Over the weekend I threw a big birthday bash for my husband’s 40th. It was the third party we’ve thrown in the last year — not counting small dinner parties — and about the tenth or so since I moved in almost three years ago, so I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two about being a good hostess. It’s a lot of work, but I like entertaining and with all of us getting older, starting families, and watching our budgets in this economy, parties are often the only time we all have a chance to get together and catch up these days. Plus, people seem to have a great time at our place and that always makes the effort worth it. After the jump, check out my top tips for throwing a kick-ass party.1. Pick a theme/choose an occasion.
Decide (and let your guests know) what you’re celebrating. A birthday? New Year’s? Housewarming? Great! You don’t have to have a special occasion to throw a party, but it always makes it more fun if you do. And with so many “National Days,” it’s easy to pick something around the date you want to party and use it as your excuse to get friends together. One year my husband and I threw a “National S’Mores Day” party (August 10) and two years ago we threw a Leap Day party.
2. Invite cool people.
This is kind of a no-brainer, but it’s important enough (the most important thing, really) to warrant a mention. Invite people you genuinely like and either spend a lot of time with or want to get to know better. If you’re inviting someone shy or the one person you know hasn’t met anyone else at the party, tell him or her to bring a friend. The last thing you want as a host is to be someone’s lone social crutch all night.
3. Plan your menu a week in advance.
In addition to a cheese/cracker/veggie plate, a couple small bowls of candy, or pretzels, a big bowl of chips with an assortment of salsa/dips, I also like to have at least two hors d’oeuvres (at Saturday’s party I had 7!). Some of my favorite hors d’oeuvre recipes are: stuffed dates (to die for!), baked artichoke dip, and these sausage wonton blossoms, which were a HUGE hit this weekend.
4. Finish your shopping three days in advance.
There’s always going to be stuff you forgot you needed, so give yourself plenty of time for those last-minute shopping runs by getting the bulk of the shopping done early.
5. All hors d’oeuvres that can be made ahead of time should be!
I try to make as much as I can the day or two days before the party and then keep everything chilled in the fridge. Aim to have no more dirty dishes (besides a baking pan) an hour or two within party start time.
Also a no-brainer. But if you don’t have a clean house or apartment when you have guests over, you’re probably going to have a much smaller attendance at your next party. Bonus tip: If you have a cleaning lady, see if she can come the day before the party. If you don’t have one, consider hiring one for an hour or two to run the vacuum, dust and scrub the bathroom. It’ll cost a little extra, but the time and energy it will save you pays.
7. A few flowers set the mood.
No need to break your budget — even some $5 mums add a nice, celebratory touch. Don’t forget to add a few stems in the bathroom. I like to fill an empty salt shaker with 3-5 stems of something cheerful on top of the toilet or on the bathroom counter.
8. Be bathroom-ready.
Speaking of bathroom, make sure you have plenty of toilet paper stocked, a scented candle, and a few boxes of matches. And for God’s sake, please have a hand towel or two! You don’t really want your guests drying their hands on your used bath towel, do you?
9. Make a playlist in advance.
Aim for a 4-hour playlist full of upbeat tunes. Keep the music loud enough for people to hear it, but not so loud it drowns out conversation.
10. Turn the lights down low.
Everyone looks sexier when the overhead lights are off and everything’s illuminated with a few lamps and candles.
11. Set up your bar.
I like to have beer and wine and a house cocktail (I made a huge batch of Sangria this weekend), plus at least 1-3 different boozes with appropriate mixers. Be sure to have a few options for the teetotalers. And, if you plan to have a champagne toast, some ginger ale is a perfect option for the non-drinkers.
12. Have enough seating for half your guests.
If you want to encourage mingling, make sure you have more guests than seats — it forces people to stand up and move around.
13. Mind your TV.
The best bet is to keep it turned off, but a good alternative to that — especially if you happen to have a really big TV — is to play old movies with the sound turned down. It lends some visual interest without being too overbearing.
14. Place food strategically.
People are going to migrate to where the food is, so if you want people to spread out, you have to keep the food spread out. Use smaller bowl and platters if it makes it easier.
15. Have an easy task for your first guests.
The first guest/s to arrive always feel a little awkward being the first guest — especially if you haven’t quite finished setting up — so give him/her a simple activity to keep him busy while you wait for others to show up. He can slice limes for the bar, light the candles, or fill the ice bucket.
16. Introduce with context.
Most people can be in charge of making introductions themselves, but if you feel compelled to help things along, give a little context when you make introductions. The best bet is to say how you know the people you’re introducing and let them take it from there.
17. Pick up as you go.
As a host, you aren’t necessarily expected to be a waiter, but if you see empty plates/cups/bottles, dirty napkins and full ashtrays, throw that stuff away. Keeping things tidy not only makes everything look prettier, but it saves you work at the end of the night when all you’ll want to do is pass out in bed.
The best part about being a host is you have a perfect excuse to mingle when you get stuck in a boring/awkward conversation or you’re simply ready to move to the next person. Simply say, “I should see if anyone needs anything!” or “Oh! I have to check on those sausage wonton blossoms in the oven — I bet they’re just about done!” Circulating makes the party more fun for you, but it also makes it more fun for everyone else. After all, you are a big reason they all showed up!