To Cook or Not to Cook? That is The Question

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This post is part of the Party Primer Series. Answers to all of your party and event planning questions.

If you’re having a dinner party (or any party, really) the focus is going to fall to one thing – the food. Believe me. All the amazing decorations, music and entertainment in the world can’t make up for bad food. So before you even begin to worry about what you’re going to serve, start thinking about how in the world you’re going to prepare it.

Traditionally, of course, the hostess takes on the task of preparing the entire meal for her guests. If we want to get really traditional, the hostess’s private full-time cook makes the meal, but since so few of us employ our own cooks these days (and if you do, let me know! I’ll be over for dinner!) we are left with a blank slate when it comes to preparation.

There are several common ways to go about preparing and serving your guests a meal. I’ve listed these choices these in order of most difficult and time consuming to least.

1. Prepare the entire meal by yourself; the least fun and most time consuming of all your options, knowing that, it can also be the most rewarding, if you’re the kind of person who likes a lot of compliments and praise.

2. Prepare the entire meal with the help of your significant other; this is only a good option if you both like to cook and already do so together regularly. Forcing your boyfriend to cook Coq A Vin for your parents the first time the two of you are in the kitchen together will cause chaos and tears.

3. Prepare the entire meal with the help of a good friend; try not to drink so much wine that you’re completely sauced before dinner. Harder then it sounds.

4. Prepare part of the meal and purchase the rest from Whole Foods or your local gourmet grocer, then complete the prep yourself; I like this one.

5. Prepare part of the meal yourself and ask your guests to bring sides, appetizers or desserts; commonly known as a pot-luck. This is fine for casual events but I don’t recommend it for fancier occasions.

6. Order carry-out from a reputable and reliable restaurant; don’t try to pass it off as food you’ve cooked yourself. You’re not fooling anyone.

7. Tell your guests that you’ve got the drinks covered if they’ll bring over some food because you don’t have a thing in the house. No. Don’t do this. Ever. Seriously.

8. Go to a restaurant; not usually recommended with groups larger than 6, unless advanced plans have been made, or its a slow night or off hours.

Honestly, any of these is a perfectly fine way to enjoy an evening with your guests. The choice is yours and depends on your skills in the kitchen and the atmosphere you’d like to convey for the event. Going all in and preparing the entire meal from scratch may be a fine option for you if you’re skilled in the kitchen and want to show off a bit.

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Finding Fabulous Invitations

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This post is part of the Party Primer Series. Answers to all of your party and event planning questions.

Now that your guest list is set, its on to the fun part – invitations!

There are about a million ways you can invite someone to a party, from custom designed formal wedding invitations, to a quick phone call before a cookout. The important thing to keep in mind with invitations is that they are generally the first impression someone is going to have of the party.

So, keeping this in mind, it is important that they fit the theme and tone of the event. A formal wedding is going to have a swankier invitation then a three-year-olds birthday party (most of the time). It’s also your first chance to play with your party’s theme – so have fun with it.

What kind of invitation should I send?

For formal events an invitation should traditionally be mailed to the guests homes. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of websites out there where you can design your invitations and have them printed. These are generally the most expensive types of invitations, and there is not set price range. It depends on the printer you use. You can also design and print your invitations at home, but this is not always a less expensive option. Depending on the event, you may also have a response card for guests to mail back, or include a phone number or email address for guests to contact with their responses.

A few of my favorite sites for printed invitations

tiny prints

minted

invitationbox

For more casual impromptu events like dinner parties and birthdays, my favorite way to send invitations is with an online evite service. These fun sites allow you to design an invitation that looks a pretty as the printed versions, then emails them to your guest list. They also have great tools for tracking your RSVPs.  Sometimes these are completely free and sometimes there is a charge associated. You can also design a simple invitation in a program like Word and email it out to your list for free.

A few of my favorite sites for online evites

Evite Postmark

Paperless Post

When should I send them?

For a formal party like a shower, wedding, etc. invitations should be sent out 6 to 8 weeks before the event. Since you are probably asking for RSVPs for this type of event, make sure the invitations are set to arrive soon enough that guests have 3 to 4 week before the RSVP deadline.

Invitations to a more casual party the invitations should be sent out 4 to 6 weeks before the event. Again, make sure your guest have a few weeks in between receiving the invitation and the RSVP deadline.

If you’re e-mailing an invitation, whether though an online service or just via regular email, try to send it out two to three weeks before the party and at a very minimum 4 to 5 days before the event.

What is the best invitation you’ve ever received?

