Great food, amazing company, beautiful ambience, and some much-needed time away from work and the computer—what’s not to love about the holidays? We’ll gladly jump through hoops to make the day memorable, but we have to admit that we could do without all the stress of planning. Luckily for us, Annie’s got this simple checklist for turning the table into the setting for a magical meal.
The week before:
- Start by picking your palette. If your inspiration is a colorful tablecloth or linens, choose white, ivory, or other single-color, neutral plates and serving ware. Or jazz up a white tablecloth with peppy patterned dishes or gorgeous mix-don’t-match vintage plates and bowls. Although placemats can be a fun way to give the table an extra bit of pizzazz, a tablecloth is easier, because it’s a single piece (and thus a single wash), and it doesn’t take up as much real estate on the table.
- Get your linens out of storage and send them through the wash. Remember to promptly remove tablecloths and napkins from the dryer and hang them up to minimize wrinkling.
- Coordinate—don’t match—your napkins to your tablecloth or centerpiece. Need some fun new napkins? Step right up.
- Take stock of your serving bowls, platters, and utensils, to make sure you have enough for each dish; mixing up your tableware is fun, but melamine porch plates do not make acceptable holiday bread platters. Ever. Once you’ve got a plate or bowl for every recipe, label the outside or bottom with a Post-it. Trust us: come game day, you’ll be thrilled you went this extra mile, so you don’t have to think about it while you’re busy doing your best Barefoot Contessa impression in the kitchen.
- If you’re using candles on the table, make sure to replenish your supply of votives, tapers, and holders, and test your lighter.
A few days before:
- Create an MP3 play list. Annie loves a mix of music that’s easy and upbeat, with the occasional silly 1950s holiday tune thrown in for kitsch factor.
- Steam or iron your napkins and tablecloth (Annie does this while catching up on episodes of The Voice), and hang larger pieces over a chair or door. Napkins should be folded promptly and stacked on a flat surface.
- If you love the look of a runner but aren’t thrilled with the store-bought choices—or the extra expense—try this little secret of Annie’s: pull out your favorite colorful shawl or piece of fabric, fold under the ends to form a long, narrow rectangle, and press the ends with an iron if needed to make them lie flat and give the fabric a finished look. Voilà—a one-of-a-kind runner that only looks expensive.
- Unless your chairs are in bad shape, skip the bows or other decorations. Anything tied tends to come apart as guests shift around or get up from the table, and can snag on clothing or end up tangling around feet on the floor. Forget the fuss and just polish your chairs instead, and make sure the cushions are clean and pet hair–free.
- Festive place settings show your guests you thought about them in advance, and they take hardly any time to make, especially with all the printable templates available from craft blogs like How About Orange. Or else give the table the natural treatment by collecting colorful fall leaves from your yard and pressing them under a book, then writing guests’ names on them with a silver or gold marker.
- Put together your centerpiece—we’re partial to this one. Whatever you choose, keep it low enough that guests can talk over it without bobbing and weaving like a prizefighter.
The day of:
- Give yourself at least an hour for table setup. You probably won’t need it, but it’s better to have a cushion than to be scrambling as Grandma is knocking on the door.
- Once you’ve got the tablecloth on, place the middle-of-the-table items—the centerpiece, condiment containers, and so forth—first. They’ll not only keep the tablecloth from sliding around, but will also prevent you from having to lean (and possibly knock) over fragile items like glasses.
- If you’re using candles, arrange them down the center of the table, rather than putting them between place settings, where they can interfere with glasses and silverware, and can be easily toppled over.
- Include two sets of salt and pepper shakers or cellars, one at each end of the table, so guests don’t have to wait for them to make their way all around the table.
- Once the table is set, keep pets out of the room. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t want a cat winding through your centerpiece or a dog making off with your napkins, either shut the doors to the dining room or close the pets in a different room until after guests arrive.