It's Party Time!

One of my Home Style readers, Susan Pinkard, wrote recently asking about parties. Susan hinted not-so-slightly that she’d like to see us feature an article on parties, and guess what Susan? This one’s for you -- well you, and everyone else who might have wondered how to give a party without killing yourself! We want you to be able to throw a great party without spending a fortune and assure that everyone has a good time (including the host/ess).

It is beginning to look a lot like Party Central. The holidays are Party Prime Time and of course that’s when we want to have our party. So get the beverage of your choice, and read on. We’re going to explore ways to get it done, put it on, and enjoy it without breaking the bank or our backs!

I’m going to ask you to remember 3 things. They’re my 3 P’s for Perfect Parties: Planning, Prepping, and Presenting -- in that order!

Planning in order of priority:

  1. The party date, time, and location.
  2. The number of guests you will invite.
  3. The type/theme for the party.
  4. Invitations.
    Based on the scope of your party, your invitation may be delivered via the telephone or a written invitation. If you are sending written invitations, they should be received 2 weeks in advance of the party and include an RSVP. This can be handled simply by asking that your invited guests call you to accept or decline your invitation. In order to proceed with your planning, you need to know exactly how many people plan to attend.
  5. The menu.
    With a sit down dinner, you’ll need to plan appetizers/hors d’oeuvres, main course, accompanying dishes, bread, dessert. For buffets, you’ll need a bit of all of that, or for a more casual Drinks and Hors d’oeuvres soirée, there’s planning to that too! Liquors, mixers, juices, non-alcoholic beverages, etc., plus an assortment of hot/cold appetizer dishes.
  6. Decorations.
    Where and what?
  7. Guest seating arrangements.
  8. Serving arrangements.
    Serving pieces and dishes, cutlery, linens, plates, napkins. All relate to what you are serving and to whom. This is also influenced by the theme or type of party you’re having.

When you start to think about the event, you should make all these decisions. Sure, you can modify your plan as the party approaches, but your life will be infinitely easier with this background work. You don’t want to do all this? Well, it’s easier than it looks. Let’s use an example. "Gee it would be nice to have a few close friends over around the holidays. I guess we could even include some people who work with you, and some who work with me."

An idea for a party is born, and before it was barely spoken, the guest list increased. So here’s what we have:

  1. Date, time, location? Not exactly -- but "over" the holidays, so we’ve narrowed it down somewhat. Now let’s get specific and pick a date, a time and remember to draw a map!
  2. Number of guests? Close friends (12) and co-workers (6 for you, 6 for me = 12 total co-workers) Total number of guests: 24 plus honey and me = 26
  3. Type/theme of party? Holiday.

Now as we think about the number of people and the fact that we want to have this get together at our house, we realize we cannot seat 26 people around our dinner table, and we really don’t want to rent tables and chairs. That eliminates the sit-down dinner party.

If you have space to accommodate guest seating in several rooms or areas, you might choose the ever-popular and always good buffet. Just remember, people are not comfortable eating a buffet meal without a place to sit. It does not have to be a table, but there must be provisions for their plates and cups. Card tables, sturdy trays, even coffee tables suffice, but remember to protect them and decorate them so that they appear as useful as you mean them to be. Don’t be overly concerned about having 26 such places. Everyone will eat at their own pace, on their own schedule and will seek a place to sit when they need one. Buffets encourage "grazing" and some will do just that.

The buffet or simply drinks and hors d’oeuvres may be fine, but can we accommodate that number of people at one time? If the answer is no, then perhaps we need to think about staggering our guests arrival and departure times by positioning our party differently. By referring to the event as an "Open House" or a "Holiday Candlelight Gathering", people have our implied permission to come share our hospitality, and then leave without being committed to a full afternoon or evening.

By the way, there’s a huge clue there -- the word afternoon. Remember that the number one in planning is ‘When and Where’. If where is home and when is "during the holidays" you can bet that there are MANY other parties being planned for the same days/times as yours. After all, the most popular party time is Saturday night, secondly comes Friday night and there are only so many of those to choose from. In our scenario of the 26 people, little room, and a "get together" rather than a dinner necessarily, we could eliminate a lot of conflict by inviting our guests for an Open House on a Sunday afternoon, between the hours of 3:00 and 7:00PM. It doesn’t have to be Sunday afternoon, it can be an evening, but if it is, and you are not serving heavy food, state that the party is 8:00 - 11:00 PM which is after the dinner hour and many people will have eaten.

What just happened? We planned a way to service our needs as well as the comfort of our guests, and we’ve probably raised the attendance from 50% to 80%! We’re doing well. We’ve also just solved the # 4 planning question, because we should definitely send written invitations for an Open House.

We’re even touched on the menu, so planning step # 5 is underway! We want food that can be prepared in advance, look good, taste good, and hold well since our soiree’ is a four hour holiday open house. Planning step # 6 is decorating, and since our open house comes during the holiday season, our traditional holiday décor will work! We will simply add to or arrange our normal holiday accessories in a manner that will enhance our party.