Three Things to Remember When Planning Your Guest List

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This post is part of the Party Primer Series. Answers to all of your party and event planning questions.

The party guest list can be the most fun – or the most challenging part of party planning. There are no set rules or even guidelines, and it can get overwhelming very quickly.

One of the reasons I love throwing parties for other people is because this part of the work is done for me! Hand me a list of names and addresses and I am an invitation-sending fiend. Ask me to choose only a few guests from a list of many who I’d love to include and suddenly things aren’t so simple. It can be impossibly hard to determine who to invite or leave off the list.

There will be many considerations you must take into account when setting your guest list, but make sure you don’t forget these important ones!

Three Things to consider

        1. How much space do you have in the party location? Can you comfortably seat 16, or is 6 going to be a crowd? I almost always advocate for “the more the merrier” but you have to be realistic. If you have more guests than chairs you’re going to run in to problems. There are few things worse than being in an over-crowded room. This is especially important if you’re planning an outdoor party – your patio may have plenty of room for 20 people, but if the weather turns, do you have space for them all indoors as well?
        2. What’s your budget? There are two schools of thought here and neither is wrong, per se. You can either make your plans, figure out the per-person cost and invite the number of guests your budget allows. Or you can determine how many people you’re going to invite and stick to planning a (perhaps less extravagant) party that fits in your budget. I tend to go 50/50 with my own parties, sometimes I will throw a very nice dinner party for a few close friends, and sometimes I want to throw a big bash and invite the neighborhood – even if it means cheaper food and fewer splurges.
        3. Who gets along? This last one may be a no-brainer, but if your husband’s best friend and your neighbor got into a screaming match last year at your Fourth of July Picnic over a sports feud, its best to avoid inviting them to the same party, especially if its small. If there is no way around it, make sure to enlist a level-headed friend to serve as “buffer” and is willing to run interference between them all night. As someone who has served this role many times, I think it is nice for the host to check in on this person during the night, bringing them extra drinks as necessary.

What “rules” do you follow when planning a guest list? Have you ever run into a guest-tastophe?

Setting a Party Budget You Can Stick To

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This is part of the Party Primer Series. Answers to all of your party and event planning questions.

Parties can get expensive in a hurry, especially if you go in without a plan. By the time you’ve strolled through Target and the grocery store, you’ve spent three times as much as you should have – and you still have more to buy! Just as we saw last week with your timeline, setting a budget before the party planning starts will help you to stay on track and throw the party you’re dreaming of, without all the buyer’s remorse and spending guilt.

It’s important to go into the budget planning process with realistic expectations. The wonders that are the blogosphere and Pinterest often leave us overwhelmed with so many ideas and without any real sense of the expense that went into those “Pin-worthy” parties. I can promise you they weren’t cheap.

Now I am all for throwing fabulous events that are decorated to the nines with hundreds of coordinated details, but that doesn’t have to be every party you throw or even any of the parties that you throw. If I tried to pull out all the stops every time I invited friends over to dinner I’d not only be broke, but totally burnt out on party planning. Have a budget in place will help you stay focused and make the important decisions.

The best place to start when planning your budget is determining the amount that you are reasonably able to spend, this is your absolute maximum. That doesn’t mean you have to spend this much, it just sets an amount to build around. Now, determine a goal of what you would like to spend on the party. This should be lower than your maximum obviously, and shouldn’t leave you cringing.

Next, think about your vision for the event. Who’s there? Where are you? What kind of food and drinks are you having? What do the decorations look like?

Now comes the hard step – reconciling the vision with the reality. Maybe you’re planning Thomas the Tank Engine themed a first birthday party and would love to dress each child up in little conductor’s overalls. That is an adorable idea, and will be perfect if there are only going to be a few children at the party, but if you’re inviting the whole extended family, 30 pairs of child-sized overalls gets expensive in a hurry.  Maybe you decide that each child will get a hat instead, much more affordable.

You also have to consider your non-negotiables items. Mainly, this means the food. If you’re throwing a casual afternoon cookout, you’re going to be able to spend less than at a formal dinner. Unless you decide you want to grill filet and salmon for the cookout and serve carryout pizza at dinner. It’s all about your choices.

It’s also important to determine if there is anything in your vision you just can’t part with. So if you know you just have to have those rosette tablecloths for your daughters 8th birthday at $40 each, you’re probably going to have to refrain from inviting the entire soccer team. This is why it is always a good idea to plan your budget for an amount less than the absolute maximum you are able to spend, it allows for a splurge now and then.

