I’ve been hosting parties for thirty years and I love to entertain. Filling my home with family and friends, enjoying delicious food and spending quality time together makes me very happy. I read an article that compared pulling off the perfect party to a science experiment – plan your strategy, mix your ingredients and leave the rest to chemistry. I thought it was brilliant and accurate on so many levels. Entertaining can be fun, challenging, exhausting and rewarding. A well executed party has wonderful flow and looks effortless, but looks can be deceiving. A lot of effort goes into planning a successful party. Today I’m sharing my process for home entertaining, regardless of scale.
TYPE OF EVENT & PRIORITIES
Determine what type of event you’re hosting and set your priorities. Is this a formal dinner, outdoor BBQ, or Sunday brunch? Determining what you’re celebrating will simplify or amplify the level of planning. What are your priorities? Is it the menu, creating a casual atmosphere, decorations or the budget? Yes all elements are important to some degree, but knowing what’s most important to you is key. That will be your focus. For example, if the menu is the most important, your budget is a guide and not a hard number. If it’s your budget, you may want to serve lobster, but actually serve chicken.
A formal party may require months to plan, while informal gatherings can be planned overnight, in a few days or weeks – there’s no rule. If you don’t have a hard date, like a birthday or anniversary, set a date that works for you and the majority of your guests. Once you set the date, you can create a timeline and work from there.
Example: When I planned my mother’s Afternoon Tea Party, I spent six-months sourcing fine bone English china tea sets.
Timing can be critical depending on your event. If you’re not serving a full meal, don’t set a time where a meal is expected. If you’re hosting cocktails and dinner, set a time for each one. This way if a guest can’t make it for cocktails, they can confirm for dinner.
If you’re planning an outdoor party, have a Plan B. What will you do if the weather doesn’t cooperate? Can you bring everyone inside comfortably? Make sure you can accommodate all your guests indoors should something unforeseen happen.
True story: For my daughter’s first birthday I planned an amazing birthday party in the back yard for 40 children and their parents. My party was complete with 144 balloons, a petting zoo, bounce house and puppet show. It was over the top! A freak mini tornado came through mid-party and everyone ran inside. By the time the storm was over, I had a broken sofa, closet door, floor tiles and not a balloon in sight. The house was a mess and it took me three weeks to remove confetti from the grout, but it was memorable!
If your dining table seats ten, invite ten guests, not twelve. Inviting more guests will only crowd the table and make your guests physically uncomfortable. If it’s a mix-and-mingle cocktail party, where some are sitting and some are standing, you can increase the guest count. The same applies for a buffet since not everyone may eat at the same time. Just keep the guest count in proportion to your entertaining space – meaning don’t invite more guests than what your home can accommodate comfortably.
Investment is both money and time. Setting a budget is important, but your time is also valuable. They say time is money and these two can often be interchangeable. If you don’t have a large budget you may want to do more yourself to reduce costs. If your time is limited you may increase the budget. Find the balance that works for you and set realistic expectations for yourself to avoid frustration. Don’t be afraid to accept help when offered or ask for help when needed. People are generally helpful and enjoy being included.
Most invitations for informal gatherings are done via phone or text. Online services like Evite.com are popular and help track responses. Allow your guests ample time to review their schedules before responding and give them an R.S.V.P. deadline. Invitations should include important details such as date, time, location, theme and party duration. Set expectations. If you’re having a tea party at 2 p.m. and you’re not serving a full meal, state light refreshments will be served.
THEME & DECORATIONS
Themes are a fun way to make a party cohesive. Sometimes we tie themes to decorations, but they are not interchangeable terms. I love dinner parties where the menu is the theme. Here’s my Taste of Italy theme inspired from different regions in Italy, or my Charleston Summer Soiree where the focus was on Charleston southern favorites. Your theme can be reflected in both the menu and decorations. Take a look at my Oktoberfest and Cinco de Mayo parties from a few years ago. When setting a theme, consider what you have, what you can borrow and what you need to buy. Factor those expenses into your budget. I’ve listed a few examples at the very bottom of this post to get your creative juices flowing.
MENU & COCKTAILS
Do your homework when planning your menu. Browse through cookbooks, Pinterest and the internet to get ideas. Decide what you want to serve, keep it varied when possible and make it good. Keep in mind you can’t please everyone so don’t become a short order cook trying to meet everyone’s preferences and dietary restrictions. Once you have your menu, make a list of ingredients and check it a few times before you go shopping. Nothing halts the momentum of a party like having to run out for a missing ingredient at the last minute once your guests have arrived.
Note: There are many make-ahead-recipes that help making entertaining easier. Entertaining is not the time to try a new recipe. You should serve what you’re comfortable making or order from a known caterer.
Estimating Appetizers – As a general rule, serve: 6 appetizers per person at a dinner party and 10-12 appetizers per person at a cocktail party. Professional caterers estimated a guest will eat 5-7 appetizers in the first hour and 2-4 appetizers in the second hour. I like to offer a variety of hot and cold appetizers accompanied with assorted cheeses, fruits and nuts.
Note: I find those estimates generous. If your guests eats like birds or have healthy appetites, you need to take this into account when determining portions and quantities. If you don’t know, follow standard guidelines. It’s better to have leftovers than to fall short.
Food Storage – When planning your menu, take into account what requires refrigeration and what can be stored at room temperature. If you don’t have sufficient refrigeration or freezer space, consider a few coolers with ice or make adjustments to the menu.
