Kristin van Ogtrop on surviving the holidays | Home Front

Kristin van Ogtrop
Nov 12, 2015

Kristin van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple, Time Inc.’s award-winning lifestyle brand. Under her leadership since 2003, the magazine has achieved popular and critical acclaim. Van Ogtrop is also the author of “Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom.”

Van Ogtrop received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia and an M.A. from Columbia University. She lives with her husband and three sons in Westchester County, NY.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

I can't think of anyone better than Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple magazine, to have on the chat in mid November. Kristin is an expert on keeping organized and finding the mindset to do so. She will have great ideas for you on holiday planning. Under her leadership since 2003, the magazine has achieved popular and critical acclaim. Van Ogtrop is also the author of “Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom.” The book prize today is DIY Succulents, by Tawni Daigle (Adams Media; $18.99). It will go to the person who posts the best tip for getting organized for the holidays. Let's chat.

Hi everybody!  I'm so happy to chat with you today, even if thinking about the holidays raises my blood pressure.  And my stress level.  And lowers my self confidence.  Sound familiar???  Anyway, I've been the editor of Real Simple for 12 years and, in that time, have absorbed quite a few clever holiday tricks and stress-busting techniques.  Hopefully I can impart a teeny bit of that wisdom today.  AND:  if you want more, pick up the November or December issues of Real Simple--packed with holiday content, naturally--or visit  

What is the biggest mistake a hostess can make?

Excellent question!  And one not enough people think about, in my opinion.  The very biggest mistake a hostess (or, ahem, host) can make is to appear stressed, or like she/he is not having any fun.  That vibe is contagious to your guests.  If things go wrong--and they ALWAYS do--you have to roll with it.  Nobody really cares if the meal isn't perfect or a kid spills something or you forgot to clean up that giant messy pile of whatever in the middle of your living room:  what people will remember is if they had fun, were relaxed, spent a great time with you.  So:  make as little work for yourself as possible when people are there.  Before your party, empty garbage cans and dishwasher; make sure there is toilet paper in the bathroom; clean up as much as you can (don't need to go crazy); and find room-temperature dishes you can prepare in advance.  And, if it's nighttime, dim the lights and light candles.  Hides SO MANY flaws!

Kristin has just offered to also give a Real Simple book as a joint prize with the DIY Succulents book today. The prize will be announced at the end of the chat to the person who comes up with the best tip about getting organized for the holidays. If you win, please email me your mailing address at

I feel overwhelmed by the amount of money I am going to have to spend this Holiday season. What is the best way to budget my self so I can spread holiday cheer to everyone?

This is such a tough one for most people.  I would start by deciding in advance how much money--total--you can afford to spend.  Then make an exhaustive list of everyone you need to buy for; don't forget holiday tips to hairdresser, babysitter, etc. (we have an excellent tipping chart in our December issue, by the way).  Ask yourself:  who can you--if you have time--make gifts for?  (We also have a great DIY food gifts feature in our December issue--as well as a gift guide with most gifts under $50.)  Absent that, I would decide in advance how much you are spending on each person, and stick to it.  Sounds so basic, but you really just need a plan, and discipline.  Good luck!


What's a good ice breaking technique when two guests don't know one another?

What I do when I introduce two people who don't know each other is to mention one specific detail about each that the other might find interesting.  For example, "Susan, meet Jason.  Susan just ran the New York Marathon!  Can you believe it???  And Jason just bought a Peloton bike that he's obsessed with.  You two are both too fit for me!"  Or some such.  Find some little common ground, and the rest is up to them.

What's the best way to arrange seating at a dinner table?

Put chatty people next to quiet people, split up couples, keep people with a bad history (or, say, really opposing views on controversial topics and a tendency to share their views with whoever will listen) apart, and put yourself as close to the kitchen as possible.  

What is a good gift to get for colleagues this season?

First, make sure that your office exchanges gifts (I assume they do, based on your question!).  Second, if you need neutral, inexpensive, gender-nonspecific ideas, here are a few:  gift cards to a local coffee place near your office; a nice, non-floral candle (if they don't use it, they can always regift it); stationery; an artisanal snack that feels expensive but isn't (caramels, etc.).  We have lots of ideas for all types in our holiday gift guide!

We set aside a small-ish amount of money every month (starting in January) so that money isn't one of the many stressors during the season. We all know that there are enough from other sources!

Money is certainly a stressor! So you have a good formula for reducing holiday stress.

What's one dish or meal that every home cook should know how to make? This could be for the holidays or year-round.

