40 tips for maximizing holiday fun, minimizing stress, and saving money this season
From cooking shortcuts to packing pointers, clever advice for getting to January 2 with your good spirits intact.
Get the best of the Magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.
North Korea. Fake news. Global climate change. The 24-hour news cycle just won’t quit, and . . . wait, what? It’s already time for holiday cheer? With so many tasks to accomplish, the last month of the year can be exhausting. So we asked an all-star team of local experts — chefs, a professional organizer, a family therapist, and more — for their best advice for sliding into 2018 with your wallet, family ties, and good humor intact.
How to . . .
1. Prep like a pro
Lydia Shire, chef and partner at Scampo in Boston, makes her marinades, sauces, and vinaigrettes a day ahead. “My goals are always to do the cooking ‘chores’ the day before,” Shire says. “I want the day of the festivities to be about setting my beautiful table.” You can cook stuffing, roast vegetables, designate serving dishes, and fold napkins early, too. “Every little bit helps,” says Will Gilson, chef and co-owner of Puritan & Company in Cambridge, who also delegates tasks to guests. “Just make sure you can trust them to follow through.”
2. Trim cooking time
“A slow cooker is your shortcut best friend,” says Holly Joe, an interior designer and former caterer from Westwood. Joe uses hers to make short ribs with polenta and chicken in white wine when entertaining at home. Gilson recommends one for making gravy, spiced cider, and mulled wine ahead of a party.
3. Cook turkey better and faster
Spatchcocking (butterflying) a turkey reduces cooking time and yields “a super-crispy, brown skin,” says Gilson. He prefers fresh birds to frozen varieties and warns that if your turkey-cicle is not defrosted in time, you’ll be in trouble.
4. Try no-bake desserts
Fudge and truffles are easy to prepare and make great hostess gifts, says Joe. Even easier? Chocolate bark. “Temper the chocolate and add nuts and dried fruits to the top instead of mixing them in. Very grown-up!” (See Page 18 for the lowdown on holiday treats.)
5. Prepare for unexpected guests
Joe keeps a log of sugar cookie dough in the freezer for last-minute entertaining. Forget the rolling pin and cookie cutters — just coat the log in sugar, slice, and bake. She also stocks up on seltzer, wine, snacks, and chocolates in case anyone pops by.
6. Buy alcohol in quantity
Plan on five to six drinks per guest, says mixologist Willa Van Nostrand, owner of Little Bitte Artisanal Cocktails, a caterer in Providence. Her standard calculations allow for two cocktails, two glasses of wine, and two beers for each guest, even though most people stop at three or four drinks total. To do the math, note that a 750-milliliter bottle of liquor yields 12 drinks and a case of wine equals 48 glasses.
7. Find bubbly for your budget
Bubbles say “festive,” and you don’t have to spend a bundle to get a decent sparkler. “A good bottle of dry cava or prosecco can really do the trick,” says Van Nostrand. Focus on choosing something dry, and expect to pay $12 to $16.
8. Make an event timeline
Planning a party — whether it’s a small dinner, a feast for your extended family, or a corporate soiree — can get complicated. To create an organized timeline, Joe reckons backward. “Working in reverse is the best way to plan anything,” she says. “I begin with the party’s start time and go backwards to the present moment. For instance, when to set up the bar, when to finish the appetizers, when to decorate.”
9. Book a venue for a big party
Reservations for eight or more can fill up quickly, especially if you want a private dining room, says Alexander Sprague, private events manager at Boston Chops in the South End. If you need space for a large party and it’s already December, aim for a Monday or Tuesday, which tend to be less busy than the rest of the week. Always ask about a venue’s cancellation policy, advises Susan Earabino, private events manager for Harvest in Cambridge and Grill 23 and Post 390 in Boston. And if you want to bring in your own decorations, check ahead — not every place permits it. Planning for a gift exchange? Make sure your reservation allows enough time.
UPGRADING YOUR STYLE
How to . . .
10. Decorate efficiently
Before you light up anything, pare down. “Let go of burned-out twinkly lights, chipped or cracked ornaments, or damaged decorations,” says Stasia Steele, owner of The Little Details, a professional organizing service in the Back Bay. Once you’ve taken stock, assess what you need, then get to work.
11. Deck the halls naturally
Interior designer Joe loves to decorate with natural greens, pine cones, and branches. Place them in clear vases and lanterns and on mantels, consoles, countertops, and even bookcases. Double-faced satin ribbon and metallic ornaments can also dress up a space without much fuss. Use battery-operated lights and flameless candles on timers, which are safer than open flames and save time.
12. Outsource the hard parts
If decorating fills you with dread, consider turning to a pro. Steele’s team will trim the tree, hang lights, create table settings, and organize it all before packing it for storage. “We’ll follow your family traditions or make new ones,” says Steele. What would the holidays be like without a battle with the string lights? For $380 for a four-hour session, you can find out.
