Stress-Free Holiday Parties

Parties are supposed to be fun but if you're the host, they can wind up being a lot of work and bring a lot of stress.

Yet, they don't have to.

On The Early Show Friday, co-anchor Julie Chen visited a Manhattan Pottery Barn store, where design expert Susanna Salk showed how to reduce the work and stress involved in creating an elegant affair, so you can enjoy yourself.

Whether your event is big or small, casual or fancy, you want it to look great and you want everyone to have a good time — including you!

The key, Salk says, is setting everything up so that it can run smoothly on its own, using things such as self-serve bars and beautiful buffet tables.

Techniques Salk suggests:

ESTABLISH A BAR AREA

Most hosts choose to start their parties with a cocktail. Even if you don't have a bar per se, you should create one. Salk believes it's important to have a defined bar area that guests can approach when they arrive; it makes them feel comfortable immediately. Select a small table, perhaps your kitchen table or a console, and put a tray on it. The tray can hold wine and liquors.

WHAT MAKES THE BAR ATTRACTIVE

The secret is uniformity. All of Salk's serving trays are of the same material: silver. She suggests investing in various trays and small bowls that all match. If you buy silver, white or another neutral, you can use the items all year long at any type of party.

WHAT TO SERVE

Simplicity is key. Serve only a "house" red and white wine along with a "signature" cocktail. The cocktail should be something that can be made in large batches that guests can pour over ice and serve themselves. Offer a non-alcoholic version as well, along with soda and water.

Salk also likes to put a couple of simple snacks on the bar, such as olives and gourmet potato chips. Nothing elaborate is needed; even cheese and crackers would be too much.

FINISHING TOUCHES

Salk likes to type up a description of her signature cocktail and place it in a small frame in front of the beverage. She also suggests putting a framed photo of the party's hosts on the table.

Head to a paper store and order monogrammed paper napkins. One hundred napkins will cost about $30. The more you order, the less you'll pay. To keep your bar area looking neat and elegant, you need to contain your napkins somehow. Salk uses a small square tray or plate.

Of course, candles and flowers are always a good idea. Because your space is small, stick with one large candle and one vase of flowers. Salk brings even more uniformity to the table by using a wine cooler as her vase. She has a matching cooler holding white wine.

Finally, be sure to have music playing when guests arrive. Whatever you do, don't go with traditional holiday music or even jazz standards. Choosing something that's just a bit different will really make a lasting impression on your guests.

TRANSITION TO THE MEAL

Salk thinks it's a mistake to allow the cocktail time to drag on too long. If anything, err on the side of serving sooner, rather than later. The buffet table should be set up in another room so you can usher guests there and make it clear that you're moving on to the next portion of the evening. Never have assigned seating at a buffet party, since people will make it through the line and arrive at their tables at different points. When guests fill in tables as they go, they can immediately dig into their meals.

For suggestions about your buffet table, go to Page 2.