Sometimes, the best holiday parties aren't the most picture-perfect, Instagram-worthy moments — they're a bit more realistic. You might not have enough seating for every single guest or you might put out paper plates for easier cleanup, but as long as you're among loved ones and laughter is in the air, you know it's going to be a good time.
As a chef, restaurateur, and bar owner, Esther Choi isn't one to shy away from having people over during the holidays. In fact, she's usually the first to offer up her home — whether it's for a Thanksgiving dinner with her family or a Christmas cocktail party for her restaurant staff and friends. Over the years, she's gathered a few tips and tricks to make the task easier on herself by working smarter, not harder. "Holiday celebrations mean being festive and bringing everyone together," Choi says. "That means the food, ambience, everything has to be right."
Whether it's your first time hosting or your fifth annual get-together, keep reading for Choi's unfussy advice for having people over during the holidays.
Ask For Help
While it may seem like asking for help goes against the unwritten rules of hosting, Choi encourages any host to delegate their duties. "I love having people involved in the kitchen," she says. "Everyone is there to have a good time, and people really don't mind helping out — actually, they really like doing it." That can mean asking guests to help set the table, add songs to the queue, or bring their favorite bottle of wine. It makes the entire experience feel more collaborative, puts less pressure on you as a host, and ultimately loosens up the vibe. Oh, and if someone offers to help wash the dishes, don't turn them down.
Get Funky With Presentation
Choi's restaurants are basically one big party: casual eateries and bars each with their own distinct, vibrant atmosphere. One way she translates this ambience into her entertaining style is through eclectic dishes and fun, interactive ways to present food and drink. Her go-to servingware is a big cutting board: "I have several because they are easy to plate and make anything look beautiful," she says. But if you haven't racked up a collection of vintage dishes just yet, Choi suggests covering your table in brown paper and serving your food directly on top.
Prep in Advance
Any chef knows that a mise en place is essential for efficient cooking. The term literally translates to "everything in place," meaning that all the ingredients are diced, measured, and proportioned before you start cooking.
Choi applies the same technique to hosting. "I try to prep way in advance," she says. "Keeping an organized list and doing things ahead of time is a huge time saver." Choi also cuts down on prep time by turning to easy snacks and appetizers like Smartfood® Popcorn. It's a tasty, crowd-pleasing option that doesn't require any work; it's as simple as opening up a bag and pouring the popcorn into a bowl. "You can even serve it in cute glasses and put them all over so that people can snack on it wherever they go," she says.
Keep the Party Going
Food and drink are the key ingredients to a successful holiday get-together, but Choi likes to go above and beyond to make her parties feel extra memorable. "I love having a fun activity corner so that there's always something to do," she says. That doesn't mean you have to hire live entertainment or have a blow-up bouncy castle, though — Choi likes to keep it simple. "I love having a corner with Polaroids and an album so we can document the party and write fun notes to each other," she says. But if you're looking for an activity that's more on theme for the holidays, Choi suggests setting up a cookie-decorating station alongside some to-go bags. This way, guests can bring home leftovers as party favors.
When it comes to hosting during the holidays, give yourself permission to be imperfect. Don't feel the need to apologize if your main dish isn't piping hot or you're pouring cocktails into red plastic cups. Holiday hosting is all about picking your battles, embracing the chaos, and, above all, spending time with loved ones. "Things may go wrong, but in the end, it's just a party," Choi says.
See More of Esther's Unfussy Holiday Hosting Tips
Design: Mia Coleman