How to host a dinner party for the holidays that won’t break the bank

The holidays are here and that means more fun, more food, and more time with family and friends. But it can also be panic-inducing with all of the gift-buying and party-planning that needs to be done—and all of this is on top of your end-of-year work schedule. Sitting down to plan a party can sometimes feel scarier than putting together a business plan!

We’re very familiar with the preparation required to put on a successful evening. So, we’re here to help with a few tips, short cuts, and ideas to keep it simple and exceed your guest’s expectations at the same time.

Gather the Guest List

A great dinner party is all about the mix—of guests, that is! You want to make sure that there is a variety of diverse thinkers, movers, and shakers from the introverted to the outspoken, the flamboyant and the shy. This keeps the conversation interesting and ensures your guests feel entertained throughout the night and want to stay the three courses, plus dessert! And don’t just invite people you know. Pull people from all aspects of your life, of different talents and all ages. Perhaps your childhood friend would really get along with your new office colleague, so sit them next to each other and watch them hit it off.

Timeline: 3 weeks out.

Create an Invitation

It’s often overlooked but you don’t want to miss this essential party planning ingredient. The design of your invitation will set the tone for the evening and is an opportunity to build intrigue and excitement for your dinner party. It is also a great way to keep yourself accountable. Once the invitation is sent, there’s no backing out. You can go old school and send printed invitations or you can use a digital invite such as Paperless Post which also conveniently tracks all of your RSVPs and responses too. Include all the important information such as time, location, occasion, dress code, etc. and any other details—don’t be afraid to have fun with it.

Timeline: 2 weeks out.

Design the Tablescape

This is the fun part. There are so many directions you could take but before you decide, start collecting inspiration for the tablescape from the napkins to the vases. We love to use Pinterest or create a saved folder on Instagram. One of our favorites is Athena Calderone’s EyeSwoon for ideas and recipes. The goal is to transform your space (even if it’s small studio apartment) into something that makes your guest’s jaws drop. And it doesn’t need to cost you an entire paycheck. Think fresh flowers (or garden clippings!), candles, napkins, vases, and a pretty tablecloth (pro tip: purchase linen from the local fabric store for the tablecloth and the napkins, wash them and leave the ends unsewn so they have frayed edges. Choose to iron them or leave them crinkled for a cool, unkempt effect).

Timeline: 2 weeks out.

Curate a Delicious Menu

A dinner party is all about the food so don’t forget to plan a delicious spread with enticing appetizers and tasty treats that keep everyone happy all night long. You don’t have to be a top chef either. Why not order it pre-made and ready to go? Whether you’re having an intimate gathering or preparing a holiday feast for the whole family, our go-to specialty grocer is The Fresh Market.

They have everything you need to elevate entertaining for a memorable and delicious holiday including tons of fully prepared offerings so you can spend less time in the kitchen and more time with loved ones.

The Fresh Market’s complete holiday meals are the easiest and most delicious way to make this holiday season a breeze, while still being able to enjoy all your favorite foods that look and taste homemade. They have four different meal options to choose from depending on the size of your gathering, and each option is specially curated with exclusive recipes.

New this year is their Spiral Ham Meal that serves about 10-12 people. It comes with a 9 lb. honey ham, white cheddar scalloped potatoes, roasted butternut squash with pecans and cranberries, green beans, dinner rolls and their signature cranberry relish with walnuts recipe.

I also love their appetizer options like their take & bake brie, which is one of the number one holiday items year after year, and their party platters. They have 50 new party platter options this year like this antipasto or Mediterranean platter, which are both great options for easy appetizers if you’re hosting a holiday party this season.

Lastly, if you’ve saved room for dessert, The Fresh Market has a bakery that is to-die-for. I love some of their festive seasonal offerings like their traditional chocolate yule log or this White Chocolate Cranberry Cake which is only available for a limited time.

You can order the meal online at thefreshmarket.com through December 20th and then pick it up between December 21 to 24 (they’re open until 7 pm on Christmas Eve). It’s effortless holiday entertaining done right.

Timeline: 1 week out.

Put on a Killer Playlist

If you want to good vibes all night long then compile a killer playlist on Spotify with a mix of old and new to keep the tempo upbeat and exciting. Be sure to plan a playlist that features several hours worth of music too and keep the cadence of the evening’s events in mind. Start the night off with lively tunes as you welcome people through the door, then songs during dinner should be calming and mellow as people are eating and conversing, then pump it up again as guests move from the dinner party to the dance floor.

Timeline: A few days out.

This article first appeared on Create and Cultivate.