To help you get started I’ve outlined the most common expenses for a party, and what you can expect to spend in each area and what percentage of your budget should go towards each item. I’ve also put together three budgets based on the same amount, to help you see how your choices impact the party.

% of Budget

#1 $300 Birthday Party for 10 guests

#2 $300 Birthday Party for 20 guests

#3 $300 Birthday Party for 40 guests

Food & Drink

40-60%

$225

$125

$200

Decorations

15-30%

$30

$50

$25

Entertainment

5-40%

$0

$50

$20

Invitations

5-15%

$15

$20

$0

Favors

5-15%

$0

$25

$25

Slush Fund

10%

$30

$30

$30

TOTALS

$300

$300

$300

Each party had a budget of $300, but the types of party and the choices of the hostess determined how the money was spent.

The first party was a dinner for a 30th birthday celebration, it was small and the focus was on the food and drinks. Everything else was kept to a minimum.

The second was a pretty typical child’s birthday party, complete with a $50/hour magician.

The third party was also a child’s birthday party, but since there were so many guests, many of the extras were trimmed.

These are all hard decisions, I know. What makes it harder still is that there is no right or wrong answer. Each party and each party hostess is unique. What is important to you may seem trivial to someone else, that doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it your opinion.

The most important thing to remember is that whether you throw a simple party or an extravagant one, the key is enjoying the time you spend creating memories with your guests, because that is truly priceless.

How to Create A Party Timeline

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This is part of the Party Primer Series. Answers to all of your party and event planning questions.

There are no set rules when it comes to establishing a timeline for your party planning. I know, that’s not such great advice. In general, the larger and more complicated the event, the earlier you’re going to want to begin the planning process.

The most important factor when deciding your timeline is the type of party you’re having. This will help you determine your time frame  Some of these things will seem natural, you wouldn’t send out invitations before deciding on a location or theme. Other ideas will hopefully give you some insight into how to save yourself time and organize for a stress-free event.

I have put together sample timelines for two types of parties that each require a different level of detail. I hope this gives you a good idea of all the things that need to be done as well as the approximate timing.

For large parties that will take place outside of your home, or involve a lot of rental items (like tents, tables and chairs) you’ll want to start planning at least 4-6 months in advance. If the location you’d like to us is a popular one, you may want to start even sooner. These events are usually milestone anniversaries or birthdays, showers, baptisms, communions, retirements, graduations, and family reunions. They have a large guest list and a lot of details, so allowing yourself a good window of time will save you from stress and headache as the event nears.

Timeline 1

For smaller parties, like birthdays and holidays, planning begins about two months ahead of time. Again, if its not being held in your home, you may need to book the location earlier than this, but you shouldn’t need to do too much else until about two months before the party.

Timeline 2

Casual events like brunches and dinner parties that focus more on good food and good company than a lot of little details, can be planned in just a few days (or a few hours in some cases) thought I usually like to give myself a week or two.

I didn’t put together a formal timeline for the casual party, because its something we’ll discuss later on, and its much simpler to put together an event like this than either of the other two.

Once you’ve figured out the time frame you’ll be working with, you’ll look at all the things that need to be done and determine the best times to do them. I know this sounds simple and almost silly, but you’d be surprised how few people actually write down what they need to do and keep track of their schedule. I think that lack of a timeline in the beginning is the biggest cause of stress and trouble as a party draws near. The most important thing when it comes to party planning is to enjoy yourself! Parties are fun, remember?

Party Primer – 4 Easy Steps to the Perfect Party Plan

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You may have seen the first post in the Party Primer Series, and if not, make sure to go check it out – Why Have a Dinner Party? This series is designed to help you become an expert entertainer and event host. Whether you’ve never thrown a party before and have no idea where to start or you’re a party planning veteran just looking for new tips and ideas, I hope this series helps you. If you have questions about the topics we discuss, or want to know about things I haven’t covered, leave a comment or e-mail me and I’ll send you the answer!

When I first began hosting events, I didn’t know where to start. I figured as long as you had friends and food you had a party. And while that is technically true, I’ve gone through quite a bit of trial and error and learned a lot since then. Still, I find myself surprised that after each event I am left with a few new ideas for my bag of tricks.

One of the most important things I’ve found is that laying a good foundation with a few key pieces of information will make the rest of the party planning process run smoothly and can really make or break an event. You wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, right? So make sure you don’t start to plan a party before answering these key questions.

Why are you having a party?

