If you’re anything like me, your holiday dance card is full of late-afternoon, early evening and dinner-time parties. Plus, the occasional brunch or all-day open house. And that doesn’t count the shindig you’re throwing yourself! ’Tis the season for grazing, drinking, gobbling and noshing.
How will it all get done, you ask? Professional caterers seem to keep their cool, even when practically every day arrives with a new menu to create, dishes to deliver, setup, serve and clean up. The pros must have secrets to pulling off a casual get-together or a swanky soiree with ease, grace and finesse. So I asked them how to avoid the overwhelm when putting on anything from an informal open-house to a fancy sit-down dinner yourself.
Mindie Huntington, Rebecca Montoya and Catherine Lind keep Blue Plate Catering humming along all year. Their calendar is booked with breakfast, lunch and dinner events ranging from elaborate dinners to low-key receptions.
“Appetizers, smaller foods and finger foods are definitely the trend this year,” Huntington says. “People can walk and mingle more.” Blue Plate’s finding variety is in demand, too: gluten-free and vegetarian options like stuffed mushrooms, tomato caprese on skewers with balsamic drizzle, and cranberry compote on flatbread with goat cheese. Bite-size is the watchword for desserts. They say they like to pass around little cookies, cheesecakes and mini brownies. Huntington says, “It’s a way for people to indulge but not feel like they’ve overindulged during the season.”
Cranberries are big in drinks, she says. Blue Plate suggests making a simple syrup of sugar and cranberries, then combining with apple cider and a cinnamon stick as a mixer for a pretty cocktail.
Tammy Montoya, owner of Special Touch Catering, says her customers are requesting more upscale, adventuresome foods that incorporate ingredients they see on cable television food shows. “There are more foodies than there used to be, so we’re using ingredients that many people aren’t as familiar with: butternut squash, beet and pear salads, [as well as] stuffed figs,” she says. “People should take a chance on new and unusual combinations.” Pro tip: consider mixing certain flavors you wouldn’t think go together, like vanilla ice cream topped with savory curry.
Tammy Montoya suggests two or three appetizers per person before a full dinner service, especially if you’re serving alcohol before the meal. That way people pace themselves and don’t overdrink before the end of the party. And if you are going to set up a stationary buffet, don’t put it the kitchen. People will congregate there anyway, so set up the food somewhere else to encourage mingling.
Michele Romero, co-owner with Steven Peffer and Gregg Cappetto of Atrios Catering, notices her clients are moving away from sit-down dinners. “We have more requests for buffets, and that people want things simpler, not as elaborate as in the past,” she says. “But what everyone wants is really good food, and in New Mexico, that means New Mexican comfort food like meatballs, enchiladas, pozole. Nothing exotic and nothing too formal.”
What Romero is sure of is that people tend to make too much food. “If you’re providing appetizers and a meal, you don’t need enough appetizers for everyone to have one of each. And family style is popular for dinner––platters of food that people pass and serve themselves. Everyone takes what they want and can monitor their own dietary needs.”
Huntington of Blue Plate has a pro tip for food prep: use a garlic press––no stinky hands to greet your guests with. Tammy Montoya of Special Touch says her potato peeler does lots of things beyond peeling—for instance, you can make chocolate shavings, garnishes and slice cheese.
Okay, so that’s the food. What about the logistics of the event? Huntington says people are so focused on planning the perfect menu that they forget about presentation. She suggests asking yourself how invested in party throwing you are. If you’re the host-with-the-most all the time, having your own supplies like tablecloths and serving dishes is best. But if the holidays are the only time you have people over, buy inexpensive or rent.
“Go to a dollar store or Walmart and get a table cloth or tray for $5 or less,” she says. “Then put disposable doilies on them to make a plain platter more presentable. There’s nothing wrong with using nice china, but disposable is perfectly okay. There are some nice designs in plastic that look like glass. And get silver or colored plastic forks and spoons––some guests will think they are too good to throw away! All that adds to the presentation.”
Romero of Atrios recommends always having more than you think you’ll need of silverware, plates, napkins and glasses, especially if you do appetizers or a buffet. And for a buffet, think smaller plates––people won’t overload them and thus overeat. “But think simple, like clear plastics––you can pick that stuff up cheaply,” she says. “That way, there is nothing to wash or break. Or you can rent everything and return it the next day.”
Ultimately, what all three caterers recommend for holiday parties is to keep it simple. The same goes for presentation, colors and decoration. Choose a main color and another for contrast––for winter, think silver/grey/sparkly or white and blue—and green/red and silver/gold always keep it festive and bright.
As for clean up, all three say don’t worry about it until everyone is gone, or better yet, the next day. Because you want to enjoy your guests and they want to enjoy you. “As long as food is put away at the end of the event, it’s more important to your guests to have good time than see you bagging trash,” Huntington says.
Special Touch’s Tammy Montoya thinks paying to have wait staff (or recruiting your kids) is a good investment. “The staff can clean up as they go, pack up and clean up at the end of the night, too.”
Atrios’ Romero has two pro-tips to ensure you have fun and that unexpected mishaps don’t ruin your party. “We all have those outfits that we feel great in and look good in,” she says. “Wear them. And we always have little kits with safety pins, scissors, extra buttons, etc. A good host will have these for guests in distress.”
Top 10 Tips from Caterers
- Have a budget in mind: What do you want to spend total? Per person? Plan from there.
- Know how many people will be there. This can be difficult in the land of no/late RSVPs. Be prepared, and think about leftovers.
- Serving alcohol? Give people something to nosh on.
- Think about the flow of the party. If this is a cocktail event, then passed hors d’oeuvres keep things moving. If a sit-down event, serving family-style dishes allows everyone to take as much/little as they want.
- Consider food restrictions, allergies and quirks. Everyone’s gluten-, meat-, dairy-, nut- or something-free these days.
- Have take-home containers ready—for yourself and guests. If Aunt Sue really loved that mini-cheesecake bite, wrap her up a few to take home. And you’ll have plenty of storage ready for leftovers.
- Put the pets away. You’ll have more fun, your allergic/animal phobic guests will appreciate it, and you’ll avoid Fluffy’s tummy upset when someone feeds her something she shouldn’t have.
- For easy clean up, top the table with a throwaway cloth, and present food attractively on inexpensive, disposable platters. Provide nice, one-use plates, napkins and utensils, too. Or rent the whole shebang and return them the next day.
- Provide plenty of trashcans, strategically placed. (See No. 8)
- Leave clean-up until the morning. As the host of your party, you want to have fun. Don’t worry about it now!
Story by Kelly Koepke