Tips to keep the holidays jolly

During the bustling weeks ahead, save yourself some time and trouble by using these tips to manage all the tasks that accompany the holidays. By planning ahead and working efficiently, you’ll be able to juggle the season’s cooking, cleaning, decorating, entertaining and giving.

COOKING
•Buy baking staples:
  Avoid last-minute trips to the store by purchasing essential baking ingredients early. Take inventory of what you already have in the kitchen, and then stock up on basics such as butter, flour, granulated and brown sugars, baking powder and vanilla extract.

•Organize recipes:  Photocopy or print out recipes you plan to make, and arrange them in one binder. That way you won’t have to crowd your countertops with several cookbooks at once. Plus, the pages can double as shopping lists.

•Have multiples:  Measuring cups and spoons are indispensable for holiday cooking and baking. Buy extras of these inexpensive tools, and you’ll always have a clean set to use.

•Master a basic cookie dough:  Once you have a simple cookie dough down pat, mix up the recipe each holiday by changing the add-ins, using such ingredients as zest, dried fruit, spices, or white chocolate and macadamia nuts.

•Keep instant hors d’oeuvres: Stay prepared for drop-in guests by refrigerating a selection of cheeses that you can serve as hors d’oeuvres. Aged Gouda, goat cheese, blue cheese and hard sheep’s-milk cheeses store well. Refrigerate them, wrapped in waxed paper and in a plastic bag, for up to one month, blue should be wrapped in aluminum foil. Olives, chutneys and nuts are other small bites that also keep well.

DECORATING
•Hang a versatile wreath:
A pine-cone wreath, available from florists, can make a smooth transition from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. Spruce up the decoration with a ribbon in gold or silver, festive shades suited to any holiday.

•Pick potted plants: Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, cyclamen and poinsettias will add cheer to any room. Plus, the attractive plants make excellent gifts for guests.

•Shop for a tree online: You can browse for a Christmas tree on the Web and arrange to have one delivered to your door. For farm listings, visit the National Christmas Tree Association’s Web site www.realchristmastree.org

•Create a long-lasting display: Dress up your home with items that will shine from November to January. Pillar candles, which last longer than tapers, and unshelled nuts spray-painted gold add sparkle.

GIVING
•Keep a notebook:
Jot down gift ideas as you think of them. Make a list of people you need to shop for, and note their sizes, favorite colors and hobbies to inspire you and keep you focused.

•Store neutral wrapping paper: Stock up on patternless paper and matching ribbon that work year-round.

•Buy crowd-pleasers:  All-purpose gifts, such as jars of jam or bottles of wine or high-quality olive oil, are sure to please anyone. Soaps and lotions also work well. Wrap the items ahead of time so they’re ready in case you need a last-minute gift.

CLEANING
•Have a plan:
  Draw up a checklist of the cleaning that needs to be done before a family visit or large get-together. This may include organizing the entryway closet, cleaning out the garage or polishing furniture. To ensure you finish in time, start with the largest project on a weekend, and then tackle one or two more on the following weekends.

•Accept help: If a guest offers to pitch in with the post-dinner cleanup, let her. This can even be a nice opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation in the midst of a busy party.

•Minimize tree cleanup: Before you bring home a Christmas tree, ask the retailer to shake it to remove loose needles and other debris. To ensure a swift and tidy removal, lay a tree-disposal sack, available at home-supply stores, under your tree’s skirt. The large plastic bag can be pulled over the tree and tied so falling needles and sweeping are kept to a minimum.

ENTERTAINING
•Have a buffet:
  This style of entertaining doesn’t require assigned seating or fancy table settings. Many of the dishes can even be made and set out ahead of time.

•Plan a get-together with a goal: Invite friends over to compose holiday cards or wrap small presents. Everyone will be able to socialize and cross off an item on her to-do list at the same time.

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