Off the top of my head:  roast whole chicken; beef tenderloin (expensive, though, but so easy); one really good casserole; one fish that can be served room temperature (we have a great baked salmon with citrus on've served it at many parties).  And a couple of great soups or stews with a protein and vegetable that be a whole meal in a bowl.

I'm planning to send out holiday cards this year and am thinking about sending e-cards. Is that too informal? What's you opinion on e-cards vs. real cards?

OK, so I'm fairly old-fashioned on this, but I like paper cards.  I am not saying this is for everyone, but just my personal preference.  (Maybe not just mine; there must be a reason Paperless Post is no longer just paperless!)  I keep all the holiday cards I get until probably February (ok, embarrassing I know) and I have a chance to really look at the pictures of kids, messages, etc.  I also take a photo of the photo card (stay with me here) and use the photo in my iPhone contacts for each person.  It takes just a few minutes every year but makes me happy.  OH--and I must mention, if you do go the paper route, Real Simple has a great line of holiday cards that you can find on

I know this sounds crazy, but try to get your list of things that need to be done together as early as possible. Then look at the things that can be done earlier than later so you spread out the "pain". I have already been taking advantage of good weather to get up Christmas lights now (no frozen hands for me). My wife looks at what decorating that can be done in parts of the house that don't see much traffic until the holidays, now. That way when the parties come we can focus on the food and fun and a bit less stress.

No frozen hands! Love that. Good for you!


I'm tired of getting my dad socks and ties every year. Any suggestions for easy gifts for Dads this season? What are some of your go-tos?

Dads are the worst (just kidding!  But they are certainly very hard to buy for).  You really should check out our December gift guide--we go out of our way to find non-sock, non-tie ideas for men.  A few of my favorites this year:  a tie clip (not a tie!) with his alma mater's colors; a really unique nut cracker; a compass/flask/flashlight combo and bread that you make by adding beer.

is that the adults get the same gifts (that are used up) every single year. My uncle and his husband get a gift certificate to their favorite local restaurant (this covers their birthdays as well). They use it every year to pay for most of their anniversary dinner which makes it more meaningful to all of us. My parents get a gift card to the movie theater chain they most often frequent. It seems odd since it is just like money, but my mother honestly enjoys the movies more when she knows they were given to her as gift from me. My dad enjoys it more when my mom is happier. And boy do they make that gift card last with their senior discounts on bargain matinees. My brother and sister-in-law get their membership to the kids' favorite museum renewed. They are just a few blocks away and go at least once a week, sometimes more. No brainier and I get a partial tax deduction. Teens get Amazon gift cards because, they know what they want better than I do. Etc. That leaves me buying only for the younger kids, which is more than enough work to get through. This year I took advantage of a one day, on-line, half-price sale yesterday, so I think I am all done except for the wrapping and mailing. Way ahead of schedule.

You are admirably ahead of the game. Bravo.

Oddly enough, I find the best approach is to organize right after the holidays. As I take down decorations, I purge what I didn't use (and probably haven't used for years). Everything else is packed away neatly so it will be much easier to unpack next year. Light strings are rolled and tied so they don't have to be untangled next year. I try to pack all the decorations for one room together so I'll just need to look in one box the next year as I pull things out room by room. And I label each box! If I really liked a decorative grouping, I take a picture so it will be easier to recreate next year. It takes time in January but the results are worth it next December.

Love the idea of photographing what's in the holiday boxes. This is awesome. Really news you can use. Thanks.

I don't celebrate Christmas, but would like some novel holiday decorating ideas -- beyond votives. Last year I did a mossy woodland on the mantel with live ferns and mushrooms. Any ideas?

I think you are on to something with the moss.  Sounds beautiful and ambitious!  I think decorating with greens is a great, non-specific but seasonally appropriate way to go.  You might try a line of loose greens down the center of your table as a "runner;" getting a number of matching small potted plants and flanking your doorway or lining the stairs.  My go-tos are magnolia leaves, amaryllis and paperwhites.  There are also so many different kinds of poinsettias these days--I get giant ones and put them in decorative baskets or garbage cans (really) on the floor, and get the smallest ones to make a centerpiece on my table.

How can I make sure I look my best in a family holiday card photo shoot? What are some good outfit ideas?

Nothing too trendy or you will look back in 5 years and cringe; nothing that clashes with everyone else in photo; and something that you think you look fantastic in.  If you feel good, you will look great!

