Parties Without Panic

by Deborah Taylor-Hough


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Hosting a party doesn't need to be an event just for holidays. Most people already have full calendars around major holidays, but are actually grateful for an invitation to a special gathering at an otherwise quiet time of year.

Maybe you and your guests would enjoy a big Mexican-themed celebration for Cinco de Mayo, a brunch on the Fourth of July before going to the local festivals or parades, or a special Valentine's Day dessert party. Whether you're looking to have a simple family dinner party, a gathering for friends, or a major reunion, here are some simple tips to keep your party fun-filled for both you and your guests -- without breaking the bank!

Type of Party

The first step for planning a successful party is to decide what type of gathering you want to host. Full-fledge sit down dinner parties are probably what comes to mind first when thinking of gatherings but there are other easier and less expensive options.

For ease of preparation, consider a buffet-style dinner rather than a seated dinner party. For a buffet, be sure to select foods that don't require cutting with a knife or are covered with runny sauces that could drip onto clothes or carpets as people mingle.


Potluck dinners work well for large gatherings: family celebrations, reunions, church activities, gatherings of close friends. If you're hosting a potluck, you might want to suggest items for people to bring. An easy way to divide up the food preparation is to include a note with your invitation that states: Families with last names starting with the letters A - H bring sidedishes/salads, I - Q bring main dishes, and R - Z bring desserts. You'll be taking "potluck" about which actual food items people choose to prepare but by dividing up the general categories ahead of time, you'll be assured that the basics are covered. As the host, you'll need to provide serving utensils, silverware, plates and drinks.

For a fun party alternative to a full dinner consider throwing an appetizer party or a dessert buffet.

Many parties move from being simple gatherings to fun-filled events by the addition of a theme. Here are some possibilities: birthday, anniversary, holiday, casino night, roaring 20's, road rally, rock star costume party, toga party, crab feed, 50's sock hop, garden party, luau, scavenger hunt, Mardi Gras, magic, science fiction, Mad Hatter's tea party, tropical, 60's retro, disco, movie stars, masquerade, Wild West barbecue. Many of these themes work equally well with both children and adult parties. Sometimes the sillier the theme, the more fun -- especially for adults who may need to loosen up a bit and smile more often.

For example, rather than hosting a simple backyard barbecue this summer, throw a Cowboy Barbecue. Ask people to arrive wearing their own selection of blue jeans or jean skirts, western looking shirts, colorful bandanas, cowboy hats, boots. Serve steak sandwiches, hot dogs for the kids, cole slaw, baked beans and cornbread on picnic tables (or even hay bales!) covered with red and white checked tablecloths. For entertainment, play country music, teach everyone some simple line dances and stage a horseshoe throwing contest. If the barbecue goes into the evening hours after dark, end the party with a campfire and old-fashioned sing along.

Planning Ahead

The simplest and most important trick for saving time, effort and money on your party is to plan ahead. A small notebook or three-ring binder can be used for your personal planning notebook, keeping track of all the big (and small!) details of your event. You can also keep your notebook for future events. A planning notebook is a step that professional party planners use to keep track of the variety of details involved with a party, and it also helps the host/hostess stick to a predetermined budget. Using dividers, separate your party notebook into the following six sections: The Basics, The Budget, The Guest List, The Menu, Preparation Lists, Decorations. In your party notebook, you'll want to include any and all steps needed for accomplishing everything for your party. Break down the steps into weeks, days and hours before your event. List even obvious details such as "set out the silverware," since these tend to be the sort of things that can often get overlooked in the rush.

1) The Basics
This section includes a list of the basic details of your party: the date, time and location. Be sure to included detailed instructions to the party location, providing a map if available. The date of event doesn't have to be actually on the event date that you're celebrating. For example, having an anniversary celebration the day after the big day allows the anniversary couple the joy of celebrating just the two of them and also sharing their celebration with their friends and family. When planning when to send invitations, be sure to allow plenty of time for people to arrange their schedules, usually at least three weeks in advance. Remember, for outdoor parties plan a contingency in case of inclement weather.

2) The Budget
Plan an estimated budget beforehand for all expenses, keeping a running total as you shop and prepare. As you're shopping for your party, always shop from a detailed list with an estimated idea of what you should be spending. One simple way to save money on party products is by using the good china and silverware (if you have it) rather than paper plates, plastic tableware, etc. This might add a bit more work afterwards with clean-up, but it brings a simple touch of elegance to your gathering.