We addressed our seating (# 7) with the decision to serve a buffet or drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and now all we have to decide EXACTLY is what food will be served in what dish. We’re well on our way to being planned. Now we need to prep(are).

As I’ve shared before, planning takes the most brain power. Prepping takes the most time, and presenting is the most fun. To prepare for your get together, clear your calendar of any heavy duty activity the week of your party. Invite your guests early. Include the opening and closing time of your party, or state that it is an Open House from (start time) to (end time).

In preparing your shopping lists, assume that guests will take two of everything. If you expect 26 people, assume you will need 53 of each hors d’oeuvre. Some people will eat more, some will eat less, but one portion equals two pieces per guest is a good rule of thumb. Keep this in mind when finalizing your menu also. For instance, smoked salmon is a delicacy, and if you shop smart, you may find it during the holidays at very reasonable prices. Because of the delicate nature of smoked salmon, people eat less of it than say, steamed shrimp. While steamed shrimp party-picked to a green cone and surrounded by a moat of cocktail sauce is colorful and holiday appropriate, it will be consumed quickly and cost you a bundle! (People will come out of the woodwork for steamed shrimp!) With shrimp, the ‘two pieces per guest’ rule of thumb just left the building with your wallet.

Another word about menus. The day before your party is NOT the time to try new recipes that you have never prepared before. If your party is weeks ahead, try it now and see if you like it. Prepare things that you are comfortable making or buying. Yes, I said buying. And I don’t mean those yucky platters of too-old-to-sell-as-fresh veggies -- those are a rip off as far as I’m concerned. You may however, find a great price on frozen miniature quiche’ or assorted puff-pastry appetizers that you bake yourself, and if you do, and it’s part of your plan, then do it. You may want to purchase specialty food from a gourmet grocery or bakery, and that’s fine. No one said you had to do it all! Besides, that will give you more time to create a beautiful presentation!

The prepping stage includes the time you’ll need to collect, clean, rent, buy, or borrow for your party. I won’t repeat myself here, but I did write a feature article called "There’s a Party in Your Closet" which ran in the October 1998 issue of Seasoned Cooking. Take some time to peruse it for some tips on things that you should have on hand for instant party success. Remember that disposable plates and glasses are expensive, and fees for renting party goods also add up very quickly. You may want to start your own party prop closet now. If so, check garage sales, antique stores, mass merchandise stores, outlets and national discount chains that carry household goods. Restaurant supply houses are another great resource for wine glasses, plates, flatware, etc.

As part of your preparation, sketch out your buffet table on a piece of paper. Design (if you will) where your serving pieces will go, as well as what will be served in them. Remember to designate an area for plates, flatware and napkins either on your table or adjacent to it. Decide what tablecloths you will use and what fabric pieces you can use to accessorize. Decide what table decoration or centerpiece you will use and designate a place for it. As we talked about in Barefoot Buffets (August, 1999 - Home Style), you should designate specific areas for food. For instance, your desserts should be grouped together and preferably be served on a separate table or countertop (appropriately decorated of course). Your bar or drinks area should be conveniently located to your mixers, water, juices, etc. and your glasses should be displayed there as well. Part of the prep for a party is scrubbing those glasses and drying them well to make sure there are no spots! If wine is the only alcoholic beverage you are serving, then set glasses out for both red and white wine. If you are serving other alcoholic beverages, have the appropriate sized glasses on hand. And please, don’t forget that we as host/ess are responsible for our guests’ comfort as well as their safety. Have plenty of non-alcoholic beverages out and readily available with their appropriate glasses! Serving hot cider or eggnog? Clear glass cups are perfect.

So that your party will be as much fun for you as your guests, prepare as much of your menu in advance as possible. Cookies, cakes, and many appetizers can be made ahead of time and frozen. If your party runs over the course of several hours, make 3-4 smaller dishes of the same food, and replenish the table with fresh dishes as necessary.

Prepare your home. Clean and neat are paramount. Make sure your home is putting its best foot forward. Clear entry ways of any unnecessary clutter, and give yourself room to greet your guests. Be sure that guest bathrooms are well stocked with all the necessary items, and place scented votive candles in them.

The presentation portion takes place the day before and the day of the party. After all, without realizing it, you’ve been working on the presentation all along. By now your food is in, cooked or ready to cook, your house clean and inviting and your home decorated. Now it’s time to dress the tables, position the napkins, and organize the glasses, plates, and serving pieces. It’s time to take those candles out of the freezer (yes, it preserves them and lengthens their lives!) and put some glamour into all your hard work. Position your centerpiece first, then place and prop your serving pieces. Stand back, admire your creativity, and then relax for a while.

Just before your first guests arrive, light your candles, turn on outside lights and illuminate all the rooms you will be using with soft, subtle lighting. Start the music. Take one more walk through your home to make sure everything is just as you want it, and then answer the door with a warm and inviting hello. Mingle with your guests rather than "waiting on them". Urge everyone to make themselves comfortable, then relax, and enjoy the party!

Perfect parties require planning, prepping and presenting our food, our homes, our talents, and our creativity. Make it as elaborate or as simply elegant as you choose. It’s all up to you!

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