Small gatherings can be just as festive as a raucous open house or a crowded cocktail party. Indeed, cozy gatherings with smaller guest lists and intentionally arranged holiday table settings are often even more fun, because they provide space and time for authentic connections and great conversations.
Wondering how you can create an intimate atmosphere around your own table if you’re hosting a small gathering for the holidays? We’ve got some ideas.
It might seem like an antiquated tradition, but sometimes a little old-fashioned formality makes an event feel special. Asking guests to sit in a specific place also gives them the opportunity to really connect with those seated in their immediate vicinity.
The trick to creating great conversation clusters is thinking through who you’ll seat together. You could match guests who don’t know each other but have common interests, or friends who may not have seen each other in a while. If you’re inviting new acquaintances, pair them with your most outgoing old friends to be sure they’re drawn into the conversation. At the table, use decorative place cards to clearly indicate where you’d like guests to sit.
Create Mini Zones
If you’re into creating picture-perfect table settings, this is an opportunity to shine. One idea: For each grouping of four guests, create a small zone—or home base—with everything your guests will need, such as:
- A selection of cutlery: Stand the utensils up in round canisters to make them easily accessible.
- Condiments for each guest: Silicone baking cups or transparent glass prep bowls are ideal for creating individual portions.
- A napkin dispenser: Make it easy for guests seated in a zone to reach the napkins, and to grab one at a time without extras coming loose.
- Festive decor: A small centerpiece such as flowers, a wreath or a few candles add color and warmth to each zone.
- A no-spill salad dressing shaker: That way guests can help themselves to their desired amount of dressing without dripping it on the tablecloth.
- Salt and pepper shakers: Give each zone its own set so nobody’s meal gets cold while they wait for shakers to make the rounds.
- A kitchen-to-table salad bowl: This makes prep easy and cuts down on your cleanup.
Embrace Sheet Pans
For each zone, arrange sheet pans and cutting boards with a selection of holiday appetizers such as deviled eggs, charcuterie, bread knots, crackers, and cheeses—or if it’s dessert time, with chocolate truffles and holiday cookies.
You can also go oven-to-table for the main course, with a sheet pan entrée like steak and asparagus, or lemon chicken. It’s an easy way to mimic a buffet-style dinner, and to allow guests in each zone to serve themselves what they want from the comfort of their seat. For younger guests, consider a snack board supper that puts all their favorites within easy reach.
Serve Individual Portions
Anyone who says buffet-style is easier has either an enormous kitchen with endless storage space for oversized platters or two dishwashers—or both. Individual portions can be just as simple, and can also go from oven to table when cooked in smaller glass bakeware. Walk them out of the kitchen on a tray, and then set them down on trivets placed at each guest’s seat.
Since serving individual portions means you’ll be plating the meal for your guests (rather than having them choose from an assortment of dishes), make sure to ask about any allergies or preferences beforehand.
Make Things Easy
The idea here isn’t to go crazy by multiplying all the effort needed to host an event, but rather to simplify the entire process so that you enjoy your event as much as your guests do. Do this by prepping food in equipment that’s at home both in the kitchen and on the holiday table, like a transparent glass salad spinner and simple, elegant stainless steel utensils. Glass containers filled with sauces like gravy are also perfect for the table because their clean design won’t distract from any holiday decorations. Remember: The goal isn’t perfection, but rather thoughtful planning and purposeful execution.
Set a Relaxed Mood
To create a welcoming environment for your guests—no matter how you’re arranging the table—you’ll want to spruce up your space with a few simple moves. String lights add a warm glow to a room, and tea lights (small candles placed in open glass jars) let you safely bring more sparkle to your surroundings. And don’t forget the tunes: Cue up a few playlists, ranging from holiday classics to more subdued background music that won’t compete with dinnertime conversation once everyone sits down to eat.
Need more ideas for easy-going fun with loved ones? Try organizing a low-key gift exchange, or sharing a holiday cocktail or festive coffee with a good friend, which—let’s be honest—is often the best part of the season anyway, right?