This may be an obvious answer like a birthday party or bridal shower. Maybe you want to invite your friends to meet your new boyfriend or girlfriend, or maybe an old college friend has returned from backpacking abroad for a year. Or maybe you just want something to look forward to after a long workweek. “Just Because” is always a good reason for a party – in fact, there is no right answer to this question, its only important that you know why you’re having the party as you begin to answer the next questions.

What is your timeline?

Knowing how much time you have to plan the event will help determine just what you can do with the event. Sure its possible to plan a surprise birthday bash complete with 200 guests and an amazing live band on just a few days notice, but its much more realistic to have at least a month or two to pull off something like that. On the other hand, it’s entirely realistic to plan a fabulous dinner party in just a day or two and you probably don’t want to start bugging your friends about coming to your awesome Superbowl party when its only November.

What is your budget?

As with the timeline, your budget is going to determine where you’re able to take the party. Of course its going to be easier to plan a huge bash with a big budget, but you just may be surprised how far a small budget can stretch with the right plans. I’ve thrown many a dinner party on $50 (or less!) so don’t be scared off by this question. Whatever your budget is, I know we can make it work.

Who are you going to invite?

Sometimes this is influenced by your budget, and sometimes it’s the other way around. It won’t be hard to throw a party for 8 guests with $100, but it maybe a struggle (but not impossible!) to throw a party for 50. Sometimes this question is answered as soon as you know why you’re having the party. If you’re throwing a wedding shower, the bride will probably give you a list of who needs to be invited and it may or may not be negotiable. If the guest list is in your hands though, think about your budget and how many people you can include without sacrificing your ideas for the party and go from there. Always be prepared for a few unexpected guests too! The standard rule  to be prepared for about 10% over, just in case, but with smaller events you’re probably safe as long as you could accommodate 2-3 extra people.

I hope this information gives you a good starting place. If you haven’t hosted many parties, this may seem like a lot of information to consider. Don’t worry, we’ll talk a lot more about these questions in the next few installments of “Party Primer”. As always, leave a comment if you have any more specific questions about what I’ve covered here.

Party Primer – Why Host a Dinner Party?

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Why Should You Host A Dinner Party?

Because it will be fun. I promise. Okay, so maybe that’s not quite compelling enough for you.

Dinner parties are an excellent way to mark a special occasion, or just steal away from the world for a night with your nearest and dearest, relishing the chance to enjoy each other’s company away from the interruptions of the rest of the world.

 If you like to cook it is a great way to challenge yourself and show off your skills. And even if you’re not a genius in the kitchen, people rarely complain about free meals.

 If you hate to cook, well, you just may find that cooking food for other people in enjoyable in a way that cooking for yourself is not. Or maybe you’ll still hate to cook, but at least the party will be fun.

 There is something marvelous about inviting someone into your home to share a meal. Spending all our social time in crowded bars and restaurants is a new phenomenon, and eating a microwaved meal alone in front of the television is newer still. But the “Dinner Party” or at least the idea of the shared meal is as old as civilization itself.

Food shared over a common table, in the presence of friends stirs up such deep emotions because it’s how we have nourished our bodies and spirits for thousands of years. We can’t connect and delight in each other’s company over the the noise of a second-rate band and the attitude of an overworked waitress.

It doesn’t even need to be complicated, in fact it shouldn’t be complicated. The simplest of meals will be wonderful when prepared with good intentions and careful instructions. Or ordered in from a trusted restaurant – that’s right you don’t even have to cook.

Too many people are scared of hosting dinner parties because they think it has to be Martha Stewart-worthy or its not worth the effort. Please believe me when I tell you this isn’t the case. Have you and your friends ever eaten Chinese take-out or pizza around the coffee table and a board game? Guess what – that’s a dinner party. Sure the big formal affairs with place-settings and centerpieces can be fun if that’s your style, but it’s not the only way to do it. In fact, sometimes the impromptu casual dinners can be more memorable.

There will always be a thousand reasons not to – your decorating is unfinished, the house is too old, too cluttered, too sparse, you don’t have a “formal” table, you’re just too busy… but I challenge you to get past these excuses. There are simple solutions to almost any “obstacle” you can come up with. And maybe it seems like a lot of work, but you may just surprise yourself when you see how much fun it can be to create something that brings so much joy to the people you love.

Have I convinced you? Fantastic! So what now? Stay tuned for more of my tips, hints, tricks and advice about how to pull off a successful dinner party (or any other kind of party).

I’d love to hear more about what you would most like to learn about hosting a party. Leave a comment and let me know.