For some of us, the mere thought of entertaining just our nearest and dearest strikes terror in our hearts. For others, a house full of guests is true happiness. As an inveterate party giver, I’ve learned that throwing even a big holiday party doesn’t have to be difficult, and can actually be fun — if you follow certain rules. Wherever you fall on the entertaining spectrum, here are our ten commandments for making any party an unqualified success.
1. Sharpen Your Pencil and Start Planning Now
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start planning your party the moment you finish reading this. Seriously, the more time you have before the Big Day, the more shopping and cooking that you can do well in advance — instead of in a mad rush at the end.
The first step is to create three master lists (guests, menu, shopping) that will help you keep track of everything for the party. Keep the lists in your wallet or date book, so you’ll know exactly what you still need to purchase and how many guests have RSVP’d at all times.
Your Guest List:
You might want to call those guests whose presence you consider essential before you even set the date for your party. Inevitably, not everyone you ask will be able to come. But if “it just wouldn’t be the same without them,” make sure they’re free and invite them then and there. Your other guests should be invited as soon as you set the date. Try to give people no less than three weeks’ notice — remember, holiday schedules fill up fast. A good strategy: Invite friends and family by phone, then follow up with a written reminder.
Your Food and Drink List:
Whether you’re planning a brunch, buffet, or a cocktail party, food and drink are your party’s most important ingredients. The first item to determine is the main dish. Jot down a list of recipes you’re confident that you can cook well and that are proven crowd pleasers. Remember, to you it may be the same old lasagna, but to your guests it could be a new taste treat. If you do want to serve a dish you’ve never cooked before, be sure to test the recipe at least once (twice is even safer) before the party.
After you’ve figured out the main course, build the rest of the menu around it, following that same “I feel confident I can make this” rule. And don’t make things too hard on yourself. If you’ll be cooking a complicated main dish, go for simple appetizers and side dishes that can be easily prepared in advance.
Next, take a careful look at the yields of the recipes you’ll be using to be sure they will make enough to feed your crowd. If your favorite wild rice recipe serves four but you’re inviting eight, be sure it can be easily doubled before you put it on the menu.
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Finally, don’t forget to add beverages to your list. Plan to have a variety of nonalcoholic drinks on hand. It’s best to buy more than you think you’ll need. And buy lots of ice the day of the party. That way, you won’t have to waste precious fridge space to chill bottles of soda. When it comes to alcohol, don’t feel obligated to set up a full bar. Unless you’re having a cocktail party, it’s fine to limit your selections to wine and beer, and perhaps a special punch. Whatever you serve, encourage moderation — the last thing you want people to remember about your party is a hangover.
Your Shopping List:
Look over each item on your menu and list everything you’ll need to make it happen. Note each ingredient (including garnishes), then check your pantry and your spice rack. Nothing’s more annoying than thinking “I’m sure I have that” only to find out that you don’t when it’s time to add it to the recipe.
Now is also the time to be sure that you have the equipment all the dishes on your menu call for — whether it’s a food processor or a particular size roasting pan. Whatever you don’t have, borrow from friends or buy cheaply at a local restaurant-supply store. If you entertain often, the right equipment is worth the investment. Keep in mind that it takes twice as long to make cookies if you have only one baking sheet instead of the two required, and ten times as long to chop some ingredients by hand than by food processor.
In addition, count up the plates and platters, serving utensils, glasses, silverware, cocktail and dinner napkins and even tablecloths you’ll need. Don’t forget serving trays, punch bowls, coffee urns and folding chairs. If you’re short, call your local party-rental place and reserve what you need now. The holiday season in particular is one of the biggest times of the year for party rentals and you don’t want to be scrambling to find essentials at the last moment. Many people would rather borrow from friends and family than rent. But why risk Mother’s fine china, when most party rentals have a breakage allowance built into the cost?