What are some easy but tasty hors d'oeuvres to serve during holiday parties? The food is all anyone really cares about :-)

Just nothing that has to go into the oven.  Cheese plates, crudités, bowls of mixed olives, great bread sticks, dips you can make in advance.  I would go to a local cheesemonger and ask for good cheese combinations; you can put 3 cheeses on a big platter with bread, fig jam, perhaps prosciutto or some other sliced meat.  OR, if you really need to bake something, my mother makes this insane hot dip with mayonnaise, Vidalia onion and Parmesan cheese.  I think it's equal amounts of each (you should Google it) and it is just incredible.  Crazy!

What to serve those who do not drink alcoholic beverages? Sparkling grape juice just seems immature.

If you look on, you can find a number of "mocktails" that are pretty and festive and grownup, and delicious with our without alcohol.  Also, selzer is a great base that you can add fruit to, or other syrups to dress it up a bit.

take care of the travel plans as early as you possibly can. I try to get them taken care of in July at the latest. Especially if you are going by plane anywhere - I fly for Thanksgiving almost every year - it is expensive. Getting that planning out of the way and the bill long paid for is a stress and budget saver. Yes, we often end up spending a little more than we intend on gifts, but there is room for an extra $10 or $20 here and there if your tickets are long since paid for and you got the exact flight you wanted that doesn't require leaving the house and 4:00 AM. And you may not believe it, but if you are flying Southwest, the prices are better even for the Wednesday before Thanksgiving if you book early enough. Not helpful advice for this year, but keep it in mind for next year, maybe?

Terrific advice for sure. Thanks.


I shop year-round and plan to be done before Thanksgiving. It's a habit I picked up in college in the 90's when I had to get my parcel to the UK out by Halloween in order for it to arrive by Christmas!! Plus, my birthday is five days before Christmas, and at the time I had finals!

Always a great suggestion. Thanks.

As an adult, what is an appropriate amount of money to ask my family to spend on gifts for me for the holidays?

I would just leave that up to them.  If they want gift ideas, just give them a giant range of ideas with a giant range of prices.  Then they can decide, and everybody is happy.

Jura, I've learned so much from your chats over the years! Looking for a color to brighten the kitchen. Cabinets are dark brown, hardwood floor is scraped pecan (light brown), granite is brown and gray with a greige background, SS appliances. Light is medium.

I would go with a pale gray. Maybe Skimming Stone by Farrow & Ball.

I agree completely about everything not having to be perfect for a guest but what about a hostess who makes no effort whatsoever? My best friend has it down perfectly about being friendly, fun to be with and relaxed - but a little too relaxed. She retired early and has all the time in the world to prepare for guests but doesn't. Guests who want to sleep on clean sheets must change the bed themselves. Want to bathe in a clean tub? Wash it. Likewise no clean dishes and utensils and remove clutter from the couch to have a place to sit.

Oh my.  That's a toughie.  You're not going to change her, so it's really up to you to decide whether staying with her under those circumstances is worth it.  If you try to change her behavior, do it at the risk of your friendship….

We have a large family. Uncle invited everyone over for Thanksgiving this year. We accepted. However, now my mom is saying she does not want to go to Uncle's, and will have a small Thanksgiving at her's, and is asking us which one we'll attend. What is the proper etiquette here?

Your mom is putting you in a tough position here.  Whatever her reasons for not wanting to go to your uncle's, she needs to realize that she is forcing you to choose loyalties, and hurt his feelings (potentially) if you decide to go to her house after you've said yes to him.  Can you have that conversation with her?  Absent that, is there any way--if they live nearby--to go to one for cocktails and another for dinner?  Or one for dinner and one for dessert?  I would start by talking frankly with your mom and seeing what she says.

What is the appropriate amount of time to leave my Christmas tree up after the actual holiday?

I don't think there is any appropriate amount of time--it's really about your preference.  I tend to take mine down on New Year's Day or the weekend after New Year's Day, mostly because that's when I have time and I want to get dry needles out of my house.  I know people who take the tree down the day after Christmas.  I leave mine up a bit longer because we don't get it until my college-age son returns in mid-December.  So do whatever works for you.  Just realize that if you keep your tree up until, say, March, your neighbors might start talking :)

Another tip is to see if there are any people whom you can group together for presents. For example, if you normally spent around $40 each for Uncle and Aunt and Little Nephew, is there instead a $100 present that they can all enjoy? You still give them something meaningful, but you save $20 and that will add up. I just spit-balled some nice round numbers for the example, but it should work with whatever amounts you were thinking.

Good idea. Thanks.

What's your favorite holiday movie and soundtrack? I'm getting tired of listening to Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas' on repeat...