3) Guest List
Include in this section of your notebook the names, addresses, phone numbers, RSVP record, special dietary requirements.

4) Menu
Include everything from beverages to appetizers to desserts. An important thing to remember when planning your menu is: know your guests. Find out if anyone avoids alcohol or has special dietary requirements or food allergies. Many older people can't eat rich or spicy foods. Are your guests sophisticated gourmets or more comfortable with familiar favorites? If children will be attending your party, include some simple child-friendly foods in your menu (for example, red gelatin salad with sliced bananas is always a hit with kids).

Aim for balance in your menu. And remember, foods don't have to be expensive to be tasty. Simply adding fresh herbs from your garden as a garnish can often be enough to dress up less-expensive recipes. Select recipes that are easy to prepare or can be made ahead of time. Don't try a new recipe for the first time at a party, use your tried and true favorites. Consider food that the guests help prepare such as salad bar, baked potato bar, etc.

One of the simplest tricks for easy party planning is to make as many food items ahead of time as possible. Many foods can be prepared, frozen, and then thawed and reheated on party day with a minimal amount of effort. The following items freeze well: cookies, cakes, casseroles, main dishes, side dishes, appetizers, desserts.

5) Preparation Lists
This section of your notebook includes a list of the step by step preparation for every sub-section of your party plan. Be sure to plan out individual preparation lists for these topics: cleaning and preparing the house, checking for supplies and equipment, cooking, decorating, shopping.

6) Decorations
Think through every room that guests will be using and then decide if you want to include special decorations in each room. Be sure to consider table and food service decor, room decorations, yard, front door, bathroom, etc.

When it comes to decorations, simpler is often better. Too many decorations can overwhelm your budget and also make a crowded room look too busy. A seasonal wreath on the door, candles scattered around the house, and a flower arrangement on the table could be all you need to make the house look festive. For centerpieces consider using candles, fresh fruit and vegetables, outdoor items like pine cones, pine branches, leaves, flowering branches, sea shells or grape leaves. It's a good idea to avoid potted flowers for the table centerpiece since the dirt can sometimes contain small bugs.

For parties after dark, one of the most elegant and simple decorating ideas is to light candles everywhere. You can also line your front walkway or the edge of your backyard with inexpensive luminaria (small brown paper bags containing about an inch of sand in the bottom and a lit votive candle). If you have them, torches can add a festive look to your yard. Another easy decorating tip is to pull out your tiny white Christmas lights from their storage boxes. They can be used around doorways, strung amidst your flowerbeds, or used for twinkling lights in trees and bushes.

General Party Tips

  • Music is an important part of any party since it helps to set the mood. It's important to remember to keep any music fairly quiet since you don't want people yelling to be heard -- unless it's dance music rather than background mood music.

  • When parking your personal car, find a spot away from the area where guests will be parking. You don't want to get blocked by other cars in case you need to run to the store.

  • As you're preparing before the party, carry a timer in your pocket to remind you when to baste or stir food items.

  • Remember to be a good host/hostess: greet your guests, make sure someone takes their coats or shows them where to put their things, introduce your guests to each other and give them an idea of something they have in common as a conversation starter.

Simple Recipes

  • Spinach Dip: 1 package frozen spinach (thawed and drained), 16-oz. sour cream, 1 can water chestnuts (chopped) and 1 package buttermilk ranch dressing mix. Mix together; chill. Serve inside large hollowed out sourdough bread round. Serve with chips, veggies.

  • Sweet Fruit Dip: 1 small container marshmallow cream, 8-oz. cream cheese. Blend together thoroughly. Serve cut up fruit with toothpicks for dipping: cantaloupe, honeydew, any melon, apples (red and green), bananas, grapes.

  • Easy Fruit Salad: cut up cantaloupe, honeydew, apples, bananas, grapes, any melon, raisins, nuts (walnuts, almonds or pecans). Stir in two small containers of Vanilla-flavored yogurt (not plain yogurt). Serve cold.

Have Fun!

If you've planned ahead carefully and done much of your party preparations in advance, you'll save money by not being surprised by last minute hidden expenses which tend to accumulate quickly without a definite plan detailed ahead of time. Careful preparation will also allow you, as the host or hostess, to relax and enjoy your get-together as much as your friends and family.

Have a wonderful time!


Deborah Taylor-Hough is the author of the bestselling Frozen Assets: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month and A Simple Choice: a practical guide for saving your time, money and sanity. She also edits the Simple Times email newsletter. To subscribe, visit Debi online at thesimplemom.wordpress.com

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