Whether it’s a handful of close friends or the whole office crew, entertaining is a stressful undertaking. Chopped Canada judge Mark McEwan tells us how to put the fun back into holiday hosting.

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Stocking the Bar
When it comes to buying booze, McEwan recommends playing it safe by over-stocking. “The good thing is that alcohol doesn’t go bad,” he says with a laugh. “As long as you don’t open them, you can return bottles to the LCBO.” He estimates that the average person will drink three glasses of wine at a holiday party, and if there is a cocktail on offer, plan on a little more than one each. He also urges hosts to let guests drink at their own pace. “Don’t push it on them. Let them prompt you.”

Bubbly Greeting
Since preparing cocktails can be quite time-consuming, McEwan suggests premixing a simple libation — something whisky-based for winter is best — and setting it out on ice with lowball glasses and a bowl of jumbo ice cubes. But ideally he recommends greeting guests with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine. “It’s incredibly simple, incredibly festive, and the majority of people really enjoy it. I love a little bubbly.”

Simple Start
For nibbles during the cocktail hour, McEwan relies on a cheese-and-salumi board served with toasted baguette rounds brushed with extra-virgin olive oil. “It’s all set up ahead of time and ready to go.” For an easy appetizer, it’s hard to go wrong with a mushroom purée soup. “Just sprinkle it with a few chives and you’ve got an inexpensive first course that appears more luxurious than it is.”

In a Stew
To feed a crowd on a budget, McEwan suggests some type of stew, such as veal with root vegetables or a beef bourguignon. “You make it in the morning and it gets better as it sits. Serve it with soft polenta, which you can also make ahead, and you have no work to do at dinner time.” If your fridge is getting full, he suggests using an often overlooked backup. “Winter is great because your garage is a refrigerator.”

Think Like a Chef
Getting organized before a party goes beyond cooking ahead. McEwan says to think through every step of every process and get it ready. “When guests arrive, you don’t want to be reaching for a pot and filling it with water. That pot should be on the stove, the water salted and hot, and any utensils you need beside it. When a chef sets up their station, they live and die by their mise en place. Get into the same frame of mind for a party, and you’ll look like a pro.”

Chopped Canada Teen Tournament airs Saturdays at 9 E/P. Watch the new season of Chopped Canada premiering on January 9th at 9 E/P.

Get more holiday recipes and tips here: The Kit Holiday Issue.