A successful party, even a last-minute one, requires planning. From cooking and preparation to setup and serving, Epicurious offers advice on throwing a flourishing party from Ted Allen, Nigella Lawson, Amy Sedaris and many more.
All of our experts agree that a successful party, even a last-minute one, requires planning. It doesn't have to be anything elaborate, with a monthlong schedule timed to the minute, but it should have a basic idea and a simple outline so you'll know what you're aiming for and what you'll need to do to accomplish it.
Cooking and prepAll of our experts advise accomplishing as much as you can before the party begins. "The best way to minimize potential premeal meltdown is to cook as much ahead of time as you can and to clean as you go," advises Allen.
- Take advantage of the night before: Sedaris prepares for her party the day before it's scheduled, as does Lawson. "Do all of the big stuff that doesn't require cooking," Lawson says. This can include refrigerating the white or sparkling wine, setting the table, stocking the bar with glasses and decorating. The night before is also a good time to make desserts, sides or sauces that don't need to be served straight from the oven.
- Enlist help: Once party day arrives, consider inviting a close friend over early to help you in the kitchen. This minimizes the number of tasks you have to accomplish, and it makes you feel as though the party is starting early: "It's always wonderful to cook with friends," says Allen. "It's one of my favorite things." You can also ask guests to pitch in by bringing a side dish from home.
- Leave time for primping: "Every time I throw a party," says Kennedy, "I put more on my schedule than I have time for. So, I set a kitchen timer, and 45 minutes before the party is happening, no matter what I'm doing, I go upstairs and I take a shower and get dressed. If you're still standing there in your workout shorts and tank top when the first guest arrives, it's much more humiliating than not having the hors d'oeuvres out on time."
- Finally, remain relaxed: Lawson likes to host her party sans shoes: "Nothing makes a party as unenjoyable as sore feet," she says. Plus, being barefoot is a subtle visual cue that communicates a laid-back tone to the party. "The key is to make the home feel accommodating and welcoming."
"My food, my party decorations, the games I create and the music I play are all personal expressions," says Sedaris. "This is what will make your party special, sharing a piece of you, a feeling." It always helps to add a personal touch to your parties, it makes guests feel special and creates a more memorable experience. You needn't go overboard. A full-blown tableau might be fine for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Eve, when decadence is expected, but often a simple bouquet of your favorite flowers and a few candles will transform a dinner table.
- Take a strategic approach to hors d'oeuvres: Before your guests arrive, set out any snacks and hors d'oeuvres that can be served at room temperature. To expand the footprint of your party (why
- Make edible centerpieces: Allen's favorite way to get maximum design impact with minimal effort on Thanksgiving is to use the food itself to make the room beautiful. "Bowls full of veggies, fruits, nuts, olives, cascading piles of cheese and bread and platters full of beautiful cookies are all wonderful," he says. "And later, you can eat them." Herbs often make a beautiful addition to flower arrangements.
- Dress up your serving style: Lenkert features at least one over-the-top dish with a completely unexpected presentation at each meal. It adds a sense of drama that carries over to the entire menu. For New Year's Eve, she wrapped wire around shot glasses to create a handle, filled the glasses with potato soup topped with caviar, and hung them from an ornament tree placed in the middle of her table. You can add some drama yourself by serving rolls on a high pedestal cake dish.
- Engage the sense of smell: Lawson believes that the right house smell can make guests feel at home. "I love to make a house ooze warmth and welcome," she says. For Christmas, Lawson keeps a little burner by the front door filled with L'Occitane Candied Fruits oil, which smells "cozy and holidayish." You can also use scented candles, but choose more subtly scented ones that won't compete with the wafting aromas of food, and keep them out of the kitchen.
- Don't forget the front door: It's the first thing your guests see when they arrive, so why not use it to help set the tone for your party? "I like to think of my door as my greeter," says Sedaris. A ghost or a skeleton on the door for Halloween seems "a bit silly," while a dramatic black wreath made of thorns signals something more gothic and spooky.
- Present a unified look: Allen suggests transferring your side dishes to nice servingware to place on the table. "This presents a neater, more unified look than a haphazard mix of cookware scattered about," he says," and depending on the servingware you have, it's a simple way to lend color or style to the table."
- Hold the heat: Keeping all your food warm is a perennial problem for which, luckily, there are several solutions, says Allen. First, choose dishes that taste great at room temperature. Perhaps you're lucky enough to have a warming drawer or one of those sideboard food-warming platters from the 1960s. If not, Allen says, choose your serving pieces strategically to help you keep things hot. "Heavy cast-iron skillets and cookware such as Staub and Le Creuset hold heat forever," he says. Sedaris likes to use copper Revere cookware for this purpose.
- Get your guests involved: "I like the element of people coming together to eat and also coming together to serve the meal," says Lawson. "So, I'd make one person carve and get others to pour wine and dollop out vegetables. Making people feel needed, wanted, and part of the family is very important. I think it can cast quite a pall on a party when the host is neurotically fussing over things and the guests are sitting uneasily twiddling their thumbs."
- Roll with the punches: "As well as you plan, things can go wrong," says Kennedy. "Even if you just ruined all the food, as soon as that first doorbell rings, you let it go, you put a smile on your face and you say, 'Great, we're having Chinese food tonight. It's gonna be so much fun!'"