Cater It? Why Not!

Cater It? Why Not!

Hosting family and friends this holiday season but don’t fancy facing the prep, cooking, and cleanup? You can cater the party instead. Yes, you can. Here’s how.

Smart hosts have no qualms about hiring caterers to make all kinds of parties easier, yet many of us hesitate at the idea of doing this for a family holiday gathering. But think about it: This is the busiest time of the year, and really, shouldn’t the whole focus of the get-togethers you host and attend be the occasions you’re marking and the people you’re sharing them with? We’ll answer that for you: Yes. That makes catering—which cuts down on the time you spend shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning—a perfectly acceptable holiday strategy.

Our tips can help you welcome friends and family to your home for a festive, fuss-free fete low on work for you but high on deliciousness.

Start by considering your local Panera Bread® bakery-cafe, says Kristi Kehr, area catering sales manager. You may be familiar with Panera catering at a business meeting, for example, but the company does in-home catering too. “We deliver, come in, set up, and do everything for you; all worries are completely off your plate,” she says. What’s more, you can order anytime up to 24 hours in advance of your delivery at PaneraBread.com.

Catered dishes are arranged on black plastic serving platters, and the utensils, serving pieces, and napkins all match, so the presentation is very elegant for a holiday party, Kristi says. Plus, “customers love the homestyle feel and consistent quality of Panera’s food.” Not sure how much you’ll need? A Panera Bread catering specialist will help with food recommendations and portion amounts, whether you’re ordering for 5 or 50.

More expert catering tips:

Know your guests. Consider that a party consisting of a bunch of college-age guys will probably necessitate more food than, say, a small group of older relatives or work colleagues, says Myra Naseem, owner-partner of Elegant Eating, an off-premises catering business in Smithtown, New York. And if you also give your caterer information about how many children, vegetarians, or other guests with dietary restrictions will be attending, and what kinds of foods your family and friends enjoy eating on a particular holiday, she can suggest the most appropriate dishes to serve.  

Make it a mix. If you want to weave in some homemade foods with the catered items, Naseem suggests hearty dishes that can be cooked in the oven and left in a chafing dish for a while. Braised short ribs, nicely flavored brisket, and chicken Marsala are choices that hold up better than skirt steak and chicken breasts, which dry out easily.

Personalize the dishes. To spruce up the look of brought-in foods—for instance, if you did order from Panera Bread—try using your own garnishes, such as microgreens, edible flowers, or fresh herbs, Naseem says. And if you’re buying trays of food from a restaurant (as opposed to hiring a caterer to handle the whole function), make the presentation more special by transferring the food to your own platters, dishes, and bowls. Show personal flair by pulling out those pieces you hardly ever use, like that cool platter you picked up at the antique store (just be sure everything’s safe for serving edibles in). Another of Naseem’s food-table tips: Don’t place all the dishes flat. Propping a bowl on top of an upside-down plate or using dishes of different heights and sizes can create depth and visual interest, she says.

Dig in to (easy) decor. For an inexpensive, easy-to-make centerpiece, buy some plastic pieces of fruit at the dollar store, spray-paint them gold, and sprinkle them with glitter. Display the decorated fruits in a large glass vase or bowl. You can also cut a variety of greens from your yard, including some holly branches with berries if available, and arrange them in a tall vase. Scattering votive candles (real or battery-operated ones) on the buffet table elevates the festive scene.

Organize. Naseem recommends creating a chart of what you plan to serve and when and then keeping it visible in the kitchen throughout your party. Even the simplest sketch of a schedule (6 p.m.: Set out cheese trays and warm up tray of pasta. 7 p.m.: Set out pasta and check the ice bucket) will help you feel calmer and more in control—so you can relax and enjoy the event.