Design Experts Share Their Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Entertaining

thanksgiving table

Sean Litchfield

When it comes to holiday entertaining, the ideal setup would include a beautiful tablescape and a coursed out meal that rivals our latest great restaurant outing. However, it can be difficult to execute in a time-starved world. The trick to planning a seamless holiday get together is to keep it simple, work with what you have, and follow a strict schedule that will lead you to the finish line in time, and feeling stress-free.

Meet the Expert

Becky Shea is an interior designer whose work has been featured in Elle Decor and HGTV, and Matt Powell is a chef, and former editor at design website Homepolish.

Few people understand this better than design experts and chefs, who all make it their life mission to know how to entertain—and do it well. That's why we tapped interior designer Becky Shea and chef Matt Powell to clue us in on their best tips for throwing a seamless holiday dinner party. From setting the right ambiance to choosing the right menu, to even including some recipes ideas, Shea and Powell show us how to throw a holiday fête—and as hosts, enjoy it, too.

Start With Pre-Party Treats

Thanksgiving Ideas — Party Treats

Sean Litchfield; Design: Becky Shea

"Whether it's a curated platter of gourmet cheeses to take the initial hangry feelings away or a welcome cocktail to ease the flow of conversation, guests will always appreciate some munchies before dinner," Powell says. "Plus, it'll buy you some time to finish up last-minute preparations and cooking."

Having snacks and cocktails ready before your guests show up will not only keep guests comfortably satiated (but not stuffed), but it will also give them something to do until the party really picks up. "We always have a medley of bite-size appetizers our guests can nibble on as they settle in and make themselves comfortable, coupled with a fully stocked bar and a variety of mixers, fruits, and garnishes. A fall-themed signature cocktail like a Hot Toddy can always add to the experience," Powell adds.

Consider Each Guest's Footprint

Thanksgiving Ideas — Help

Sean Litchfield; Design: Becky Shea

"It's important to understand the space you have and how many guests you can comfortably accommodate to create your flow," Shea warns. "Having a low-key, laid-back plan in place for the evening is instrumental to the success of keeping the conversation active and your guests engaged."

Count out how many courses you'll serve so you can include the number of plates, glasses, and flatware you'll need for the table. From there, you can then build out your table décor, knowing that each guest's footprint is accounted for.

Set an Inviting Table

Thanksgiving Ideas — Tablescape

Sean Litchfield; Design: Becky Shea

"It doesn't have to be elaborate or over the top, but a table setting that is a bit more extra than your typical dining table shows guests that this is, in fact, a special occasion," Powell suggests. "Go for the full set of silverware, break out the nice china, and never forget a flourish of florals."

For example, in the centerpiece pictured above, Shea mixed a combination of florals and edible items from the menu. "We got creative and used edible centerpieces, seasonal flowers in vases from throughout our home, musky-scented candles, and a fun place card to pique curiosity and ignite conversation," Shea says.

Create a Warm and Inviting Atmosphere

Thanksgiving Ideas — Well-appointed dinner table with area rugs and floral centerpieces

Sean Litchfield; Design: Becky Shea

Tackling each of the five senses is the most important aspect of creating the right ambiance, Shea says. "As an interior designer, I understand that each of the senses should be stimulated to create a balanced home, and the same rule applies during a holiday gathering. The first step is a clean and tidy home that can be layered with candles, warm lighting, fresh flowers, music at the perfect volume, and texture."

And speaking of lighting, use it to create an inviting atmosphere at home. "Use dimmers, light some candles, and select a good playlist to hum in the background. And if you want to go that extra mile, spray a welcoming scent in the entryway," Powell recommends. "Ambiance is all about the senses outside of taste. Have you ever seen a restaurant that serves dinner under fluorescent lights?"

Stick to Your Greatest Hits Menu

Thanksgiving Ideas — Overhead shot of tablescape

Sean Litchfield; Design: Becky Shea

"We all like to show off, but your friends are not expecting a three-star Michelin experience in your home," Powell points out. "Stick to foods you know will please, and make slight variations. It's fun to experiment, but there's no need for undue stress at your party. So save the beef Wellington for another time—a good roast duck leg dish or roast chicken will work wonders."

