It’s often said that a wedding reception is really just a party. And while most wedding receptions, even the casual ones, are much more formal and scripted than your average party, the fundamentals are still the same. Since this is the time of year with the highest concentration of parties, it seemed like the natural thing to do to show you the basics of how to throw a party. Because I’ve recently come to realize that (surprise!) not everyone thinks it’s as easy of a task as I do.
To start, don’t over-think it. By far the biggest mistake most people make when it comes to parties is over-complicating and over-thinking them. You do not have to do all the things. You do not have to have a theme. You do not have to have decorations. You just need: 1) people 2) food 3) drinks 4) music. That’s it. It’s really actually that simple. And really, you just need 1 and 2. The rest…well, know your crowd. If you DO want a theme, you can also keep that simple. My favorite alternative to having a theme is to give the party a name. For example, the theme for my thirtieth birthday brunch party was “30: Fuck the House Blend.” It was on the invitations, the cake, the coffee labels, foil printed on the napkins (I have a soft spot for fancy paper napkins), and the only real decor was the number “30” made out of two giant gold mylar balloons. Easy. Awesome.
Make a guest list, and then invite people. I’ve written about acceptance rates for weddings before. That tends to be slightly lower for parties that aren’t weddings (I’d go with ten to fifteen percent lower overall), but gets closer to the wedding acceptance rate as the guest list grows. I’ve talked before about being a big believer in managing guests’ expectations appropriately at a wedding, and the same is true about parties—the invite should specify a start and end time (and let your guests know if the start time is firm or flexible), it should indicate if it’s an open house drop-in event or one you’re expecting people to attend the entirety of, and you should definitely specify a dress code if one applies.
Set your budget and your menu. I’ve had big parties for as little as $200 and as much as… a lot more than that. In general, I budget around $700–$800 for a big party (read: more than seventy-five guests attending), of which I throw two or three a year. (Your mileage will vary depending on the kind of party you’re throwing. See below for examples.) I always try to plan menus that can be prepped/made ahead of time as much as possible—at most a few things will have to be tossed together or popped into the oven an hour or so beforehand, but all chopping/slicing/etc. can be done a day ahead of time. Unless you’re advertising a full meal, people probably aren’t expecting one, and snacks are fine. I’m of the philosophy that you should generally serve the same types of quality and food at your parties that you eat in real life—for me this means mainly homemade, very little processed food, and pre-made things from local stores or companies. That said, if you’re all about big-brand chips and onion dip, I will eat the shit out of it if I’m at your house.
Preparation is your friend. The first thing I do when I plan a party is sit down and make myself master lists (guest list, food and drink menu with ingredients, supplies I’m purchasing, supplies I’m renting, and staffing needs if applicable) and then a timeline. I order all supplies immediately (anything that needs to be purchased or rented happens a few months out) and then all my purchased supplies get consolidated as they arrive and are stuck in a box in the basement with a big “supplies for XX party” label on it. I schedule rental orders to be picked up the day before the party, and any staff I need gets booked well in advance so that I’m not scrambling to make those arrangements the week of the party. Beverages in general can be purchased well in advance, while food has to wait until a few days before to purchase (shelf stable things like crackers being the obvious exception). I then break the two days before the party and the day of the party into specific, hourly prep timelines: shopping, cooking, cleaning, setting up, leaving time to actually get myself dressed and put makeup on (which has been known to happen as the first guests are coming in). The final timeline usually looks something like this:
- 4–6 months out: Set party date (I work in events—the majority of my weekend life is planned at least this far out.)
- 3 months out: Put together guest list, budget, and figure out your basic structure and timeline (i.e. 35 people, $400, evening cocktail party. Or 80 people, $700, afternoon fancy barbecue).
- 6–8 weeks out: Plan the menu; order anything you’re buying; put in your rental order.
- 4–6 weeks out: Send out invites; book staff; buy alcohol.
- 3 weeks out: RSVP reminder (repeat as necessary).
- 2 weeks out: Finalize shopping list for food, and make schedule for week and day of prep. Line up friends and family to help as needed
Ask for help. And take people seriously when they offer it. This is one of the hardest things for me, but it’s so important in making things easy for yourself. When a friend offers to come help you clean, or to bring something to eat, or pick something up for you—take them seriously and take them up on it. One of my favorite parts of my last big party was the day before, when at one point there were five people in my not-very-large kitchen, all chopping, stirring, and slicing to help me get ready. The party itself was phenomenal, but also went by in a blur of “so nice to see you! Oh there’s someone else who just walked in!” while the prep day was much more intimate, with quality time and support from people I love. Prepping can be one of the most fun parts of a party if you give yourself enough time and accept enough help to make it so.
