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At Home: How to enliven your holiday entertaining

CorrespondentOctober 25, 2013 

Having dishes at varied heights on a buffet table adds interest and enhances food presentation, says Cheryl Najafi, who has parlayed her no-fuss home entertaining tips into her own company, CherylStyle. Add levels with crates, or shoeboxes covered with linen. Then tuck in accessories, like a small table lamp, unscented candles, or, seasonal touches like fall leaves and acorns.


Like many of you, this weekend I will be going to a party as someone I’m not. Halloween, after all, is the time of year we can don an alter ego, look foolish and be excused.

Party aficionado Cheryl Najafi, author of the best-seller “You’re So Invited,” is all for it.

“Themes – including costume parties – are a great device to get people to loosen up at a party,” said Najafi.

She’s right. Although the thought of going to a costume party used to make my forehead sprout hives, the parties where hosts have asked me to take part in a theme were always better.

That’s partly because, as Najafi said, “Giving guests something to do beforehand (like plan a costume), gets the party started long before the evening begins.”

So true. I have been thinking about my costume and this party for weeks.

But it’s also because life gets better when we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Relax. Change it up. Break some rules. Those are Najafi’s mantras.

“So many hosts are afraid to have a theme party because they think they will fail,” she said, “but they’re the most fun because they are instant ice breakers. They get guests to let their hair down and get the party started.”

Halloween kicks off a party season that runs through New Year’s. Many of us will entertain more in these two months than we do during the other 10 months of the year combined. To make this season’s festivities fun and unforgettable, Najafi offers these tips:

Do something unexpected: Najafi recently held a formal dinner party for her husband’s business associates, a serious crowd she wanted to lighten up. A theme party wasn’t quite right. So on her formal dining table, she served the equivalent of a gourmet kids’ meal: mac-and-cheese bites, pizza and ice cream sundaes. “Once people caught on, they loved it. It loosened everyone up,” she said.

Play with names: Put whimsical name cards at guests’ places. She once gave each guest a potato name: Tricia Tater Tot, Harry Hashbrown, Larry Lyonnais. If guests are filling out name tags, have them put their name and what breed of dog they would be.

Raise the buffet bar: Buffets are a great way to keep dinner parties from feeling too stiff, because guests are free to get up, she says. Make the buffet itself more enticing by setting food at varied heights, and placing playful theme-related cards beside each dish on the buffet also. For instance, on Halloween, serve “Cauldron Chili” and “Scarecrow Cornbread.”

Ditch the Tupperware: If guests are bringing dishes for the buffet, have a platter or dish ready to receive their contribution. If the food arrives show ready (or the guest feels it is) leave it in the container it came in. Otherwise, transfer the food to a pretty plate, wash the guest’s container and have it ready to take home with any leftovers. “You don’t want your buffet to look like a church supper.”

Add some whimsy: If you’re having family over this Thanksgiving, make copies of old family photos – find ones the family members are in – and tuck them in the napkin rings. “It makes everyone feel connected and gives a jumping-off point to relive memories.

Relax: “Too many people feel they have to refinish the front porch and cook for three days in order to entertain,” Najafi says. “But today’s entertaining is anything but formal. You can burn the chicken, spill wine on your dress, the set the tablecloth on fire, and it’s all OK.”

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