When crafting your menu, Shea also recommends tackling any dietary restrictions that may arise. "We find it's important to ask well in advance if any of our guests have food allergies or restrictions so we can accommodate and include variety on our menu," Shea says.

Remember to Enjoy the Party

Thanksgiving Ideas — Overhead shot of tablescape

Sean Litchfield; Design: Becky Shea

"Nothing causes more unease than a host who doesn't know when to stop and enjoy themselves," Powell says. "So hands up! Step away from that stove and dive head first into a glass of red and some lively conversation. You deserve it."

Shea also recommends getting some outside help to relax and enjoy the evening. "If your budget permits, we recommend hiring a bartender along with one wait staff who can help with making cocktails and tidying up," Shea advises.

Holiday Menu Recipe Ideas

Kale and Brussels Sprouts Salad With Squash and Cranberries

Thanksgiving Ideas — Kale Salad

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 2

Ingredients for salad:

1 bunch Lacinato kale, stemmed and sliced
1/2 lb. Brussels sprouts, shaved
1/2 lb. butternut squash, cubed
Salt, pepper, and olive oil
1 sweet red apple, diced
Handful of dried cranberries
Handful of pepitas
Goat cheese

Ingredients for dressing:

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. whole grain Dijon mustard
1 shallot, minced
Salt and pepper 

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 F. Toss butternut squash cubes with olive oil, salt, and pepper and place on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes until tender. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, mix all dressing ingredients and shake in a small jar to emulsify and combine. In a large bowl, combine kale, Brussels sprouts, apple, cranberries, pepitas, and dressing. Massage the greens with the dressing to break down. Top with goat cheese.

Spiced and Roasted Duck Legs With Potatoes Anna

Thanksgiving Ideas — Roasted Duck Leg with scalloped potatoes

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 4

Ingredients for the duck legs:

4 duck legs
2 tbsp. brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 sprigs rosemary
4 tbsp. fig jam

Directions for the duck legs:

In a small bowl, mix together sugar, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, Aleppo pepper, salt, and black pepper. Add in minced garlic. Rub spice mixture on the four duck legs and allow to marinate in the fridge, six hours minimum.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Remove the duck from the fridge an hour before cooking. Arrange duck legs in a foil-lined baking dish, and place rosemary sprigs around the dish. Roast for one hour. Spoon jam on top of duck legs and allow to roast 10 more minutes. Serve.

Servings: 6

Ingredients for the potatoes Anna:

2 lbs. small Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thin
1 stick of butter (1/2 cup), melted
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp. fresh thyme

Directions for the potatoes Anna:

Preheat oven to 375 F. In a large bowl, combine sliced potatoes, butter, salt, pepper, garlic, and thyme. Toss to coat potatoes. Then, arrange in a skillet in a circular motion so that every slice overlaps with the next. Cover with foil slicked with non-stick spray or butter, and bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven, use oven mitts to press down on foil, then bake for another 20–25 minutes. Finally, remove foil and broil till the surface turns golden brown. Serve.

Cranberry Lime Pie

Thanksgiving Ideas — Cranberry Pie

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 8

Ingredients for the pie crust:

4 oz. graham crackers
1/2 cups hazelnuts
4 tbsp. melted butter
3 tbsp. brown sugar

Ingredients for the filling:

16 oz. cranberries
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
2 egg yolks
2 tsp. lime zest
1/2 cups lime juice
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 sticks butter, at room temperature, cut into 1-tbsp. pieces

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Pulse graham crackers in a food processor until finely ground. Add nuts and pulse until finely ground. Add butter and brown sugar and pulse to combine. Transfer to a deep nine-inch pie dish. Using your hands, press firmly onto the bottom and up sides of the dish. Bake until firm and slightly darkened in color, 10–15 minutes. If crust slides down sides, gently press back up. Let cool.

