By Melanie Fincher

No stuffy formal dinners here.

The holidays are here, and that means it's time to catch up with family and friends. What better way to do this than by inviting those on your list into your home?

A holiday open house is the more relaxed (and oftentimes more fun) version of a formal holiday dinner. Guests are free to come and go as they please, and as the host, you have more time to actually talk with visitors as they gradually flow through your home over the span of one afternoon. No one feels trapped by timelines or tables, and there's plenty of room for conversation. Get the celebration started with these tips for hosting a holiday open house.

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1. Prep Ahead

Doing the food prep ahead of time will save you stress and free up time for you to get your home in order. Make-ahead freezer meals are the best way to lighten your load on the day of the big event. Casseroles, meatballs, pasta sauces, and soups all do well in the freezer. Holiday open houses can last up to four hours, so heating these meals in batches throughout the afternoon will keep the food warm and tasting fresh for every guest, not just the early birds!

2. Set the Table

Eliminate last-minute stress by laying out the serving dishes and utensils ahead of time. Use sticky notes to label which foods will go on which dishes. Remember to lay out any necessary serving utensils like tongs, ladles, and even toothpicks. This allows you to see how the room will be laid out before the party begins, and it saves you from scrambling to find your serving bowls before your guests arrive.

3. Hit the Lights

Provide a warm and inviting environment for your guests. Fluorescent lighting is great for doctors offices, not holiday parties. If the lighting in your home is particularly harsh, turn it off and bring in lamps from other rooms for soft lighting. Candles can also bring warm light to a room, and double as festive decor. Keep the decor simple, as guests will likely keep their focus on the food (which can also bring a lot of color to a room). Fresh cut flowers arranged around the house as well as some soft lighting and candles can go a long way.

4. Avoid Buffet Pile-Ups

Buffet style is the easiest way to go, as it frees up your time to talk with guests rather than constantly serve people. To avoid a buffet traffic jam, make a clear starting and ending point to your buffet line. Start with plates and utensils, and then order foods from least expensive to most expensive. Have a separate table with drinks on the opposite side of the room to move herds away from the buffet line once they've filled their plate. People tend to go where the food is, so it's important to arrange it in a way that maximizes your space.

5. Create a Temperature-Controlled Menu

The beauty of an open house is that there is no set mealtime, meaning there should always be food available. But this also means you'll need to choose dishes that can be left out for an extended period of time. For appetizers, foods that can be served cold or at room temperature like cheese balls, snack mixes, or even bruschetta are a safe bet. Some hot foods can be fairly easy to serve as appetizers such as a hot dip that can be easily heated in batches throughout the afternoon. Slow cookers are also key, as they can be used to cook foods like meatballs, which are then served straight from the slow cooker to keep them warm throughout the party.

Cold food is easier to control temperature-wise, so over half of your food should fall into this category. Hearty salads, vegetables, relishes, and grains are great places to start. But for the main course, you'll probably want to serve something hot. Try to pick a main dish that won't lose its appeal as it begins to cool. A pork loin is a classic holiday dish that can be heated in batches but will still retain its flavor as it cools down. You can never go wrong with a holiday ham, which can be served warm, cold, or room temperature.

VIDEO: Home-Cured Holiday Ham

Learn how to make your own holiday ham from Chef John for your next holiday get-together.

6. Keep Dietary Restrictions in Mind

While it's easy to put all the attention towards the ham, don't forget about the non-meat eaters. A vegetarian lasagna is a hearty, crowd-pleasing option that can be made-ahead of time and heated in batches. For a dish that can be served hot or cold, this vegetarian frittata is a winner. Ask for any dietary restrictions when you invite your guests, and make sure there is something for everyone to eat. Create labels to place in front of your dishes, making a note of what's vegetarian, gluten-free, contains certain allergens, etc.

7. Refine the Drink Menu

When it comes to holiday parties, there's pressure to have a fully stocked bar, but that's just not realistic when it comes to an open house. Not only is it expensive, but it also requires you as the host (or a very helpful friend or family member) to spend the duration of the open house mixing and serving drinks. Instead, refine your drink menu down to a selection of wine, beer, and one signature drink that guests can serve themselves.

Fill empty champagne glasses with a few cranberries, and allow guests to pour their own festive drink. A holiday punch bowl is always a good idea as well. And don't forget about the nondrinkers! A self-serve hot cocoa or apple cider bar doubles as seasonal decor, and ensures that everyone will have a fun, festive drink at your gathering.

8. Use "Food Stations" to Encourage Mingling

People go where the food goes. That's why it's important to arrange the food (and the furniture) in a way that encourages mingling. We've all been to that holiday party where the chairs were lined around the perimeter of the room, and although that might seem like it would encourage conversation, it actually ends up being more like an awkward group therapy session. Real conversation happens in small groups, so arranging cozy spaces where a couple people can sit and converse is key. And of course don't leave those spaces without food! A bowl of caramel corn or puppy chow (along with some napkins) will automatically attract a crowd at that spot.

VIDEO: Puppy Chow

9. Save Room for Dessert

The holidays are all about eating what you don't get to the rest of the year. So your guests are going to be expecting some festive treats. Really wow them with a dessert bar filled with handheld crowd pleasers that can sit out for the duration of the event. Cookies and brownies can be made ahead of time and will always be well received.

10. Foster the Spirit of Giving

A gift exchange is not feasible for an open house, since guests will be coming and going at different times. But incorporating giving into your holiday open house helps to put people in the holiday mindset. Consider asking guests to bring a gift that can be donated to a local charity. You can request them wrapped or unwrapped, but have a table right by the front door where guests can drop them off. It's an easy way to give back this holiday season.

11. Keep the Kiddos Occupied

A holiday open house can be a long, boring event for a kid. And you know what happens when kids get bored... chaos. So keep them entertained with holiday-themed activities like decorating cookies or gingerbread houses. Set aside a station for the kids to do their activity, and be sure to cover the table with kraft paper to avoid a mess.

12. Make Memorable Party Favors

People love party favors, myself included. And after all, you went to all this work to throw an open house, so you want to thank those who took the time to come. But you don't have to break the bank to express your gratitude. Opt for DIY party favors with one of these festive food gifts, or consider sharing a family holiday recipe attached to a cook cutter for a personal touch.

13. Make Cleanup Easy

The party's over, and now you can take a deep breath. Except you look around to see that every piece of furniture you own is trashed with dirty napkins, plasticware, and empty soda cans. What the solution? Make sure there's more than one trash can that guests can clearly see. Otherwise, trash is going to be left on the coffee table. Have a clearly marked recycling bin by the drink station for empty wine bottles, soda cans, and other recyclables. Position a clearly visible trash can by the buffet, but also in the living room and any other area where guests will be seated. This will help cleanup to happen throughout the event, saving you the hassle afterwards.

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