Movie:  It's a Wonderful Life

Soundtrack:  don't have one.  But I do agree with you about that Mariah Carey song!

when I'm packing everything up in January, I leave a list of what needs restocking in the plastic bins with the wrapping paper and gift bags. Of course, I could restock in January but I can't plan my life a year in advance. I try to grab a decent family photo at some point during the year, and have it edited and ready in my photo files. I discovered one Christmas that paper clips make excellent ornament hooks, when I couldn't find any. My daughters and I read the Post Christmas cookie feature article, and decide which recipes to try. I purchase the needed ingredients before they're sold out. I concentrate on a few things I enjoy (baking cookies as gifts for friends, sending cards) and ignore the rest. I have holiday outfits hemmed, cleaned, and pressed, at the ready. And I always clean the oven about this time of year.

I like your attitude.

but it does go to time management. With all the other tasks that are set during the holidays, sending cards in early/mid-December just isn't on my list. A few years ago I ordered a pack of New Year's Cards and that worked out much better. I don't have to worry about tailoring the card to anyone's particular seasonal practice, I can reciprocate if someone sent me a card when I didn't expect one, and I have more time to compose wishes. (Sometimes I might even send my thank-you note in the same outer envelope.)

That is truly a wonderful idea.

I keep a spreadsheet (on paper!) that shows who is giving what gifts to whom. It helps me with ideas when grandparents or aunts and uncles ask what they can give my children. I carry it with me from October through Christmas.

Love that idea!

Your cheese/fruit plate description reminded me of how in the UK it's traditional to have fresh figs and stilon (at the end of the meal) and you can't go anywhere without mulled wine and mini mince pies. About nibble ideas - I love making tapinade - so easy to zizz up and delish. Cheese straws can be made ahead and are always pleasing.

Yes. Yes. And Yes.

What are your thoughts on giving gift cards as holiday presents? Is it impersonal?

I don't think it's impersonal.  Really depends on the recipient.  For example, my nephew really wants a gift card to Bass Pro Shops so he can pick out the gear he wants.  I would have no idea what to get him from Bass Pro Shops!  If you find a place that the recipient REALLY loves, or frequents, it is a great gift.  Just write a cute note or something to make it personal.

I'm living with depression and anxiety, and my biggest tip is that I pace myself. I start shopping in August, think about gifts that I can buy online and give as a basket (this year's theme is "tea things" with tea from one place, scone mix from another, and so on), and I always buy one or two gifts while I'm on vacation as a fun way of connecting with people. On a more practical level, I've had the same gift spreadsheet for about 10 years. New tab for every year. List of names I can update as needed, what I got them last year, my target budget for this year, addresses for the nieces/nephews who get the unexciting college checks. If I waited until December to do everything, I'd probably end up in a fetal ball in the closet.

All great ideas. Thanks.

Do you have the same family gifts every year - can you do Secret Santa? My husband has a large family, all in the area and all married. That makes for a lot of people. Some of his siblings are are affluent, some not so much. We agreed years ago to do a Sibling Secret Santa, pulling out names of his siblings and their spouses out of a hat at his parent's during Thanksgiving. We have a $40 limit. Quite a few of us - rotating - are at his parents for Christmas every year and along with the kids we open gifts. This works well - it's still festive but takes the stress and budget out of it.

Festive but less stress. A goal for all.

What is appropriate tipping etiquette around the holidays?

Check out the Real Simple tipping guide, both in our December issue and on  We get lots and lots and lots of questions about tipping.  It can be very confusing.

Traditionally your Christmas decorations should go down on Twelfth Night.


How do you stay organized during the holidays?

Well, since I am not capable of making spreadsheets, I make lots of lists.  I carry around a folder in my bag labeled "Christmas 2015" (or whatever the year is) and inside the folder I have my master list of gift recipients, what I have bought for them, what I plan to buy for them, when I am giving it to them, any relevant receipts, party invitations, etc.  Basically it's my low-tech go-to command center for Christmas.  I save it at the end of the year and refer back the following year, so I don't repeat gifts, etc.  And then I try to relax and hope for the best!

Thanks everybody for such great questions, even if some of them are kind of unanswerable :)  I hope you all have a low-stress, peaceful, lovely holiday season, whatever you celebrate.  And please don't forget that Real Simple is here if you need some practical, inspiring advice to make the next few weeks a bit easier.

Thank you Kristin. What a great exchange of tips and information about holidays and stress and organizing and tons more. Great chat. Meanwhile, the prizes of the books today will go to the person who posted under Getting Organized for the Holidays and mentioned doing it in January when you pack up and putting photos of what's in each box before you store it. Please email me your address. See you next week.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Kristin van Ogtrop
Kristin van Ogtrop is the editor of Real Simple, Time Inc.’s award-winning lifestyle brand. She is also the author of “Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom.”
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