Like many of you, the commotion in my life this time of year tends to revolve around entertaining. As our big Halloween blow-out approaches and the growth of the guest list shows no signs of slowing, I’m struggling to keep my cool. We threw our first huge party in this house around this time last year, and while it turned out fabulously, the effects of the preceding preparation marathon left me winded for weeks afterward. Since then, I’ve learned to do things a little… OK, a LOT differently. I also know that I’m not alone in working a full time job, with a family, and lots of other outside obligations, so it’s not like you have the luxury of sitting at home and planning your next soiree to perfection! None-the-less, you wish you could entertain more, but the idea of all the preparation is daunting. Good news – it’s totally doable. These lessons can be just as well applied to having one couple over for dinner, like we did a couple days ago, or to an extravaganza, like the one we’re anticipating. I’ve acquired them in the trenches of experience, so I assure you, if you just follow the steps, everything will go much more smoothly than you anticipate!
Step 1. Decide on a theme (which can be literal if you wish) or a mood. This is where it all begins. If you’re just having someone over for dinner, is it casual, formal, or somewhere in between? For a party, there’s a bit more to this. What’s the occasion? How do you want it to feel? Will it be sit down, buffet, or cocktail style? Close friends, family, acquaintances, or business associates? All of these factors will affect the tone of the evening.
Step 2. Send out your invitations. Your invitations should reflect your theme. (If this is a casual evening with a friend, a quick phone call or email would qualify as step 2… although I have sent invitations in the past, just for fun!) They should tell your guests the date and time, the location, appropriate attire, whether they should bring anything (or NOT bring anything), whether they are allowed to bring a guest of their own, etc. Don’t leave anything to chance. Pretend YOU are being invited – would you have any questions if you were reading the invitation for the first time? Your invitations should also reflect the formality of the evening. Professional invitations are appropriate for formal events, while store-bought are fine for family or close friends. Evite.com is a wonderful service that is available for free. You can customize your invitation with whatever theme you wish, import your guest list straight from your email address book, and send all the invites out with the push of a button! You also want to make sure that you are sending your invitations in a timely enough manner for your guests’ comfort. Generally, two weeks in advance is appropriate, but for something like a costume party, for example, I give my guests four weeks to allow them enough time to find their costumes. Further if you are having any sort of a holiday gathering where people are likely to be invited to multiple functions on the same date, it is perfectly acceptable to send out “save the date” notices, which effectively give them the heads up that you will be having an event, and gets you first dibs on their time.
Step 3. Plan the menu. Is this a sit down dinner? At the very least, you will want an appetizer (could be a salad), a main dish, a side dish, and a dessert. For a buffet, you could have the guests bring a dish for a pot-luck style meal, have it catered, or just have two or three main dishes and a couple side items to choose from. For a cocktail party, finger foods that can be easily eaten while standing and conversing are the way to go. Finger foods are basically small appetizers. You can make several batches of a few different items, or a single batch of many items. Keep your theme in mind when planning your menu – spaghetti is great for italian night with the in-laws, not so much for the boss and his wife!
Step 4. Purchase and/or cook IN ADVANCE. If you are doing the cooking yourself, this step is a life saver! Once you have your menu decided, make a list of all of the ingredients necessary for all of the recipes. Start buying them a bit at a time, breaking the list down over several weeks, depending on the size of your gathering. (Clearly, you’ll be buying the perishable items last.) This not only spreads out the time in the grocery store, but also the expense. Anyone who’s ever thrown a decent size party knows that food is notorious for being the budget buster! Next, start cooking ahead of time anything that can be frozen. If you have a large extra freezer, great! Personally, I’m not so fortunate in that department, so I have to plan a little more carefully. Leading up to the party, I try to eat whatever is in the freezer, and also not to buy too many frozen items in my routine grocery shopping, so that real estate will be available to me! Now all you have to do is pull things out to thaw the day of the party, and voila! A small note: keep your party food either separated from your regular food, or clearly labeled, so that it doesn’t accidentally get eaten before the party!!
Step 5. If your lifestyle permits, set up ahead of time. Rearrange the furniture, put out the serving tables, put up the decorations, wash the serving dishes, set out the candles and candle holders, rent tables and chair if you’ll need them (or bring them down from the attic, or whatever), and basically pull out anything you’ll need. For most families, this could be done at least a couple days ahead. If you have pets, just don’t put out the dishes and the linens until the day of the event. Before the guests arrive, all you’ll need to do is dim the lights, turn on the music, and light the candles!
Step 6. The week of the party, start cleaning a little bit at a time. Most people over-do this… I know I do. Especially for large parties, things just need to be “visually clean.” Focus on the bathrooms, because that’s the only place people will be alone, with time to really focus on anything, in a brightly lit space. Your dusting only needs to be “good enough.” By that I mean, you do not have to get the BACK of the refrigerator, the tops of the artwork, behind the books in the bookcase. DO knock down any dangling cobwebs, and dust any table surfaces. A quick vacuum or sweep is more than sufficient. If you just do 30 minutes a day for four or five days, you will be in stellar shape.
Step 7. The day before the party, pull anything that needs to thaw out of the freezer, and rearrange the furniture if you haven’t already.
Step 8. The day of the party, you’ll need to do any last minute cooking. I strongly urge you to get up early so that you don’t feel pressed for time. Prep your bar area, or pre-mix your drinks. Pick up bags of ice. Give yourself plenty of time to get showered, dressed, and ready. Have a stiff drink. When the doorbell starts ringing, just let it roll. No one but you will know if everything isn’t exactly perfect! Here’s the most important thing to remember: Don’t let yourself become paralyzed by your apprehension. These people are here to spend time with you, and to enjoy the social interaction. So relax! Spending quality time with friends has been shown repeatedly to lower stress, lower blood pressure, and increase life-span. The more you do it, the easier it gets, so go call some people!