16 Tips for Stress-Free Entertaining
Before there was Martha Stewart, there was my mother, who stenciled roses on top of homemade pie crust and hired fortune tellers for Halloween parties. She was the kind of mom who baked delicate homemade petit fours for my tea parties, and added dry ice to the punch bowl for my brother’s magic-themed birthday bash. She could arrange a food platter like nobody’s business, and I’m still convinced she invented the world’s first cookie bouquet.
To say I’m a chip off the old block doesn’t really cover it. I’m pretty much the whole damn block.
I love to entertain at home. I love the planning. I love dreaming up the menu. I love shopping for food and decorations. I love setting the table, for crying out loud. I enjoy the creative part of making something to share with others. But mostly, I love when the planning ends, and my tiny apartment finally begins to be filled by the people that I care about. And then they start talking, and eating and laughing and my heart starts thinking, “Man, life is good.”
But it has taken some time for me to learn how to throw a nice little party, and I figure out something new every time I host one. I’ve learned by default what’s worth the effort, and what’s not; what adds stress and what taketh away. There are definitely a few formulas that I stick with when hosting, and they help me avoid overcomplicating the event so that I can actually enjoy it myself. Because if you’re doing it right, there’s a point in the party when the hostess needs to become a guest too. If not, you’re just a waitress accommodating to everyone else. And what’s the fun in that?
The first party I ever threw was a Cinco de Mayo brunch back in 2007. I had moved into my very own apartment the previous fall, and because I had lived with roommates up until that time, didn’t have a whole lot in the dishware department. Vin and I made huevos rancheros–a truly delicious breakfast dish– but a poor choice when entertaining a group of 10. We spent the morning in the kitchen flipping made-to-order fried eggs while our friends were out back drinking and enjoying!
Since then, I’ve definitely figured out ways to make entertaining fun for guests and easier on myself. I’ve also bought a few nice bowls so I don’t have to use pots as serving pieces:). Here are a few of my favorite tips that I’d like to pass along to any other hostess-with-the-mostess types.
1. GET ORGANIZED.
Pick a date well in advance and inform people as early as you can, especially if you’re hosting during a busy time like the summer months or holiday season. You’ll have a better turnout, and it will give you plenty of time to pull together everything you need.
2. GET COHESIVE.
I’m not suggesting you must always have a theme for every gathering you host, but if you pick a few colors or a type of cuisine to base everything around, it can really keep you from getting overwhelmed by too many options. Plus, keeping to a color scheme (even if everything is from the dollar store) makes everything look slightly more high-end, less hodge-podge.
3. KEEP SERVING WARE SIMPLE:
I’m sure my wedding registry looked uber-plain to people, but I purposely wanted everything white, clean and simple for several reasons. 1) It will never go out of style and is therefore easy to replace if something breaks. 2) Food looks best when presented on a white plate (go to any restaurant–what do they serve you on?), and 3) I’ll always have a blank canvas to work around any party theme.
4. ACCEPT HELP WHEN OFFERED!
Do you know what this cake would have looked like if I i’d frosted it myself? Bad. It would have looked bad. I’m a slap-it-on and walk away kinda gal, and this pretty young thing would have looked like a real hack job with me at the decorating helm. But my husband is super detail-oriented, and frosting a cake to perfection is the perfect pre-party job for him. For my most recent party, two of my friends (thanks Bridget and Chris!!) came over early to help set up, and it was absolutely invaluable. And I have to give Kathy a shout-out for washing ALL the dishes after my last two parties. Good friends will always step up–let ‘em!! (and if they ask what they can bring to help out, always say ICE).
5. DON’T OVERCOMPLICATE YOUR MENU.
Unless you’re having a very small group over, now is not the time for 7-course meals. Make tried-and-true simple recipes that you’ve made before. Make things that can be made the day before, or better yet–three days before and keep. Make stuff you can leave out on a table and walk away from. You don’t want to cook something you have to constantly tend to or prepare while guests are already there. Think dips with crudites, crackers and breads, easy pasta/grain/fruit salads, stuff that still tastes good even after it’s gone cold or can stay warm with a crockpot or chafing dishes.
6. GO SEASONAL.
Consider the season and the weather when choosing your food. No one wants to eat hot, gooey pasta in the hot summer sun, and no one is feeling like a bunch of wimpy salads during a wintry Superbowl game.
