Tailor this master list to help you set the scene — and table — for the holidays.

Fall and winter offer ample opportunities to entertain, not only on holidays (of which there are plenty!) but also with more casual gatherings. And whether you entertain a lot or a little, having a well-stocked home can take a lot of the stress out of party planning. From setting the scene to setting the table, cooking to cleanup, pick and choose from the items on our checklists to create your own master list of party-planning essentials.

Getting Ready

Accept your strengths and weaknesses as a host. No one can do it all! The key to a low-stress event is to play up your strengths and outsource your not-so-favorite parts of entertaining. For instance, finish a homemade meal with a lovely dessert from a local bakery or throw a potluck buffet or cocktail party instead of having a formal sit-down meal.

Keep things real. Your guests are there to enjoy your company, not judge your home or your cooking. If you’re not “done” getting things ready before your guests arrive, ask for help. Most guests are more than happy to pitch in lighting candles, setting the table, stirring a pot or pouring wine. And before reading the checklists that follow, remember that you can always rent party gear rather than buy rarely used items.

Set the scene with:

  • Vases and floral arranging supplies
  • A go-to flower arrangement that you’ve had a chance to practice
  • Low-watt lightbulbs or dimmer switches
  • Tea light or pillar candles (real or battery operated) for ambience
  • A few different music playlists — mellow for during dinner and something livelier for before and after
  • Fresh soap, hand towels and a stain-removal stick in the powder room

The bar:

  • Wineglasses and cocktail glasses for a crowd, if using
  • Set of cocktail tools
  • Ice bucket and tongs
  • A console or side table for the bar, with bottles, openers and glassware gathered there

For the table:

  • Enough flatware and dishes for the number of guests
  • Enough chairs (and table space) for the number of guests
  • Chargers, if using
  • Glassware, including water glasses for the table and extra wineglasses
  • Tablecloth and backup tablecloth in case of spills
  • Cloth napkins — one set each of cocktail napkins, dinner napkins and dessert napkins
  • Napkin rings, if using
  • Candleholders with unscented candles for the table
  • Low floral arrangement for the table — try bud vases clustered on a tray, or a soup tureen filled with one type of flower cut short


  • Boards, platters and trays — these workhorses can be used for everything from cheese plates to dessert
  • Serving bowls in various sizes
  • Large serving spoons
  • Lidded soup tureen and ladle
  • Large salad bowl and tongs
  • Several trivets, to protect your table
  • A nesting set of classic white oven-to-table casserole dishes
  • Cake stands — for cake and other desserts, fruit or appetizers

Entertainment ideas:

  • An activity that gets guests participating, like a Dream Tree for Thanksgiving or a smile booth
  • For a casual party, an assortment of games and cards … and a rule book for common games, because no one can ever remember the rules when you want to play
  • Show a classic movie (without the sound) or project it onto a blank wall — Hitchcock for a Halloween party, A Christmas Story for a holiday open house and so on
  • A roll of butcher paper to cover the kids’ table — put a sheet of stickers and a cup of crayons at each place.