What are the elements that come together to make a great party? Start with a mix of family and friends who enjoy each others' company, and surround them with a beautiful, comfortable...

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What are the elements that come together to make a great party? Start with a mix of family and friends who enjoy each others’ company, and surround them with a beautiful, comfortable setting. Combine great food with wonderful music that doesn’t compete with conversations. Add a host who’s relaxed and — stop right there, you say?

Hosting a party during the holiday season with its heightened expectations and frantic pace is anything but relaxing. But there are ways to lighten up by planning ahead and choosing dishes that give you some flexibility. We’ve created an inviting Christmas buffet with lots of ideas that do just that.

The menu

Gather all of the recipes that are favorites or that you’ve set aside over time. Keeping in mind your available refrigerator and oven space, look for dishes that can be made either partially or completely in advance. For instance, our menu today includes two entrees. But one, Salmon and Roasted Red Peppers with Honey and Lemon, is served cold so all of its preparation can be done a day ahead.

Choose dishes that you love to make and eat yourself, but use a lighter hand with spicy seasonings and garlic. And try to offer one nonmeat and one nondairy dish for vegetarians or those on restricted diets.

If guests aren’t going to be seated around a table, choose menu items that can be eaten with just a fork. For instance, chicken breast meat should be taken off the bone, sliced and arranged on a platter.

Holiday menu

Baked Brie with Pistachios & Cranberry Crust

Overnight Mashed Potatoes with Herb Cheese and Crisp Crumbs

Antipasto Salad

Ham with Mustard and Parsley Sauce

Salmon and Roasted Red Peppers with Honey and Lemon

Chocolate-Mint Bûche de Noël

White Chocolate-Cherry Fudge

Other meats should be sliced thinly for easy cutting. Whole roasted new potatoes are fine for a sit-down dinner but may fly off the plate at fast-ball speed when attacked with a fork. Cut vegetables into bite-size pieces and cook until tender with just a hint of crunchy texture in the center. (The term “al dente” doesn’t mean vegetables should be served raw and tough.)

With a buffet, guests look for choices and will often fill up plates, so it’s better to plan on extra food.

Most of all, be practical about the amount of work you want to take on yourself. Then purchase dishes such as a spectacular dessert or side dish that will save you time and effort.

The shopping list

Prep work for the Baked Brie with Pistachios & Cranberry Crust can start a day in advance by making croutons and chopping pistachios.
Once the menu has been fixed, make an organized grocery list. Divide it into categories: vegetables; meat/fish; dairy; miscellaneous; and beverages are good starting points.

Try to keep similar ingredients, canned goods for example, together on the list. Make a separate list for candles, napkins or other items that may need to be purchased at another store. This process doesn’t guarantee that you won’t forget items at the store, but it will lessen the chances.

Prep work

Organize work into manageable blocks by making a timeline from your recipes. For example, look at the one we’ve provided with today’s menu ().

Plan on making as much of the food as possible in advance. Many cookies and cakes can be made a week ahead and frozen. Dressings, marinades and some vegetables can be prepped a day or two before the party and refrigerated.

Have various sizes of food-grade zip-top bags and disposable plastic containers on hand. They’re super space savers for holding prepared ingredients in the refrigerator.

Try to have everything ready a half-hour before you expect guests. If that’s not possible, designate someone else to be the official greeter to welcome revelers. Then relax and enjoy your party.