Cocktails – Offer your guests a cocktail upon arrival. It immediately sets the tone for the evening and puts your guests at ease. Setting out a signature cocktail drink in a pitcher and having your guests self-serve while you wrap up in the kitchen is a great time saver. You could also set up a cocktail bar with a few easy recipe cards for your guests to follow – just make sure you have all the ingredients. Involve your guests and have them help. Not only will they be willing to help, but it’s a great way to break the ice and strike up conversation.
MUSIC & LIGHTING
Music and lighting are great ways to create ambiance. Select a playlist and have the music playing when guests arrive. If you don’t have your own music, there are many playlists or music stations on Spotify or iHeart Radio to pick from. Create a warm and inviting space with ambient lighting. Dim the lights and/or use candles to set the mood you want.
DEVELOP A TIMELINE & TO-DO LIST
You can’t do everything the day of the party. Developing a to-do list you can stick to will help you stay on track and sane. Review your recipes more than once and determine what you need to do when. Does your menu require marinating overnight? What can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated? Is your bar complete? A detailed To-Do List will be essential.
Two Weeks Before
Finalize the menu and develop a shopping list. Review your decorations, table setting and bar inventory and purchase any missing items. Make sure you have a serving utensil for every dish. Remember the devil is in the details!
A Week Before
Review your pantry inventory and create a detailed shopping list. If ordering from a restaurant or bakery, place those orders. If invitations went out earlier, review R.S.V.P. list and call guests that have not responded. Don’t assume post or electronic invitations were received.
Note: Many appetizers can be made ahead of time, frozen and baked the day of the party. Take advantage of freezer friendly recipes. This will save a lot of time as you get closer to the date.
Two Days Leading up to the Party
Over the next two days, tackle that to-do list and complete as many tasks as possible so you can focus on being the host the day of the party. Prep, marinade, make sauces, dressings and desserts. Tidy up and clean the guest bathroom and entertaining area. If you’re having food catered, confirm delivery or pick up times. Decorate and set your table with linens, napkins, dishes, stemware, glassware and flowers. Instead of using traditional five-piece settings, try mixing and matching plates and stemware to create visual interest and texture. If serving a buffet, determine food placement and set out the serving plate and utensils. Placing Post-It notes on each dish is a great visual reminder to keep you on track and organized. For a buffet, I like to have a small table with dessert options. If it’s a sit down dinner, I bring out the dessert and coffee after the meal.
TIP: Did you know cake layers stay fresh and moist when wrapped in plastic film and refrigerated? Frosting also keeps well in the refrigerator. Additionally, both freeze well just like cheesecake! It’s a great time saver to bake ahead and assemble the day of.
Day of the Party
By today your to-do list should be very small. Determine what remains, ask for help and set a hard cut-off time. If your party is at 7 p.m. maybe the cut-off time is 4 p.m. It’s very important you allow yourself time to relax, decompress and get ready before your guests arrive. You set the tone for your party and if you’re not relaxed, your guests won’t feel relaxed either.
Remember entertaining is all about sharing and connecting with the people we love around delicious food and drinks. Rarely do we remember what was served, but we always remember the experience. If you treat your guests, as you would like to be treated, your guests will enjoy themselves and your party will be a success. And should disaster strike, take it in stride, laugh it off and roll with the punches.
Once the door bell rings, the fun starts. You’ve done all you can do to ensure the party is a success, now your science experiment has been set up and the rest is chemistry.
VARIOUS THEMES WITH SUGGESTIONS
Easy Color Themes – Any single or color combination will work. Mix and match linens, dishes and stemware with some fresh flowers and candles for a simple and classic look.
Destination Themes – Pick a country, city or state and develop a menu with regional foods. Decorations are optional. Design a tablescape that’s over the top. In addition to flowers and candles, add iconic touches from that destination – think of a Buddha on a mound of curry powder, Eiffel Tower, Lady Liberty, a carousel or a train.
Era Themes – Royal Afternoon Tea Party, Roaring 20s, 60s Hippie, 70s Disco or Mid-Century Modern
Holiday Themes – In addition to traditional holidays, consider Galantine’s Day, Friendsgiving, Festivus, Cookie Swap, White Elephant or Gingerbread House party.
Tropical – Flamingo, Hawaiian Luau or Under the Sea
TV or Movie Themes – In addition to an actual movie theme with reels and pop corn, draw inspiration from your favorite television shows or movies. These work best when guests dress up, but it’s not a requirement to have fun. Take elements from the show/movie and incorporate them into your decor, menu and cocktails.
Here are some of my favorites:
→ I Dream of Jeanie – think of Jeannie’s bottle, low table, pillow seating and convert the room into her pink den
→ Maude – think lounge dresses, leisure suits, 70s food and cocktails, fondue sets, crock pot cooking and Jello mold desserts
→ Sex & the City – NYC skyline silhouette in black, lots of pinks, boas, cosmos, martinis and cocktails
→ Mad Men – men in suits with hats and women in fitted dresses with coiffed hair, old-fashioned & martini drinks and cigars
→ Gilligan’s Island – this is just plain silly fun, nautical theme, coconut pie
→ The Gambler – a western theme, poker table, specialty drinks
→ Downton Abbey – set a formal table, a menu with courses and period cocktails, there’s a cookbook with all their recipes
→ Harry Potter – heavy on the decor, think moody, dark, black table cloth, candles, sorting hat and develop a menu named after characters. HalfBakedHarvest has a series of Harry Potter themed cocktails.
Photo Credit: Pixabay