13. Store decor
At the end of the season, sort your decorations by category — indoor, outdoor, tabletop, and so on — and store them in one area of your house “so you can easily find them,” says Steele. She likes Sterilite bins (which come in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah colors) and spools to hold string lights.
14. Dress — or dress up
“If the host is on the casual side, honor that,” says Snezana Pejic, founder of the Etiquette Academy of New England. For fancier friends, step up your game. But for professional events, she says, “always dress up. Business formal.” For men, that means a suit and tie; for women, a suit or dress.
15. Go from day to night, fast
Don’t overthink it, advises Taylor Greeley, a wardrobe and prop stylist based in Boston. She suggests that women wear tailored pants or a skirt to the office, then swap out their top, shoes, or accessories for evening. Fashionably adventurous guys could consider a velvet blazer or pants. For the risk-averse, a fun tie, colorful sweater, or plaid shirt can do the trick. “Plan outfits,” says Greeley. “Start early and be prepared.”
16. Spruce up your closet without spending a ton
For women, Greeley loves Target’s Sugarfix by BaubleBar and Who What Wear collections as well as T.J.Maxx for inexpensive but festive attire. Add some metallic mules or a tulle skirt to your wardrobe, for example, then mix and match. “Buy in pieces and look for outfits rather than buying a dress,” says Greeley. Guys can search Pinterest for holiday outfits and unexpected ways to create a festive look from clothes they already have in their closets, she says. To branch out, hit up off-price shops like Nordstrom Rack and Saks Off Fifth as well as outlet malls.
MIND YOUR MANNERS
How to . . .
17. Send holiday greetings
Paper cards aren’t a necessity, says Pejic. For e-cards, Paperless Post has wonderful designs (free to 30 cents per “card”). If you take the snail mail route, Minted and Shutterfly’s Tiny Prints line are contemporary faves for personalized (and, yes, more expensive, at roughly $1.25 to $3 per card) paper greetings; both services will address envelopes for you and can rush them into your hands in as little as two days. CVS will produce less expensive photo cards in under 24 hours. “Even sending out an e-mail is fine,” Pejic emphasizes. It really is the thought that counts.
18. Avoid overstaying your welcome
For formal or corporate events, if there’s a meal, says Pejic, it’s fine to head for the door 30 minutes after dessert ends. For casual affairs, take cues from the hosts. “If they seem tired or start to yawn, if they start talking about their plans for tomorrow or looking at their watches, it’s a clue,” says Pejic. “Unless you’re there to help clean up, don’t linger.” And always say goodbye to your hosts.
19. Hint that you’re ready for guests to leave
Use the cues mentioned above, says Pejic — a yawn or a peek at your wrist should do the trick. But for those who don’t pick up the subtle hints, she counsels, “Say, ‘It was so nice seeing you again; let’s make plans to meet another time.’ Then escort them to the door.”
20. Tame social anxiety
Pejic coaches introverted clients to brush up on the news and prepare conversation starters. Or ask about a person’s family or work, information most people love to share. “And never answer just with ‘good’ or ‘great,’ ” she says. People need more than that to keep a conversation going.
21. Escape an awkward conversation
Should party chat turn overly partisan, Pejic suggests dropping a go-to phrase to extract yourself. (For example, “I’m so glad we talked; I hope we can chat again.”) “The host didn’t organize this as a political debate,” she says. “If it comes up, fine. But move on.”
22. Handle tipsy guests
“Hand them a glass of sparkling water and ask them to hang out for a while,” says caterer Van Nostrand. Then use Uber, Lyft, or a taxi service to get them home.
23. Apologize if No. 22 was you
“Immediately reach out,” says Pejic, and apologize the next morning. “It’s best to make it as personal as possible. I cannot stress this enough, especially in the corporate space. And always pick up the phone, because it’s the tone that matters.”
GIVE BETTER GIFTS
How to . . .
24. Make a list, check it whenever
Planning ahead and staying within a budget are always good ideas, and mobile productivity apps make smart shopping even easier. They allow you to track spending, people, and even what you’ve wrapped. Steele recommends Gifted, GiftPlanner, and Santa’s Bag for iOS. An Android option is Gift List Manager.
25. Enjoy shopping
Inject some me time into your holiday chores — and support local vendors and artisans , to boot. Head to boutiques in the burbs or holiday craft shows, such as the SoWa Winter Festival (December 2 and 3) and CraftBoston Holiday (December 15 to 17). “Bring your friends, grab a coffee, and pick up something you wouldn’t see at the mall,” says stylist Greeley.
