Christmas holiday dining table place setting

Some of the best holiday traditions start with the three Fs: family, friends and food. For Joe Hess, that means making beef tenderloin for Christmas Eve at his mom’s house, which is a little less work than his other holiday tradition — hosting 40 at his own house for Thanksgiving.

As co-owner of Cracked Pepper Catering in Lancaster, Hess knows a thing or two about holiday entertaining. His advice?

“Keep it simple. Your guests are happy with whatever you do,” he says. “You want to be able to spend time with your guests.”

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If you’re hosting a holiday party this year, keeping it simple still requires some careful planning. Here are some tips from Hess and the experts at The JDK Group, a catering and event planning company in Lancaster.

Set your date soon

Long before you choose a menu, bake a cookie or plan your decorations, pick a date for your party. Many companies and even private individuals secure their dates for holiday party catering with JDK weeks, or even months, in advance, they say. Even if you don’t need a caterer for your drop-in, you will need guests. Pick your date now, before those guests accept another party invitation.

Set a time limit

For a drop-in cocktail party, consider a 2.5-hour window, Hess says. “People can drop in, have a nibble, say hello and go on to the next party,” he says. Any longer can be exhausting, and the food can suffer.

Plan the menu

“The menu for your holiday party depends on what kind of atmosphere you are hoping to create for your guests and on your guests themselves,” says Emma Santana, director of sales for The JDK Group. “We see a variety of styles from intimate multiple-course served meals paired with fine wines, to fun interactive food stations, to more casual mix-and-mingle styles with some small-bite passed hors d’oeuvres and heavier hors d’oeuvres items for picking on a food station.”

For that standard drop-in cocktail party, Hess says, four to five items are plenty. “Try to have a showstopper item and then some easier things,” he says. Think at least two hot items — maybe a baked brie or roasted vegetables — and three cold items. “Make sure one of them is a sweet item,” he says. “It could be tiramisu or chocolate mousse cups or something from your favorite bakery.” Assortments of different holiday cookies are popular or a mix of lighter small-bite desserts, Santana says. Also offer at least one item for those guests who may have dietary restrictions.

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Figure out how much food you need

Again, that can vary depending on the length of your party and the time of day. For a standard two-hour hors d’oeuvres party at dinnertime, plan on a minimum of eight to 10 pieces per person. “If your party time is occurring right after lunch or ending before dinner, you could reduce that amount closer to six pieces per person,” Santana says. Plan on 2.5 small-bite desserts per person, or closer to 4 for a longer party.

A little extra can’t hurt: “I always over prepare. You want to make sure you don’t run out,” Hess says. Plus, more food makes for a more beautiful presentation, Hess notes. “You want to make sure it looks beautiful,” he says. “I want to eat with my eyes.”

You can’t go wrong with extra sweets, Santana adds. You can either send them home as favors or save them for the random visitors who may stop by during the holiday season.

Calculate your drinks

For alcoholic beverages, a general starting point is one drink per guest (over 21) per hour, according to The JDK Group. A handy tool they recommend is the drink calculator at, It helps you determine how much beer, wine and liquor you will need based on the number of average, light and heavy drinkers and the length of your party. Just like desserts, however, Hess says you can’t go wrong erring on the side of too much alcohol. ’Tis the season to stock the liquor cabinet, he says. You never know who will stop by.

Prepare ahead

Plan a menu that allows you to prepare most of the food prior to the day of your party, the JDK Group recommends. “That way all you have to do is just unwrap or heat up and put it out for your guests,” says Molly Unangst, senior wedding and event producer for The JDK Group. Casseroles are often a make-ahead option, Hess says. Designate a spot in your home where you will collect everything you need for your party, whether it’s items you pick up at the grocery store or serving platters and display pieces you already have. When you’re ready to set up, everything will be in one place.

Don’t go it alone

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, the experts say, whether it’s having a friend go on a last-minute run for forgotten grocery items or borrowing extra warmers and chafing dishes to keep food hot. You might even consider paying a friend to help keep the party running smoothly. Or perhaps hire a caterer for a few hours so you can enjoy being a guest at your own party, Hess says. “I can enjoy my time, have a martini and not stress about what’s in the oven,” he says.

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