Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple, joined Post staff writer Jura Koncius recently on our Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: What is the biggest mistake a hostess can make?
A: The biggest mistake a hostess (or, ahem, a host) can make is to appear stressed, or like she/he is not having any fun. That vibe is contagious. If things go wrong — and they always do — you have to roll with it. Nobody really cares if the meal isn't perfect or a kid spills something or you forgot to clean up that giant, messy pile of whatever it is in the middle of your living room; what people will remember is whether they had fun, were relaxed and spent a great time with you.
So make as little work for yourself as possible when people are there. Before your party, empty garbage cans and the dishwasher; make sure there is toilet paper in the bathroom; clean up as much as you can (don't need to go crazy); and find room-temperature dishes you can prepare in advance. And, if it's nighttime, dim the lights and light candles. It hides so many flaws!
Q: I feel overwhelmed by the amount of money I am going to have to spend this holiday season. What is the best way to budget so I can spread holiday cheer to everyone?
A: I would start by deciding in advance how much money you can afford to spend and then make an exhaustive list of everyone you need to buy for. Don't forget holiday tips to your hairdresser, babysitter, etc. Ask yourself: Who can you — if you have time — make gifts for? Absent that, I would decide in advance how much you are spending on each person, and stick to it. Sounds so basic, but you really just need a plan and discipline.
Q: What's a good icebreaking technique when two guests don't know each other?
A: What I do is mention one specific detail about each that the other might find interesting. For example, "Susan, meet Jason. Susan just ran the New York Marathon! Can you believe it? And Jason just bought a Peloton bike that he's obsessed with. You two are both too fit for me!" Or some such. Find some little common ground, and the rest is up to them.
Q: What's the best way to arrange seating at a dinner table?
Put chatty people next to quiet people, split up couples, keep people with a bad history (or, say, opposing views on controversial topics and a tendency to share those views) apart, and put yourself as close to the kitchen as possible.
Q: What is a good gift to get for colleagues this season?
A: First, make sure that your office exchanges gifts (I assume it does, based on your question). Second, if you need inexpensive, gender-neutral ideas, here are a few: gift cards to a coffee shop near your office; a nice, non-floral candle (if they don't use it, they can always re-gift it); stationery; and an artisanal snack that feels expensive but isn't (caramels, etc.).
Q: What's one dish or meal that every home cook should know how to make? This could be for the holidays or year-round.
A: Off the top of my head: roast whole chicken; beef tenderloin (expensive, but so easy); one really good casserole; one fish that can be served room temperature. And a couple of great soups or stews with a protein and vegetable.
Q: What's your opinion on e-cards vs. real holiday cards?
A: I'm fairly old-fashioned on this, but I like paper cards. I am not saying this is for everyone, but just my personal preference. (Maybe not just mine; there must be a reason Paperless Post is no longer just paperless!) I keep all the holiday cards I get until probably February (embarrassing I know), and I have a chance to really look at the pictures of kids, messages, etc. I also take a photo of the photo card (stay with me here) and use the photo in my iPhone contact for each person. It takes just a few minutes every year, but it makes me happy.
Q: I'm tired of getting my dad socks and ties every year. Any suggestions for easy gifts for dads this holiday season? What are some of your go-tos?
A: Dads are the worst. (Just kidding! But they are certainly very hard to buy for.) A few of my favorites this year: a tie clip (not a tie!) with his alma mater's colors; a really unique nutcracker; a compass/flask/flashlight combo and a bread that you make by adding beer.
Q: What are some easy but tasty hors d'oeuvres to serve during holiday parties?
A: I recommend cheese plates, crudites, bowls of mixed olives, great breadsticks and dips that can be made in advance. I would go to a local cheesemonger and ask for good cheese combinations; you can put three cheeses on a big platter with bread, fig jam and perhaps prosciutto or some other sliced meat.
Q: How do you stay organized during the holidays?
A: Well, because I am not capable of making spreadsheets, I make lots of lists. I carry around a folder in my bag labeled "Christmas 2015" (or whatever the year is) and inside the folder I have my master list of gift recipients, what I have bought for them, what I plan to buy for them, when I am giving it to them, any relevant receipts, party invitations, etc. Basically, it's my low-tech, go-to command center for Christmas. I save it at the end of the year and refer back the following year, so I don't repeat gifts. And then I try to relax and hope for the best!