Assigning a theme to the occasion sets the tone and the mood. Have you always wanted to host a barbecue? Make it a Western party. Stage a cookout complete with Texas barbecue, bandanna napkins, and a musician playing cowboy songs. Or make it a spaghetti western party with a Sergio Leone video in the background. Serve pasta with red sauce, breadsticks, and Chianti on a colorful checkered tablecloth.
Outdoor events require a little creative planning. Look for sufficient shelter in case the weather changes. Erect a tent or a temporary overhang to foil unexpected showers. To provide shade on a hot, sunny day, set up colorful market umbrellas. And if darkness will fall during the course of the party, you'll need lights. Candles, hurricane lamps, or tiki torches all fit the bill smartly. For rustic or out-of-the-way locations, rent portable toilets, and bring food, camp chairs, and blankets for sitting on.
Safety is an issue outdoors, especially in summer, when people go barefoot, so use plastic or metal dishes and glassware. Does your porch light shine brightly enough to guide guests to the front door? Light the way with votive candles placed in paper bags weighted with rice or sand.
An outdoor site provides the best atmosphere of all for a party. Throw a romantic party on the water aboard a yacht or sailboat. Kids and grownups alike will love a graduation party at the zoo. A public park can be a welcome change from a restaurant as a stage for celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, or a personal triumph.
A simple, handcrafted invitation makes guests feel as though the fun has already started. Use the invitation to introduce the theme. If you are having a garden party, glue purchased dried flowers onto handwritten invitations or preprinted cards. For a backyard luau or other tropical-theme event, write your invitations on oversize price tags and tie the tags to a pair of children's inexpensive sunglasses. For a pool party, write invitations on fun items you can mail, such as kids' inflatable swimming aids.
Turning a neglected yard into a pretty space can seem like an overwhelming -- and expensive -- task. Enlist your family or friends to help turn your yard into a vibrant party spot without breaking your back or your bank account. The simplest solution: Give your lawn and shrubs a cut. It may not sound like much, but a trim can make a huge difference. Set out new flowers and plants still in their nursery pots to fill in bare spots in the yard.
Large outdoor events usually call for rented tables and chairs -- even linens. If you're hosting a large crowd, use a party rental service. For a reasonable fee, these firms can supply virtually everything you need, from china, flatware, and coffee urns to barbecue grills, table linens, and crystal beverage pitchers. Rental businesses are especially handy for obtaining things you really don't need to own, like a portable dance floor. Many companies will set up and break down anything you rent, and launder linens as part of the rental (or for an additional fee).
Often the best party gear lurks in places other than your local stores. One terrific place to shop for everything from baking pans to aprons is restaurant-supply stores. There you'll find specialized, professional-quality equipment, frequently at discount prices. A trip to a secondhand store, thrift shop, or a garage sale can be a host's nirvana. Here you might find china, silver, and glassware treasures that can embellish your household long after your guests have departed. Other places you should consider: Asian shops, for woks and rice cookers; and Hispanic markets, for piñatas, festive Mexican pottery, or sturdy glasses.
The bar can be the busiest place at a party. Hire a local college student at an hourly rate. Have your bartender focus on one special kind of drink -- martinis, microbrews, fresh-fruit smoothies whipped up in a blender -- to cut down on complexity. Some bar ideas:
A wheelbarrow makes an ideal cooler that can be moved easily. Just fill with ice, load with bottles and cans of your favorite drinks, and roll to the perfect location.
Dress up an ordinary tin bucket with Hawaiian ti leaves or palm fronds. Hold the leaves in place with raffia or twine.
Offer your guests pitchers of luscious infused spirits made with fresh berries or citrus fruits marinated in vodka or tequila.
Get your inspiration for activities from the setting. Host a desert-island theme party at the beach or hold a sandcastle-building contest. Stage a mountain-bike rally at a park in the hills and enjoy a little competition among friends before savoring a hearty picnic. To salute friends en route to Hawaii, surprise them with a trio of hula dancers -- and lessons for all after the show. For an outdoor children's party, kids respond to anything that's new and fun. Hire a clown, a magician, or a troupe of puppeteers to perform for the afternoon. Or give them more hands-on experience. Find an origami artist who can show them how to fold paper animals, or a dance instructor to lead a square dance or tango.
To minimize kitchen duty, arrange foods on serving dishes as far in advance as you can. Wrap the finished platters or bowls in plastic to prevent spoiling and spills, and to discourage sampling by two- or four-legged taste testers. To keep the food from touching the wrap, erect a tent by inserting toothpicks in the corners and in the center of the food, then lay the plastic wrap on top of the toothpicks so it falls over the sides.
Make the table visually exciting by adding risers: Simply arrange phone books or upended cake pans on the table, disguise them with fabric, and surround them with greens, flowers or potted plants, candles, even whole fruits and vegetables.
The aftermath of a party always includes a few complex cleaning tasks, but they're all manageable. Here are some common situations and solutions for each:
Candle wax: When votive candles stick to their holders, put them, holders and all, in the freezer for 20 minutes, then pop each candle out by gently tapping the holder on a countertop. Wineglasses: For spotless glasses, wash them in warm (not hot) soapy water, rinse them in hot water, set right side up for five minutes on a towel-covered counter, then invert and let sit a minute or two before drying with a cotton dish towel.
Oversize pots and pans: If they're too large for the dishwasher or the kitchen sink, wash them in the bathtub.