Set out an array of brightly colored soda bottles as a consumable centerpiece. Write guests names on ribbons, then slip them through key-ring bottle openers; lay one at each place setting for self-service with good cheer (and added value as favors). Your friends can find their seats, grab a bottle, and raise their glasses in a party-starting toast. Key Bottle Opener Key Chain, $3, Wishbone, 415-242-5540.
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Assign Seats with Chalkboard Place Mats
Dinner is all fun and games with reusable chalkboard place mats. Write guests' names on them (with nontoxic chalk) and they double as B-I-G place cards. You can check attendance and keep track of everyone's hangman scores. Should things get out of hand, wipe the mess away with felt erasers, set like coasters under the chalk cups. O.R.E. Chalk-a-Doodle place mats (with four pieces of chalk and eraser), $17 each, thestoragestore.com.
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Light Your Spread with Lots of Votives
One candle is nice; a cluster is even better. For a soft glow, use pinking shears to cut strips of paper long enough to fit around the outside of thick glass votives, then attach the paper with double-sided tape. Choose shades of the same color for a sophisticated, minimalist look. Line the candles down the center of the table as a runner.
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Stash Candies in a Vase
Instead of a regular candy dish on your buffet or drinks table, use a large footed vase for a display that's hard to miss and even harder to resist. Shiny, foil-wrapped treats add a sweet sparkle.
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Personalize Guests Mugs
Help guests avoid drinking from the wrong cup, and give them something to remember your party by. ZIG permanent markers are designed for use on ceramics and come in a range of colors (the ink should not come in contact with food, though, so restrict your handiwork to the outsides of the cups). ZIG Painty Markers, $3.50 each, markersupply.com.
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Wind Decorative Rubber Bands Around Place Settings
Separately stacked plates, silverware, and napkins take up precious buffet-table real estate (plus someone always ends up with two forks and no knife). Eliminate the fuss with oversize rubber bands that wrap a complete place setting―including the plate―and come in playful patterns that add a splash of color. Russell + Hazel rubber bands, $8 for two, russellandhazel.com.
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Float Apples in Vessels of Water
It's both low-key (a single color palette) and low-tech (two ingredients, no Ph.D. in crafts necessary), but the results bring a Zen beauty to your table. Fill large clear-glass vases with water at different levels, then drop in bright Granny Smiths for a whimsical still life that beats faux-looking fake fruit any day.
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Put Pencils and Paper to New Use
Initiate the festivities with a little free verse. Bendable striped pencils serve nicely as napkin rings, while oversize, swirlable notepads can be arranged as fun and functional centerpieces. Encourage guests to pass notes, play word games, and doodle (flattering!) portraits of one another. Twist Pencils, $1.50 each, pylones.com.
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Turn Limes into Festive Place Cards
Delightfully bright and pleasingly oval, limes are much too pretty to be sidelined as mere garnish. Instead, give them a starring role as placeholders. Write out each guest's name on one end of a sticky file label, center the label at the dull end of a small wooden skewer (or a toothpick), then wrap, bringing the label ends together. Stick each skewer into a washed lime and place one on each plate. Mailing Labels, $5 for eight, paper-source.com.
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Make Edible Napkin Rings
Forgo the inevitable bread-basket scrum with edible napkin rings that give place settings a homey, inviting touch. Slice off 1-inch pieces of Pop-n-Fresh pizza dough and roll them into 12-inch-long, 1/2-inch-thick ropes. Form each into a 4-inch-diameter ring, pinching the ends together. Place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 400° F oven until golden, about 15 minutes. One package makes 10 to 12 rings. Best of all: You can bake the rings a day ahead.
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Wrap Place Settings in Parchment Paper
Parchment paper does double duty at the table: It makes an elegant place-setting wrap (who doesnt love paper packages tied up with string?) that unfurls to become a no-muss, no-fuss place mat. Tear off a 16-inch piece and lay it down against the curl, so when its untied it wont roll up over the chicken piccata. When dinners done, crumple the paper and toss.
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Bring Foliage Indoors
Striking foliage works well in Mother Natures decorating scheme. Let it bring something to yours, too. Use artificial branches, or gather the real thing; then, in a well-ventilated outdoor space, carefully coat them with white spray paint. Arrange the branches in glass bottles or vases for an elegant (and wiltproof) display.
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Mark Guests' Spots Using Notebooks as Place Cards
Give guests who read between the lines at your party a place to write it all down (and don't forget to place a pen amid the cutlery). The nameplate on the cover makes this brightly striped notebook (available in a variety of colors and patterns) a perfect choice for both place card and take-home favor. Unlined notebook, $6, carrotandstickpress.com.
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Display Fruit in an Unconventional Way
Turn traditional displays on their head. Instead of piling up fruit in bowls, flip containers upside down and arrange fruit on top (er, bottom) to create a multitiered display. Pieces in the same shade make a strong visual impact. Clear containers blend with any decor. Once the party's over, they can go back to holding your buttons. Acrylic boxes with lids, $8 to $10 each, containerstore.com.
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Decorate Plain Napkins with Bold Stickers
Big, bright dot stickers give ho-hum plain white cloth napkins the seal of style they need to pass holiday muster. They also keep utensil-filled napkin envelopes fastened in transit from buffet table to mealtime―special delivery, indeed.
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Make Lollipop Bouquets
One part holiday spirit, two parts Willy Wonka, lollipop bouquets inspire childlike cheer at any table―and never shed petals. Pack a bucket with dry sand and arrange colorful pops in a loopy bouquet. The sand will keep them standing steady through dinner (unless a sweet tooth gets to them first). Twist Lollis, from $2.75, Hammond’s Candies, hammondscandies.com.