To preface this post, I want to say that as a budding 24-year-old cook and entertainer, I am by no means an expert in party planning.
I’ve had plenty of disasters in the kitchen and at the dinner table along my quest to become a domestic goddess. And many of you have years more experience than me, so I thank you for the examples you have set.
That being said, here are a few helpful tips I’ve picked up along the way from family and friends to help make your next gathering a smashing success:
Plan out your menu.
When planning the food, consider the tastes of your guests. It is helpful to keep a log of what you have offered at past parties as well as your friends’ likes and dislikes. There are often aversions to food such as cilantro, fennel, blue cheese, mushrooms, brussels sprouts, and seafood. If you offer any of these foods, make sure there are other options from which to choose.
And when you’re serving a lot of big hungry boys, make sure to offer a lot of starchy food on the side such as white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and bread rolls. And for girls, always offer a guilt-free side dish such as an undressed or lightly dressed salad to help fill the tummies of health-conscious chicas. I hope that doesn’t sound sexist — this has just been my experience while entertaining!
Never underestimate the power of a good appetizer plate.
A general rule of thumb that I learned from my mom and mother-in-law is to always serve some sort of appetizer or small niblet whenever you have people over. This helps ease people’s nerves and makes them feel comfortable in your home.
This does not mean that you need to slave in the kitchen making something elaborate. Simple is often better.
Some of my favorite no-fuss niblets to serve are good-quality cheese and sausage with crackers and/or toasted bread drizzled with olive oil, sliced cucumbers, kalamata olives, almonds, cashews, grapes, and baby carrots. If I plan ahead of time, I like to serve a homemade dip such as my white bean garlic dip or hummus, my spinach artichoke dip, or my mom’s guacamole.
Plan out your serving dishes and serving utensils.
Carefully plan the serving dishes for your menu items so that everything is clean and ready to go in advance of the party. It is helpful to place the dishes out on the table ahead of time to see how will be placed and how it all looks together.
And don’t forget about utensils! Make sure you have a pair of tongs, serving fork, or spoon to go with each dish. Also consider setting out spoon rests or small plates for resting utensils after they have been used. If you’re doing a buffet-style dinner, set aside a space to distribute forks, knives, spoons, and napkins at the very end of the buffet.
Set a mock table a few days ahead of time so that you can make any last minute adjustments or shopping trips with some time to spare. When you’ve visualized everything ahead of time, you’ll feel much more confident the day of the party once you’re actually setting everything up.
Invest in flowers.
It is always lovely to have fresh flowers on your table. It doesn’t have to be an expensive bouquet from the florist – it could be from the grocery store, the farmer’s market, or even your backyard – just something fresh in a small vase or bowl is great. The presence of flowers will make any gathering seem so much more special.
Just make sure it sits low if you’re setting it out at the dinner table, or move it out of the way once you begin eating – you don’t want your guests to have to talk through your centerpiece if it’s too high!
Set up stations.
Don’t put all of the food and drinks in one area, or guests are likely to form a traffic jam. Instead, spread everything out into a few different stations throughout your house to encourage mingling and a good flow of traffic. Appetizers can go in the living room and other mingling areas, while dinner can be served along a buffet in the dining room or kitchen.
For example, you can set up one special station with pre-made “signature drinks” or pre-poured store-bought cocktails or wine that guests can just come up and grab quickly, and create a separate area for the actual bar, where drinks need to be mixed.
And don’t forget about an ice bucket as well as a cutting board and paring knife if you’re serving mixed drinks and cocktails!
Designate someone to be the bartender.
Always keep a lookout, or designate someone to keep a lookout, to make sure guests have whatever they need, whether it be a fresh glass of ice water, a refill on a drink, or a fresh garnish of lemon or lime. Have beverages readily available, and keep glasses full while being mindful of over-serving those who are driving home at the end of the night.
Make a playlist for your party in advance, either on your iTunes, a CD, or select a station on Pandora. Consider your audience and their tastes when creating the list. I love playing a little Frank Sinatra during the cocktail hour, and before the party gets chaotic late at night. Designate a music-savvy friend or family member to make sure the music is relevant and fresh.
Make space for coats.
Know where coats are going to go, and who is going to take them. There is nothing worse than a big wet heap of coats lying on top of your sofa. Make space in the coat closet or on your coat hanger, have adequate hangers ready, and someone ready and waiting to take them at the door.
Clean the bathroom!
Your bathrooms must be clean and sparkling before your event. Make sure you have hand soap and hand towels, as well as enough toilet paper.
Consider what you will do with your pets during the event, and make sure they will not be in the way of your guests. If you have a pet who is squeamish about new people, it might be best to keep them in an area away from the party.
Don’t be embarrassed about taking shortcuts.
If you run out of time for cooking, it is perfectly okay to pick up a pre-prepared item at the grocery store for one or two of your menu items, then transfer them to your own dishes and focus your efforts on a pretty presentation.
For example, I like to pick out a yummy salad from the deli at Whole Foods if I need something quick and easy to go with a dish I’ve already prepared.
Give yourself permission to take shortcuts here and there, whether it’s relying on a store-bought side dish, hiring a cleaning lady before the party, or enlisting your BFF or significant other to help serve drinks.
If you need professional help, consider hiring an event helper through TaskRabbit, a service that gets you in touch with friendly, background-checked people that can help you with just about anything you need to get done. This service is currently available in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, LA and the OC, Austin, Portland, Seattle, and San Antonio.
Take 30 minutes for yourself, and enjoy the party.
Pretend that the party starts at least 30 minutes before it actually does so that everything is ready a little early, then take a few minutes to relax, enjoy a glass of wine, and let yourself be a “guest” for a bit. One of the most important elements to any party is a charming host/hostess, so if you’re relaxed and happy when you start greeting your guests, they’ll take a cue from you and it will be a great start to the night for everyone!
In general, if the host is running around the kitchen and not spending any time with his or her guests, it can make the guests feel awkward and uncomfortable, like they should be helping alleviate stress in the kitchen. Enlist help in others to avoid slaving away in the kitchen the entire night, and you can enjoy more time having great conversation with your guests.
OK, I am often guilty on this one. Sometimes after cooking in the kitchen all day I look like a hot mess. But I know it’s important to take a few minutes for myself before the party to freshen up, swipe on a little lipstick, and maybe throw on a pair of heels.
If you will continue working in the kitchen while your guests arrive, you may want to think about donning a cute, fun apron. I must offer a shameless plug for my friend Andrea Kazarian, who has started her own small business called theModhostess. For around $35, you can order a cute, stylish half-apron that will go with any outfit. Check out her oh-so-adorable designs at theModhostess Facebook page. Simply send Andrea an email with your order at firstname.lastname@example.org, and she will invoice and ship your order. Makes a great gift for any hostess, girlfriend, or bride-to-be!
Help serve dessert and coffee.
Serve coffee along with cream and sugar (have a pot ready to brew before the party), then get ready to serve dessert. You don’t want your guests to have to scoop their own ice cream or cut their own slice of cake!
For example, if you’re serving a cake or pie, slice it for your guests, then designate a family member or friend to scoop ice cream further down the table. Place extra dessert forks at the end of the station. Or, opt to go casual buffet-style for dessert and serve items that can easily be picked up, like cookies, cupcakes, or brownies.
Entertaining should be FUN! That goes for you and your guests. Just remember that parties are about not about perfection. Something may go totally unexpected, but you just have to promise yourself to have fun and go with the flow!
So when are you planning your next shindig?
peaches & cake