Bring 12 ounces of cranberries, 1 cup granulated sugar, and 1/4 cup water to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer until cranberries burst and most of the liquid evaporates, 12–15 minutes. Let cool. Purée in a blender until very smooth.

Cook purée, eggs, egg yolks, lime juice, salt, 1/2 cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon lime zest in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water (bowl should not touch the water), stirring with a rubber spatula and scraping down sides of bowl often, until curd thickens and coats the spatula, 8–10 minutes. Let cool until just warm. Pour into pie crust and let firm, then refrigerate. Take it out to let sit at room temperature before serving.

Make this pie a day ahead if possible, that way all you have to do is take it out of the fridge and bring to room temperature the day of your dinner party.

Fig Upside-Down Cake

Thanksgiving Ideas — Fig Upside-Down Cake

Sean Litchfield

Servings: 8

Ingredients:

4 tbsp. butter, at room temperature
1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 small lemon
12 ripe figs
6 tbsp. butter
1 cup almond flour
2/3 cups granulated sugar
4 cold eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
Crème fraîche, optional

Directions:

Position a rack in the lowest part of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease the bottom and sides of a nine-by-two-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Press and smooth the paper to adhere it to the pan.

Use the back of a spoon to smear the 4 tablespoons of butter all over the parchment. Mix the brown sugar with cinnamon and dump it into the pan. Spread it evenly with the back of the spoon.

Use a micro-plane zester to grate the zest of the lemon over the brown sugar. Cut the lemon and squeeze enough juice to measure 1 tablespoon. Drizzle the tablespoon of juice evenly over brown sugar.

Stem and halve the figs. Arrange them cut side down, close together but not overlapping, to cover most of the brown sugar layer and set aside.

Heat the butter in a small pot until melted and bubbling and let it bubble for about 30 seconds. Turn the heat off now—but be ready to return the pot to the heat the moment you start to whip the eggs later. Set a four- to five-cup bowl (preferably stainless steel) near the stove to receive the brown butter afterward—the bowl must be large enough to allow you to fold some batter into the butter later.

Whisk the flour and 2 tablespoons of the granulated sugar together thoroughly in a medium-size bowl. Set a medium-mesh strainer or a sifter next to the bowl.

Combine the remaining sugar, eggs, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of the stand mixer and beat with the whisk attachment on high speed, for about three minutes or until the mixture is pale yellow and has increased in volume. You should see well-defined tracks as the whisk spins, but when the whisk is lifted, the mixture should flow and sink into the surface of the remaining eggs rather quickly—don't continue beating all the way to the ribbon stage. (You aren't aiming for a mixture so fluffy that it falls in a thick rope that dissolves slowly on the surface of the batter.)

While the eggs are beating, reheat the butter until it bubbles and continue to cook it, swirling the pot, until it is golden brown and the milk particles suspended in it are reddish-brown. Immediately pour the butter into the reserved bowl to stop it from cooking further and burning. (It should remain very hot until you need it.)

When the egg mixture is ready, remove the bowl from the mixer. Sift one-third of the flour over the eggs.

Fold with a large rubber spatula until the flour is almost blended into the batter. Repeat with half of the remaining flour. Sift in the remaining flour and sprinkle in any bits of coarse flour that may not have passed through the strainer or sifter. Fold until blended.

Scrape about one-quarter of the batter over the hot brown butter. Fold until blended. Scrape the buttery batter over the remaining batter and fold until blended. Scrape the batter over the figs in the pan.

Bake 35–40 minutes until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into it comes out clean. The cake will just barely show signs of shrinking from the sides of the pan.

Set the cake on a rack for 5 minutes. Slide a slim knife or small metal spatula around the edges of the cake to detach it from the pan. Invert the cake onto a plate. Peel off the parchment if necessary. Scrape any of the brown sugar syrup left in the pan or on the parchment back onto the top of the cake. Let the cake cool before serving.

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