7. POTLUCK WHEN YOU CAN!
One of my favorite house parties was a totally impromptu hang-out for Vinny’s birthday a few years ago. I didn’t have the energy to do a full party, so I just emailed a few good friends and told them to bring whatever they wanted to throw on our grill. Our buddies got totally creative–one brought three kinds of pre-marinated chicken wings and quesadillas, another brought homemade seitan ribs for the vegetarians in our group. They all brought their own beer. All we provided were chairs and a grill, and we had an awesome time! (and we didn’t pay a cent–holla!)
8. LABEL YOUR FOOD.
You don’t have to get crazy and add sequins or anything (I happen to love getting my craft on), but people have myriad food allergies, sensitivities and preferences, and guests are always appreciative when they know what they’re getting themselves into. That said–would everyone please stop doing these custom water bottle labels? It’s water–we get it. I still don’t understand the point of that, and it’s just so wasteful. Get a big jug and throw some water in it. DONE.
9. KNOW YOUR CROWD.
Our usual crew prefers beer over cocktails, and foods on the healthy side as opposed to super heavy party fare. I plan accordingly, and most of the stuff generally gets eaten. Sometimes you have to forget about what you like, and think about what others like. Vin and I both hate olives, but we’ve put them out at parties because they’re easy finger food that require zero effort on our part and a lot of people enjoy them.
10. SOURCE OUT!!
Not everything has to be homemade, Martha. Most of the time people can barely tell a difference anyway and enjoy the pre-bought stuff just as much. You think I’m standing around a stove frying 60 pieces of chicken on a July afternoon? Ain’t nobody got time for that! KFC baby! PS: Everyone assumed it was homemade because I made everything else. And if friends offer to bring dishes to the party, be a smarty and say “Yes, please, and thank you!”. One less thing for you to make!
10. DIY FOOD BARS.
This is the only way I serve food at big parties these days. People like to customize their own meal and it’s fun too! For Vin’s surprise birthday last weekend I made a chicken and waffle bar. I bought three big buckets of KFC, dumped the chicken in blue beach buckets, then set up a station for people to make their own waffles, so they were fresh and hot. I had a salad bar in the other corner with homemade dressings and sliced veggies. It was great fun and super easy for me to do. I’ll make a separate post about food bars soon because I’m a big fan!
11. SET A SCHEDULE
Do as much as you can the night before, or a few days before. Don’t leave decorations and shopping for the last minute. Take a shower and do your hair in the morning before you start setting up. You’ll have a hard time fitting that in the closer you get to party time.
12. SET THE SCENE.
<In NYC apartments, you have to get creative with your space. For a Christmas party, we moved our bed to the other side of the room, then set up a dessert bar right between our two bedside tables. Do what you gotta do!>
Have a tidy house, but there’s no need to break your back mopping floors and dusting corners. Make sure you have a clean toilet and sinks. Make the bed if people are likely to amble into your bedroom, and try to create as much freed-up space as you can so no one feels like they’re suffocating (this is for apartment dwellers like me). Our floors usually get so filthy with people walking in and out that there’s really no point in mopping before they get there.
13. HIT THE DOLLAR STORE.
My platters and dishes are from Crate and Barrel, but most of my decorations come from uber-cheap spots like local dollar/variety stores, IKEA, and Party City. Discount retailers like Home Goods, Marshall’s and TJ Maxx are also excellent places to find party accessories. Online, I use orientaltrading.com a lot and tablecloths.com for really inexpensive cloth tablecloths, napkins and runners (be aware: they ain’t great quality, and stain very easily, but man are they cheap).
(All holiday decorations in this pic are from materials purchased at the dollar store!)
15. MAKE GUESTS COMFORTABLE.
Make sure you have adequate seating and good air conditioning. If you don’t have tons of tables, try to serve foods that don’t require cutting, since it’s so hard to do that with a plate of food balanced on your lap. For last weekend’s party, my friend Chris rightly predicted that bug spray would be needed–something I had completely overlooked. People will leave early if they’re getting eaten alive, so that was a good call.
16. INVITE FUN PEOPLE!!
None of this other stuff matters without the people. With the right crowd, you can avoid all this fussy advice, offer up a bowl of Cheetos and a pitcher of Kool-Aid and call it a fiesta. Maybe I’ll try that next time.
Bonus tip #17) I’m sure they’re overdone at this point, but photo booths are always fun.
What tips would you share about throwing a stress-free party? Please feel free to share!