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Planning the Perfect Party

I recently hosted a party where the highlight of the evening was everyone sitting on my patio, watching a spider spin his web. When it got dark, someone turned on his smartphone flashlight so the festivities could continue. Not kidding. It was one to go down in the annals…of how not to throw a party!

What are the secrets to a great gathering?

Obviously, I had to do a little research to answer this question. So, first you start with the guest list. You are usually safe to invite about 20% more people than will comfortably fit in your venue; inevitably some will forget or not show for some other reason. Think about who you are inviting as well; your guests should be comfortable with one another, or have something in common so they will be able to interact with one another easily. Of course, this rule doesn’t apply to family gatherings; those are supposed to be awkward and uncomfortable.

The food and drinks are important; but not so important that you are focused on food and not on your guests. I tend to waaaayyyy overthink the menu; I am always scrambling at the last minute to get things ready and I inevitably forget something that I will discover tucked away in the fridge a couple of weeks later. Good food doesn’t have to be complicated; and really, your guests are there for the experience, the socializing, even to see you; what they stuff in their mouths is secondary. Avoid over-loading yourself with last minute cooking and related tasks; you want to be fresh and stress-free for the party. Ideally everything you serve can be prepared in advance, and you will just have to warm-up and assemble on the actual day of the party. 

I also tend to have so much food that I am wading through left-overs for days. This handy-dandy chart, courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, gives you a rough idea of how to plan for 25 or more; if you will have fewer guests, do the math.

If you are serving alcohol, here’s a rule of thumb: for wine, you will want to have one bottle per two people per hour; if you are serving beer, allow for two bottles or cans per person per hour; and for liquor you will want one bottle per five people per hour. Of course, you know your guests; if you have a bunch of beer drinkers or imbibers, adjust accordingly.

Another bad habit I have before a gathering; I develop a fever to finish household projects that I have been putting off for ages. I will think to myself; hey, people are coming over, I should paint my bedroom, retile my bathroom, re-shingle my roof; I have a week, that’s enough time. Don’t put enormous pressure on yourself to finish any household projects unless you have given yourself plenty of time. Plenty of time is measured in months, not days.

You will need a playlist, or at least a music channel that is appropriate to the occasion. Even if the music is just playing in the background, it can still influence the mood of your party and your guests. Granny probably wouldn’t enjoy EDM or gangsta rap; your friends might not get behind Benny Goodman or Hoagy Carmichael, so keep in mind who is coming to your party when you pick the music.

One of the most important things to remember as you are planning your party; keep it simple enough that you are free to tend to your guests. You should be able to greet everyone as they arrive, keep an eye on everyone throughout the evening to ensure they have drinks or food, and to make sure any potential wallflowers are comfortable and engaged. The best way to do this is to plan way in advance.

Here is a suggested schedule you should keep in mind:

Two weeks prior to your gathering, decide on your menu and make yourself a shopping list. Purchase any non-perishables and prepare anything that you can stick in the freezer.

One week before, do the major house-cleaning; don’t wait until the day of your party, so that by the time the guests arrive you are exhausted and you can’t wait until they leave. Then give a quick spit and polish on the actual day of the event.

Also one week prior, figure out what needs to move where and set the “stage” for your party. Take into consideration the comfort of your guests; you want them to be able to move about easily, to be able to converse, get to the food and drinks, and, equally important, the bathroom. Tuck away any non-essential furniture and think about moving any valuables you have that might get knocked over or broken – stash them away until the party is over.  You will also want to make sure you have everything you need in the way of dinnerware, utensils, serving dishes and cookware.

About three days prior to your party, give your neighbors a heads up if you are expecting a large, noisy gathering; particularly if parking could become problematic. Decorate, if indicated, for a theme party. Make a detailed cooking schedule for your remaining dishes.

One day before the party set your tables or set up your buffet area. Buy and arrange flowers if you are having them. Finish as much of the cooking as you can; and do as much prep work (dicing, marinating, rinsing vegetables and fruit, etc.) as possible. The idea is to have very little to do on the actual day. Give your house a once-over and do whatever touch-ups are needed.

On the day of the party, finish any last minute cooking – this should be kept at an absolute minimum. Place chairs if needed; don’t worry about having seating for everyone, fewer chairs will encourage mingling.

One to two hours before guests arrive, set out appetizers and snacks that will not spoil; wrap to keep them fresh and tear off the wrap when the first guests ring your doorbell. Relax and enjoy yourself; you have everything under control, and you won’t need any help from a talented backyard spider. 

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