Think about hiring some help for the party itself (it’s not as expensive as you think). My very very best party trick is this one: hire someone to come in from an hour before the party to an hour after it ends for last minute set up, food heating, busing of dishes and glasses, refilling of food platters, and then help putting away leftovers and cleaning up. I’ve historically used a lot of college students or recent graduates—family friends, or friends-of-friends, who are happy to do what ends up being fairly easy work for $15-20 an hour in cash. It’s not a giant expense on top of everything else, but is the number one factor in letting me enjoy my guests because I’m not worried about there being no cups out by the drinks or the spinach dip running too low. I also have professional cleaners come in before all parties (I don’t have a regular cleaning person, but I do have a cleaning person I love who comes every few months before I have a party and gets my house sparkling) because if you start with a super clean house it makes cleanup much easier (and, you know, is nice for your guests).
Be an attentive host, but still enjoy your own party. Or, how to avoid hostess fatigue. If you’re not used to hosting parties, it can be hard balancing being a good hostess and still enjoying yourself. I usually try to greet every single person who comes in, chatting with them for at least a few minutes and then introduce them to other guests they may not already know but who I think they’ll get along with. Eventually I walk away and let them be grownups and talk amongst themselves. This tends to look like this:
Yay! I’m so glad you’re here! It’s so good to see you! Oh, this other friend of mine is here and I’ve talked about you both to each other for so long, I want you to meet! Let’s talk about what you have in common for a few minutes! Oh, someone else just walked in, let me go say hi and I’ll be back in a few minutes. [Note: I may or may not ever come back.]
Again, don’t over-think hosting—but also pay attention to it. Make sure people know where the restroom is, where the drinks are, what’s in the food (I have a pretty firm rule for parties that everything is obvious, i.e. no hidden animal products. If it looks like meat, it’s meat; if it looks like something vegetarian there’s no hidden bacon. I also label all food with at least a basic description). Stay central, and make sure to keep moving—your own parties are decidedly not the time to settle down in a corner chair and stay for a few hours. But don’t worry too much if some people leave after forty-five minutes—it’s your job to provide them the space (physical and mental) to have a good time, but not your responsibility to make sure every. single. person. has the best time ever. Hosting parties is not necessarily relaxing, but it can and should be fun—a whole bunch of people you like (I hope you’re only inviting people you like to your parties) are at your house! That’s fun.
Make things easy on yourself. Or, compostables are your friends. I try to only use compostables for big parties—plates, cups, glasses and napkins. IKEA and SustyParty are my most common sources. It makes cleanup a breeze—all you have to do is walk around and throw everything into a bag, and then into the green bin. For serving I own a set of large bamboo platters (originally from the IKEA floral department, I think) that work for everything, are unbreakable, and are easy to wash.
And, to wrap up, and give you some ideas, a few sketches of parties I’ve thrown for myself, my family, or friends:
- Toast Bar Brunch this is what I did for my thirtieth birthday, and I now want to throw brunches all the time. 10:30am to 3pm, open house. The menu: lots of toast (bread was sliced the day before, and then toasted on cookie sheets in the oven throughout the party so it was always hot) and toast condiments (flavored butters, two types of jam, lemon curd, ricotta cheese, deviled egg salad, manchego cheese, sautéed broccoli rabe,) sausages from my favorite local butcher shop (kept hot in a rented chafing dish), scones from a local bakery, kale salad with persimmons, a giant bowl of clementines, and a very large cake. The drink menu: Bloody Marys (pre mixed into a large glass dispenser), prosecco and orange juice (for drinking separately or together), lemon water, and brewed coffee in carafes. Everything was prepped the day before, so the only thing that had to happen in the morning was toasting the bread, mixing the salad, and cooking the sausages (which I delegated to a family member, who brought them over wrapped in foil).
- Cookies and Cocktails maybe the easiest holiday party ever. 7pm–10pm. The menu: 6–7 types of cookies (enough for 4–5 a person), plus cheese and fruit platters. The drink menu: Hot cider, champagne, a variety of seasonal holiday beers, and optional eggnog. Everything can be made ahead of time and plated just beforehand.
- Pizza and Beer or, everyone’s favorite foods. 4pm–8pm. The menu: well… pizza. One of my favorite local bakeries sells light baked pizzas, which are perfect for this, because you can serve hot pizza for several hours (just pop two in the oven at a time.) Serve salad for bonus points. The drink menu: beer is fairly self explanatory—just remember that you won’t need a keg unless you have well over a hundred people. You may want to have some white wine on hand for the non-beer drinkers out there.
- Tacos! made by other people. The menu: This may be a regional thing, but in California almost every taqueria around sells party sized platters of tacos, or, even better, there are people you can have come to your house with a portable flat bed grill who will make tacos to order for your guests for a few hundred dollars. Taco trucks are also a great option for larger parties. Appetizers are chips and salsa, which I tend to buy separately from my local Mexican grocery store. The drink menu: sangria and Mexican beer. And, done.
So go forth and enjoy your holiday party season. With a little work, it shouldn’t feel like, well, work. And if all else fails, just tell everyone to meet at the bar at 7pm.
Photo by Gabriel Harber