Part of the festive feel of holiday parties is often the potluck vibe — everyone contributing a dish they're proud to share with the group. Mom's turkey, grandma's sweet potatoes, and on and on. Lots of us haven't really found our signature dish yet. Others of us eat out and order in 90% of the time or barely have a kitchen. You may think it's not your time to shine, but it's really just time to get creative and thoughtful! Here's a list of awesome hostess gifts and easily procurable delicacies to wow on Turkey Day and the rest of the holiday dinners you have coming up.
Offer to make an iPod playlist (check if the hosts have a dock or bring your own) or CD of songs appropriate to the occasion for the hosts to play. A CD is great because it can be a keepsake for the hosts, and you could even make a copy for everyone attending. There are tons of holiday classics and updated standards to choose from, you probably already have a holiday playlist for inspiration. For the rest of the playlist, try a selection of popular songs recorded acoustically. Be sure to avoid any live recordings with distracting crowd noise. For a fancy dinner with lots of older sophisticates, download famous orchestra recordings of classical composers' best-loved songs.
Alcohol is the savior of all culinarily-challenged dinner guests. It's a good idea to keep a few bottles of wine on hand to take to dinner parties anyway. Since holiday dinners are usually with family or close friends, you should know what they drink. If you don't, start taking note for next year. It's always nice to bring something from a local winery or a trip you took. For bonus points, pick up The Corkcicle. A trendy hostess gift this season, it keeps wine chilled and even made Oprah's Favorite Things list. If you want to bring something more special than a bottle of wine, pick up the makings of a seasonal cocktail. Martha Stewart has a great list here.
Flowers seem predictable and easy, but that's because they're a classic hostess gift. I don't know anyone who wouldn't be pleased to receive a nice centerpiece the day before hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Note I said the day before, and I said centerpiece — not bouquet. If you send a bouquet, that just means the hostess has to find time to get out a vase and arrange the flowers. Make sure to select something that's pre-arranged and ready to be placed on the table. Pick something in autumn colors or that matches the hosts' decor.
Inventive Hostess Gifts
If you're bringing a hostess gift in lieu of contributing to the meal, it has to be special. That means if you bring something expected like a candle, it has to be a fabulous candle. Something like this Agraria Bitter Orange Crystal Cane Candle, $35. The scent is cooler than your average vanilla and it comes in a crystal votive with a fancy silver plated lid. Or, if your hostess is old-fashioned when it comes to correspondence (do you receive hand-written thank you notes from her?), then some monogrammed cards are nice. But you want a gift that's better than nice, so make sure they come in a beautiful box. The key here is that these gifts live on after their useful life. When the candle is burnt and the stationery is sent, your friend can still use the votive or box. That's the extra thoughtfulness that will be remembered. Or, if you're going to your BFF's for the holiday meal, don't feel weird about buying a necklace you saw on her Pinterest. It's non-traditional but she'll love it!
Food No One is Afraid You Cooked
In the event that your circle knows how little time you spend in the kitchen, and chances are they do, but contributions to the meal are still being requested, you're going to want to grab appetizer or dessert. These are the easiest courses to cheat on. Find an awesome cheese shop in your area and your family will love you forever. Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle site Goop may be pretentious, but this is the time for some pretention: their cheese board ideas are crowd pleasers and to die for. On the dessert end, it can depend on your group. For a chic gathering, find some French macarons or order from Laduree for a really special treat. If your grandfather would not be impressed by little candy-colored discs, QVC has an impressive selection of popular desserts from famous makers — Junior's Cheesecake, $47.98 for a sampler, is always a hit.