As I prepared for the holiday weekend, and began planning for a picnic for friends the following, it occurred to me how many things I do to prepare for a party. Many of these things I do without even thinking. I have a reputation of being a good host, but it’s taken me years, and countless parties and picnics to perfect.
Growing up I was fortunate to live in a household where my mother had the same reputation. I have learned so much from her from watching and from helping with her own party preparations. So I thought I’d share some of my tips and secrets with you.
1. What’s the event? When planning for any gathering it helps first to determine what type of event you want to have. Formal, or informal. Inside or outside. Kid friendly or adults only. This will help dictate everything from food and location, to decorations and time of day.
2. Notify guests. Once you’ve determined the type of event it helps to send out invitations as soon as possible. This could be formal invite in the mail, a Facebook event invite, or as simple as a phone call. Your event invites are a critical piece and will set the tone for your gathering. Invites let guests know how formal and serious the event might be, the theme and how to dress. Generally speaking, a month ahead of time is the minimum you should invite your guests. Six weeks is more preferable. I have found (unless it’s something major like a first birthday, wedding or shower) that much more time than that has very little effect on attendance. Give people a deadline to RSVP by – usually 5-12 days before the event works depending on how large and formal the gathering is.
And guests – ALWAYS RSVP. You may think you’re only one person who hasn’t, but it’s more likely you’re one of a half dozen or so. This is a critical amount of people which could mean between a small or large platter of food. Not RSVP’ing is very rude to your host or hostess. If people consistently do not RSVP to my parties they don’t get invited anymore. Simple as that. In addition, never assume you may bring a plus one or your children. I’ve seen this happen again and again with wedding invitations. If it does not say you and guest, or you and your family assume they are not invited. It’s ok to ask if they may come (offering to pay their way helps) – but don’t be upset if the answer is no.
3. Plan your menu. Next you want to think about menu. Menu planning is always tricky. In our case we need to accommodate various dietary needs like no pork, vegetarians and sometimes food allergies. Generally speaking you want to have a few items you can prepare ahead of time. Sides usually fit into this category, but sometimes a main dish can reheat nicely (ie bbq). Be sure to have a few vegetables, some fruit, and perhaps cheese. A cheese platter is actually a wonderful thing. Two or three nice cheeses paired with some grapes or apricots looks sophisticated and is super easy.
It’s ok to cheat! Selecting a few items to purchase that are already prepared will save your sanity. Pick labor-intensive things like a fruit tray for example. I always buy my potato salad (the store makes it better than me!). I also buy potato skins (again labor intensive) from the local farmers market in the winter. Big hit. Or do a semi-homemade. I have tried various pasta salad recipes over the years. I always get the most compliments on the Classic Suddenly Salad from a box. Go figure. It’s inexpensive and takes only a few minutes to make (the day before!). Why mess with success?
If you are doing a more sophisticated party hors d’oeuvres are a must. The cheese tray will do here too. The problem with hors d’oeuvres is that making all those tiny things takes time and a lot work. Plan accordingly. Some easier things we have done in the past are bbq sliders, mini quiches, and bruschetta. Again no shame in buying here. We’ve sliced up spring rolls and cut potato skins in half to create bite-sized morsels that our guests loved.
Nice guests will offer to bring something - which I usually take them up on in the case of picnics or desserts in the winter time. No sense in you having to do all the work. Be specific. Pick something they are known for, they are comfortable making and will go with the rest of your menu. Some people aren’t naturally cooks. That’s fine – ask them to bring a beverage or tell them to get a specific prepared food item at the store to save you a trip (and a few bucks).
Again guests – showing up with prepared food unannounced is not ok. Your host or hostess carefully planned the menu for their guests, bringing something not run by them first will disrupt the delicate menu balance and throw off their tablescape (which we will talk about next). I actually had a guest at my house once bring something identical to something I made and then had another guest tell me how they liked the other person’s dish better – not cool.
4. Time to decorate. So let’s talk about decor. Don’t make yourself crazy – usually less is more. Good go-to party decorations which always look tasteful, fun and sophisticated are paper lanterns and large tissue paper pom poms which can be found generally at any craft or party store. Skip streamers – they look cheap and tacky (not to mention are a pain to hang up). Balloons may be appropriate for a themed or children’s party but use your discretion. Pennant banners are a fun old fashioned decor and can make a nice backdrop to a buffet table up against the wall. Candles are always a great addition whether hung in a tree or placed on tables throughout your space. Use the flameless ones if it’s windy, or you’re nervous about open flames (esp with pets and kids). Plain white string lights can add a lot of nice glow and charm to any occasion, or novelty lights in your theme.
