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'Deck-orate' the halls with food!

graphic

In this story:

Place cards

Sensational centerpieces

'Tis the little things that count



(CNN) -Want to know a foolproof, guaranteed, absolute way not to gain weight during this holiday season?

Use those scintillating sweets and tangy tarts to feed your creative side, not your insides.

Is that gingerbread man calling? Put him to work at your dinner table. Are sugarplums a vision that won't go away? Turn them into a centerpiece. Can't keep away from candy? Can it - literally.

Here are some fresh decorating ideas to help spice up your holiday table:

Place cards

The possibilities for creating place cards for your holiday guests are nearly limitless. All you need are ... well, read on:

Gingerbread people

These smiling holiday staples are the perfect little items to direct your guests to their seats, or point out the good stuff on your table.

graphic
 

Line up your gingerbread people, and then, armed with an inexpensive icing tube from your local store, write each guest's name or initials on a gingerbread man (or woman). Or use the icing and your army of cookie people to identify different dishes on the table.

(Not partial to gingerbread folks? Substitute any kind of Christmas cookie for this edible project.)

Place this personalized place card on guests' plates. If you want to double their duties, carefully attach a napkin to each gingerbread guy or girl's wrist. Yes! An edible napkin ring. If you're feeling adventurous, cut out small pictures of each guest's head and place one on the heads of different gingerbread people. I know, I know: This sounds a little Marie Antoinette-ish, but trust me, it's adorable.

Marshmallow snowmen

Do you have unused marshmallows leftover from your holiday sweet potato casserole? Get creative.

Take three marshmallows - one mini-mallow and two regular-sized ones - and thread them on a toothpick. Put the little one on top, just as if it were the head of fat-bodied snowman.

Don't stop there, though. Reach for a paring knife and some vegetables - carrots, red or green peppers, a cucumber. Slice some carrot slivers for a nose, then whittle some little eyes from the peppers. Top him off with a cucumber cap.

Finally, use the icing tube to add your guest's initials or their names to the snowman.

Sensational centerpieces

If sugarplums are on your holiday menu, give them special billing: Transform them into a fantasy table centerpiece.

You can turn fruit, flowers and nuts into a magical winter wonderland with an egg-white wash and granulated sugar. Follow these steps:

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1. Arrange some sugarplums, pears, grapes and walnuts with seasonal flowers.

2. Brush the surface of the arrangement with lightly beaten egg whites. (The amount of whites you need depends on the amount of fruit and flowers you use.)

3. Sprinkle your masterpiece with granulated sugar, allowing it to dry for at least 12 hours. Sometimes another coat is necessary to make it really glisten.

For an extra-special effect, buy an inexpensive toy sled. Place your centerpiece either inside it or atop your newly acquired downhill racer. Put the sled on some inexpensive, fake snow available at practically any crafts shop. Finally, get out your ski goggles and admire your work.

Gingerbread around the roses

If you have leftover gingerbread people from your place cards, don't let them stand around with empty looks on their faces. Put them to work like this:

1. Take an empty Christmas cookie tin and fill it with moist floral oasis (that green stuff florists use).

2. Stuff the tin abundantly with one kind of flower. (I prefer roses, but any stiff-stemmed flower will do.)

3. Lean your gingerbread men around the tin, so it appears as if they are holding it up. For added whimsy, take some plaid ribbon and glue to create little hats and scarves on your gingerbread people.

Bountiful bubble bowl

For any occasion, I love to transform an inexpensive, large, round fishbowl into a thing of beauty. It's such a versatile item, and yields amazing results for so little work. For example:

1. Take an empty soup can, remove its label and fill it with water. Place the full can inside the fish bowl.

2. Surround the can with anything appropriate to the season. For Christmas, I usually reach for red, white and green peppermint candies. (If peppermint isn't your taste, try fruit, nuts, popcorn, or red and green jellybeans.)

3. Place flowers inside the soup can, and it becomes a bubble bowl of beauty. (If you really want to highlight the peppermint theme, use red, white and green flowers.)

As I noted, this arrangement works great for any occasion. If you're observing Hanukkah, for example, I wouldn't use potato latkes in the fish bowl, but gold-foil chocolate coins look terrific.

'Tis the little things that count

Centerpieces and place cards are the obvious highlights on any holiday table, but don't forget about other little edible touches like these:

Beautiful butter

I haven't touched the stuff in 10 years, but I never impose my rules on guests. Shapely, colorful butter is a welcome addition to any table. Try this:

1. Take two sticks of softened butter, placing each in a separate bowl.

graphic

2. Add a tbsp. of raspberry jelly to one, a tbsp. of mint jelly to the other.

4. Blend well, then spread a half-inch thick layer of the butter on wax paper. Keep your flavors separate.

4. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours.

5. Using a cookie cutter in the shape of a tree, a star, a snowflake - or whatever you like -- cut out shapes from your sheets of butter.

6. Place your red butter stars and your green butter trees on a plate and garnish with holly.

Christmas cubes

Holiday ice cubes? Why not? They deliver a maximum amount of wonder with a minimum of work.

When you fill your ice trays with water, add a touch of red or green food coloring (about 5 drops per quart of water). When you place a clear water pitcher on your table with floating multi-colored ice, the results are remarkable!

Taking the holidays home

You've worked so hard to make everything perfect, so why end the holiday by sending your partygoers home with some leftover roast in a crumpled piece of tin foil?

Don't hand out doggy bags. Reach for reindeer bags instead!

I place the leftovers in a paper bag, then seal the bag with a Christmas sticker - a red-nosed Rudolph, for example. This takes a minute, but lets the holiday spirit last at least as long as the roast does!

So there you have it, a yuletide table with no peer. Take a moment to congratulate yourself.

Then get busy. Valentine's Day, remember, is hardly a flip of the calendar page away ...

Editor's note: Laurin Sydney is co-anchor of CNN's Showbiz Today, and recently authored her first book, "Why Bother? Why Not!" published by Cliff Street Books, a division of Harper Collins.



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