there is an easy way to go about executing your holiday party to-do list for all your hosting duties—from meal prep to decorating to cleanup time—and we’ve summed it up for you in an easy-to-follow list of do’s and don’ts.
1. DO plan a budget. Yes, even small, intimate get-togethers need a budget. This will allow you to consciously spend what your finances allow instead of going overboard.
2. DON’T feel bad about asking guests to bring a dish. More often than not, guests don’t mind bringing their favorite holiday dish for others to enjoy—especially since they don’t have the pressure of hosting the party themselves.
3. DO choose a holiday theme. Break out the ugly Christmas sweaters. Decorate everything in red and green. No matter what theme you decide to choose, go all out!
4. DON’T forget to play music. The only thing worse than forced small talk is awkward silence. Always keep background music on, whether it’s a holiday playlist on your iPod or a Christmas station on Pandora.
5. DO get a headcount. Make it a point that guests RSVP by a certain date. An estimated headcount lets you know how much room, food and other essential elements you’ll need to run a smooth gathering.
6. DON’T underestimate a planned cooking schedule. Having more dishes to prepare than kitchen appliances to cook them with is the norm for a lot of hosts. Take a tip from seasoned cooks, and pop each dish in at a planned time so it will be hot and ready to serve.
7. DO display store-bought and handmade decor. While some holiday decorations are hard to replicate, putting out DIY decor will give the party a personal touch. Plus, it’ll give the kids something to do while you get ready for the big day.
8. DON’T set out place cards. Assigned seating can be convenient, but it limits conversations—and the chance for new and old friends to connect.
9. DO serve dinner buffet-style. Guests will be able to help themselves to seconds (and thirds), and you won’t need to worry about playing waitress: It’s a win-win.
10. DON’T attempt to do all the meal prep yourself. Even though you should complete whatever meal prepping can be done in advance, recruit someone to help with the behind-the-scenes cooking in the kitchen. ‘Tis the season for helping one another, after all!
11. DO organize a handful of games to play. Whether it’s a Christmas twist on a classic like Pictionary, or a few different board games that you leave out for guests, always have some games at the ready to keep people entertained.
12. DON’T make a new recipe the day of the party. This isn’t the time to try that new recipe you pinned on Pinterest. There’s simply no time for trial and error when it comes to holiday hosting.
13. DO make a grocery store run at least a week beforehand. Getting your grocery shopping done early means you’ll be able to cook, bake, decorate and set up ahead of time. It also gives you a little wiggle room if you forget anything.
14. DON’T wait to clean your home until the day before. Please. Just don’t do it.
15. DO set up a self-serve bar area. If you don’t have a bar in your home, create a makeshift one. Leave out various glasses, spirits and premade Christmas cocktails and mocktails so everyone can enjoy and refill as they wish.
16. DON’T pass up the opportunity to make festive food. Speaking of Christmas-themed drinks, be sure to include festive items on your party’s menu, like guacamole appetizers that look like Christmas trees.
17. DO organize a holiday cookie exchange. It’s less expensive and much simpler than a gift exchange. And guests will be excited to show off their very own holiday cookie recipes.
18. DON’T allow guests to leave without leftovers. Leave out disposable containers and bags so family and friends can grab and go on their way—assuming you have enough left over to share.
19. DO offer party keepsakes to thank guests for coming. Individually wrapped edible ornaments are an easy and delicious way to show loved ones you’re glad they came.
20. DON’T drive yourself crazy trying to make the party perfect. Remember to enjoy yourself, be in the moment and have fun.