26. Wrap it all up
Wrapping presents can be tedious, so it helps to have a designated space for the task, says Steele, who recommends using a rolling Elfa cart or an organizer tote, both available at The Container Store. Need paper in bulk? Greeley suggests T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, and Marshalls, which have quality styles at affordable prices. Really hate this job? Many shops will gift-wrap for you, so always ask. You can also hire an organizer like Steele or try a service like TaskRabbit.
27. Pick a host gift
“It’s always good to bring something,” says Pejic. A bottle of wine, box of chocolates, candle, or bouquet (in a vase, to save your host some trouble) will be appreciated. Don’t assume the host wants you to bring cooked food, though; it might conflict with the menu.
28. Take care of your support system
“Tipping is a beautiful tradition,” says Pejic. For people like crossing guards and hairdressers, $35 to $50 is usually appropriate. But do what fits your budget. If cash doesn’t feel right — say, for a teacher — gift cards can be appropriate. A small gesture will always be appreciated.
29. Travel with presents
The Transportation Security Administration allows wrapped gifts in carry-on and checked luggage, but they’re subject to search and must follow rules about banned objects. If possible, wait to wrap till you arrive or ship gifts ahead of time. And consider this: If the airline loses your luggage, good luck. But shipping services like FedEx and UPS let you track and insure your packages.
How to . . .
30. Keep kids on track
Irregular schedules and too many sweets can transform cute kiddos into holiday monsters. “The trick becomes maintaining important routines, even if the setting changes,” says therapist Jeremiah Gibson, president-elect of the Massachusetts Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. “Don’t change the way that you discipline your kids,” he says. And communicate boundaries to extended family members if you’re away from home.
31. Make sure it’s not just about the presents
Gibson asks clients to consider what holiday traditions make their families unique. His goes caroling with friends, for example, but crafting, volunteering, or cooking could make your nuclear unit shine. “Families that focus on the process of experiences rather than the end result of gift receiving seem to have less anxious holiday seasons,” he says.
32. Calmly share kids with an ex
Separated or divorced parents should each create special traditions with their kids, Gibson says, and make sure they don’t have to happen on a specific date. Embrace the new routines that your ex creates, he says. “The worst thing you can do for your child is disrespect the other parent in their presence.”
33. Create new traditions
“One of the challenges that blended and multicultural families commonly face is the either-or perspective,” says Gibson. “It’s either your family’s way or my family’s way.” Instead, he says, find places where traditions — whether ethnic or religious — can intersect, then honor them.
34. Accept the reality of family drama
“Some conflict is unavoidable,” says Gibson, so be like the Buddha, and prepare for some amount of suffering: Certain topics or circumstances will create friction. “Accept your family for who they are, and know that it’s not your job to change your family’s perspective if they, say, voted for a different presidential candidate than you did.” Knowing is half the battle, anyway. Just take a deep breath, and resist the urge to engage.
How to . . .
35. Prevent illness
The number-one thing you can do to stay well is to be up to date on all of your vaccinations, not just the flu shot, says Dr. Al DeMaria, medical director of the Bureau of Infectious Diseases and Laboratory Sciences at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This is the best way to protect yourself — and people with compromised immune systems — against preventable diseases like shingles and whooping cough. If you’re traveling with kids, consult your pediatrician; she may recommend a vaccination ahead of schedule.
36. Avoid germs
“You can’t overestimate the importance of hand washing and basic hygiene,” says DeMaria, who notes that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective, too. Actions like fist bumping instead of hand shaking aren’t proven to reduce the spread of germs, but consider measures such as using your own pen to sign receipts, wiping down your cellphone, and avoiding public railings and other germy surfaces. It’s critical to avoid touching your face and eyes after contamination, DeMaria says.
37. Stop yourself from overindulging
To prevent a pigout, eat something high in protein before you head to a party, says Blair Flynn, a yoga teacher and wellness blogger in Boston. Flynn also suggests packing breakfast and lunch to bring to work on the day of the party, which will help you stay in control and avoid extra calories and temptation.
38. Stay motivated to work out
Setting out exercise clothes at night or making a workout date with a friend can help you maintain your commitment to the gym, says Flynn. “If it’s already in my mindset that I’m going to go to that 6 a.m. class, then I make better choices the day before.” On the other hand, she says, “sometimes sleeping in is the better choice.” Just don’t make excuses.
39. Use mindfulness for moderation
“If you really want to stay healthy during the holidays, keep your drinking in moderation,” says DeMaria. Flynn’s trick? “After a few drinks, take a five-minute breather to reevaluate how you feel.” Then decide whether you’re better off staying out or heading home.
40. Treat yourself
Self-care often takes a back seat when life gets busy, so make time for mental relaxation, even if it’s quick. Read a book, take a bath, skip an event (after notifying the host), or have coffee with a friend. Watch the “treat yo self” episode of Parks and Recreation (“Pawnee Rangers,” season 4, episode 4). “When you minimize your stress, you create some extra margin of keeping your health,” says DeMaria.