Gourmet Holidays: How to Plan Your Party

by Liz Tarditi

Some tips from a professional caterer and chef can really help you keep your sanity and improve your holiday entertaining this year. In the first article in this series, I talked about how to set up and plan a buffet. In this next installment, we're going to go over some party planning basics, like estimating the amount of food and beverages you need, keeping within a budget, and a few common sense things that you should always have at your party, no matter how small your budget is.

In any party budget, no matter how big or small, you have the same basic elements: food, beverages, music, atmosphere, place and people. I'm sure you've read that spending more money does not guarantee a better time, and it's true to a point. Caviar, champagne, and a string quartet would be out of place for a Superbowl party, but you should pick up some cold beer and sandwich stuff, at the very least. The trick is to understand what kind of budget is appropriate for your event, and what kind of event is appropriate for your budget.

So how do you know what to expect if you don't plan events very often, or if this is your first party? First, decide how much you want to spend, then take out 15% for a cost overrun buffer. The number you have to work with now is your operating budget. Use only this number from now on as your budget you'll see why when you forget to add taxes, tips, or other miscellaneous emergencies happen later on. The buffer is there.

Second, decide how much time you have to work on this event. You're taking on a second job when you decide to host a party, unless you have the means (and the inclination) to pay other people to do all of the work. As someone who runs a catering company, but used to plan events for a non-profit, I've been on both sides of the paycheck for a party. If you're a great cook, and you have loads of time, then save the money and do it yourself. But sometimes it IS better to pay someone else. When you have limited time or limited skills, or you really need to be extremely available to your guests (like for a business function) professional hands can make all of the difference. It's not the guests' responsibility to make sure they are fed, beveraged, and entertained. It's yours. So be realistic about your time commitment will it really take you ONE HOUR to clean the whole house for the party? Will you REALLY be able to make 15 different types of hot and cold hors d'oeuvres from scratch the morning of the party (besides setting up the table, getting ice and picking up flowers)? Use the same good sense with your time as you do with your money budget and plan a HUGE time buffer into your schedule on the day of the party. It's the Murphy's Law of party planning: if you have the time to take care of an emergency, it won't happen, if you don't

Third, decide how many people you will be entertaining. This may sound pretty arbitrary, but have you ever noticed that people end up on a guest list in "clumps"? You can't invite Ann without also inviting her two sisters, Bridget and Cathy. With, of course, their husbands. (And then all 7 of their wild, godless little br ... er, their precious, darling children running around terrorizing the dog and putting peanut butter in the CD player is just part of the party fun!) For all of your parties, especially parties that are catered, write up the guest list and have a good idea of the maximum head count before you get too deep into the rest of your plans. It really has a huge impact on your budget.

Next, especially if you are going to hire a caterer for the first time, do your homework! Go to your yellow pages and call caterers, restaurants, supermarkets and rentals companies, and ask them for menus, price sheets, and lists of services/inventory. The same goes with the beverages and bar service. Compare apples to apples, brand name to brand name. As a general rule, it's a lot less expensive to serve wine and beer than cocktails. Always, always have plenty of non-alcoholic choices, so that even people who do drink can "slow down" their consumption. People used to drink about 3 bottles of white wine for every bottle of red, but that ratio is becoming more even. America has fallen in love with Merlot. You don't need to hire a caterer or rent equipment for every party, but you can get a quick and painless education about what is a fair price for food and services for events in your area by just looking at the menus. We're all different. We don't mind that you're shopping around, honestly. Small budgets are normal for a lot of functions. I really love an educated client; someone who has done their homework and understands what prices are fair, for me, is a lot less stressful to work with.

Guests will eat about 8 hors d'oeuvres per person, per hour of a cocktail party. That sounds like a small number, right? Wrong! If 20 guests come at 4 and dinner is at 6, you need 320 pieces! (or more!) Don't forget to count "platter presentations" in that number when you estimate how much food to make cheese and veggie trays are the tried and true for almost every occasion. If friends offer to bring something speak up! (But don't expect them to offer, it's YOUR party!) If you're doing it all yourself, store-bought hors d'oeuvres are more expensive than homemade, but hand-made HDO's take a lot of labor to roll, wrap, shape, skewer and otherwise assemble. Think about your stress level, and what you can reasonably hope to accomplish, when planning your menu. If frozen spinach puffs will save you 4 hours in the middle of the holiday madness, don't work yourself sick, this is what your buffer budget was for!

If you are serving dinner as well as cocktails, estimate a minimum of 8 ounces of protein, 4 ounces of starch and 3 ounces of vegetable per person. Then have extra for people who want seconds. Use your own common sense. People won't split a baked potato or a chicken breast, and women don't tend to "stick to their diet" on a special occasion, they eat just as much as men. I'm sure I'm going to get some feedback about that last observation, so let me just say that teenagers eat the most, the 14 to 22 year old set can put away any given amount of food in less than 5 minutes. Dinner takes about and hour and a half, and definitely breaks the party into two halves, so don't bring out any more hors d'oeuvres after the main meal has been served.

Finally, think about the functionality of your home for the party, do you need to rent extra tables, chairs, serving pieces, linens and glasses? What about purchasing/borrowing coolers, trashcans, paper towels, toilet paper, a new bathroom plunger? If someone wants to smoke, do you have ashtrays, or will they use your great-grandmother's porcelain vase? If you send them outside to have their cigarettes, will they have to throw the butts into your flower beds? Can your dog jump up onto the coffee table and eat all of the dip? Will your cat run out into the street the 20th time the front door opens? Can you place a scented candle in the bathroom, with a full pack of matches, to act as an "air freshener" during it's heavy usage hours? Do you have any medications in you medicine cabinet or papers on your desk (or unlocked files on your computer) that you don't wish to make public knowledge? Do you have extra serving trays for guests who bring hors d'oeuvres or desserts with them?

Make yourself a "guest kit" for the bathroom; feminine hygiene products, aspirin, ibuprofen, antacid, hair spray, lipstick, perfume, breath mints, saline solution, clear nail polish and anything else you think your guests might ask for during the course of the evening. You see them at weddings a lot, but they're a good idea for home parties, too. Also, make yourself an "emergency kit" for the kitchen, small bottles of club soda and salt for spills on your carpet, a fire extinguisher, the phone number for the local cab company, Alka Seltzer for tomorrow morning... you get the idea. Being prepared is being relaxed.

My last piece of advice: have fun at your party. If you have a great time, so will your guests. You've spent a long time planning for success. You have a well-organized house, plenty of food, and a big buffer of time before the party starts to breathe deeply and take your time getting dressed and enjoying the pre-party glow of your home. Your guests will see the care you took in decorating, your delicious foods, the excellent wine, and they are happy to be there, sharing this special, festive time with you. The most important ingredient in any party is the charming, relaxed host.

Chef Liz Tarditi is the President and Executive Chef of Today's Gourmet, a personal chef service based in Kirkland, Washington which provides delicious, home-cooked gourmet meals everyday for busy clients all over the Eastside.

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