Tablescaping is an art form. Tabletop space is always precious so choose wisely. First you want to start with your foundation – linens. I am a linen junkie so I have tons of tablecloths on hand available to me. If you don’t own a lot – that’s ok. You should have a few basic white tablecloths though in a couple sizes. Cloth tablecloths really look so much better than any plastic one. Wipeable, reusable vinyl ones work too for outside, though I still prefer cloth. A smaller decorative tablecloth can be place at an angle over a plain white one to jazz it up a bit.
5. Platter planning. Next you will need your serving pieces. I have all my pieces in white. This was a strategic move so that regardless of how I would like to use them – with my dining set, with holiday pieces, or at a picnic outside – I’m set. If you entertain two or three times a year it’s worth the investment for reusable serving pieces. Basics that I love, and you will use and again include: one large platter, a cake pedestal (to add height to a table or of course for dessert), a two or three layer hor d’oeuvres server (to conserve table space), a chafing dish and a crock pot.
We have a basic metal chafing dish that goes with everything, and our crock pot is plain red. I have a few select items in red which works for holiday, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. It’s also great for mixing in for a child’s or themed party. Using these pieces strategically mixed in with a few pieces specific to your event (even cheaper melmac things work great), along with table linens and decor really set a festive table. Other things you can consider putting on your table are themed items (shells for example, or perhaps a bubbling cauldron for Halloween), candles or flowers. My mother always has flowers on her tables and it just gives it that added polished touch.
Having plates, cups, napkins and cutlery for guests is just as important. Be sure to have extra forks. Any party planner will tell you, you always go through forks first. Again if you entertain a few times a year it’s worth investing in reusable items. We have a dozen wine glasses, and a dozen champagne flutes we use every holiday season. Sure beats the plastic cup! We also have a dozen small white plates that match our dining set. We got more of these so we can use them for hors d’oeuvres and dessert. Again mixed in with 4-6 holiday plates and we are set at Christmas time for holiday celebrations.
For outdoor entertaining I settled on one color – turquoise – and have a variety of items I can mix and match. We have a set of six melmac dinner and dessert plates, some serving platters, and pitchers. Mixed in with some white pieces and we usually have enough. What this means is I rarely have to buy disposable products unless we have a very large party.
It may sound like a lot of dishes – and it is – but everything is dishwasher safe and really after two runs of the dishwasher the party is cleaned up. And even though the upfront cost is more, I will save money in the end using these items again and again. Plus it’s more eco-friendly.
6. Preparation. So you have your menu, your décor, and your serving pieces. So let the prep work begin! Two or three days before your event do a deep clean in your house. You don’t want to be bothering with this later – trust me. The day before defrost any necessary items, begin marinating if needed, buy your prepared items (if it makes sense), and make anything you can ahead of time. Put drinks in the fridge to chill. Haul all your party stuff out of storage including serving pieces, tables chairs etc. Prep your linens by airing them out or ironing (if needed). How many chairs you need is dependent on your event. In general, (unless it’s a sit down meal, or you have a large elderly bunch) having half of the chairs in as many guests works out well as it keeps people moving and mingling.
7. Party time! Day of do a quick clean (vacuum, toilets, quick wipe-down) and set up. My husband and I usually tag team these items. He does initial set up (tents, tables chairs) while I follow afterward wiping things down and putting out linens. Be sure to set the drink station and the food station apart from one another. These are two places that people always gather – setting them in opposite areas will allow people to gather different places and avoid clogging up your event.
Begin food preparation. Timing, of especially hot foods, is always tricky. My only advice is that you will figure it out with practice. Put drinks out an hour to a half hour before guests arrive. Always allow yourself an extra half hour prep time than you think – you’ll need it. Somehow one of us always is in the shower freshening up as guests arrive. It happens. Don’t sweat it.
It helps to have foods in a “to warm up” or “standby” mode that you can just swap out or warm up so you’re not messing too much during your event. In addition, this lets my wing man guest (there’s always one, sometimes two) who are willing to help out easily grab something for a refill without asking you.
Ta da! You’re done! Whew! That was a lot of work right? Yes, it’s a lot of work to host an event. Entertaining seems to be a dying art form. If you don’t host parties, have some appreciation for those of us who do. Why do I do it? Because it’s fun, and I like to get people together. I hope these tips helped you. Do you have any of your own? Share them! Happy partying!