2. Appeal to The Eye As Well As The Taste Buds
I have a friend who swears that if there’s any other food available, no one will touch the large platters of raw vegetables and dip he bothers to prepare. But this particular host never fails to make such crudites the centerpiece of his buffet. Why? Because with their wonderful colors and textures, they look gorgeous, whether they get eaten or not! In planning your menu, take time to make sure you have as many colors and textures as possible. Think red peppers, tangerines, yellow squash and green beans to brighten up all-brown, or otherwise bland-looking dishes.
Garnishes are another great way to add color. As professional chefs know, most garnishes only look difficult to create, yet they have the power to make even a simple dish look special. And if radish roses and cucumber fans seem too fancy, you can get that restaurant look with a few well-placed sprigs of fresh herbs.
3. Make Sure Your Kitchen Can Get the Job Done
It’s quite pointless to plan a party that your kitchen can’t handle. Every kitchen has space constraints; make sure you know yours. For example, can your refrigerator fit all those platters of cold hors d’oeuvres? Can your stove handle heating the five dishes you plan to serve hot at the same time? If not, now’s the time to make adjustments and substitutions. You can avoid kitchen crunch by choosing a menu of foods served at a variety of temperatures and preparing as many dishes in advance as possible (some can be made as much as a month ahead). The one catch: Don’t forget to allow enough time for defrosting and reheating on party day.
If you run out of storage space, be creative. I’ve been known to stow food in the microwave and warm bread on top of the dryer in the laundry room. If it’s really cold outside, the porch or garage can serve as a second refrigerator. And speaking of the fridge, now’s a good time to clean it out. You can reclaim lots of space by removing any items that can be stored elsewhere or that should have been tossed long ago.
4. Shop Smart
The sanest way to shop for a party is in stages. Divide your shopping list by store and buy all the nonperishables you need as early as possible.
Consider some alternate resources for what you need. Read the ads in the newspaper to see what’s on sale at the supermarkets in your area. It may be worth the trip to an unfamiliar store to save money on the big-ticket items on your menu, such as fillet of beef, turkey, ham or shrimp. And don’t forget the local beverage warehouse, where soft drinks and beer are often priced substantially below supermarkets.
Finally, thrift shops can yield wonderful finds for entertaining. Extra glasses, tableware, silver and candlesticks can often be had at a fraction of what new ones would cost.
5. Set a Gorgeous Table
A beautifully set table can make even plain food look elegant and inviting. And you don’t need to spend a lot of money to do it. Start with a great tablecloth, especially if your dining-room table has seen better days. Tablecloths cover a multitude of sins while adding color, pattern, even drama to your party. If you don’t own the perfect tablecloth, search out thrift shops and antique stores for old linens. Don’t feel limited to standard tablecloths — I’ve seen beautifully patterned sheets called into action. Even large square silk scarves can make a statement when placed on a diagonal over a plain white tablecloth. Whatever kind of cloth you use, place a felt pad or plastic liner on the table first to protect its surface.
When it comes to centerpieces, don’t limit your thinking to flowers. Fruits, vegetables, a ball of Christmas balls at the holidays, even toys can add whimsy and charm to your table setting. I remember a gorgeous table set with nothing more than three pineapples that had been spray painted gold, nestled in some evergreens and surrounded by ivory candles. To spark your imagination, walk through your house and see what’s there. Look in your drawers and cabinets and you may well find decorating treasures.
You can’t go wrong with candles. Candlelight is the kindest light of all, warm and cozy. Candles of various heights and diameters look especially lovely when grouped together on mirrored surfaces (if you don’t have a mirrored tray, use a small wall mirror with the hanger on the back removed, or mirrored tile from the hardware store.) Whatever method you use to display them, however, it’s best to use dripless candles. They’re well worth the extra expense — especially at cleanup time.