11 Tips for Throwing a Successful Holiday Party
It's that time of year again... and whether you are ready or not, the holiday season is now upon us!
To say that I am excited would be an understatement - I mean who doesn't love getting together with friends and family, festive cocktails, decorating, getting dressed up and giving to others?!
I mean if those aren't some of your favorite things I don't know how you get through life.
That being said, the holidays can also be a very stressful time of year with not enough time in the day to get everything you "need" to get done done, especially if you are hosting holiday events at your home and entertaining guests.
Each year we host a "Friendsgiving" at our house and, year over year it has continued to grow. In fact, this year we topped out at almost 40 people!
Yes… I said 40 people, and yes... it was pure insanity!
I remember being stressed out in college just hosting 'Sex in the City' parties for 5 or 6 girlfriends and all I did was put out a few appetizers and cheap wine. Now we are talking full on appetizers, dinner, dessert, drinks and specialty cocktails for 30-40 people - and believe me... I am no Martha Stewart!
So how do I do it?
Well… I can tell you this much, it's a work in progress, and it's something I still haven't mastered but I can also tell you that each year the party goes by way too fast. The night is filled with laughter & conversations, our guests enjoy themselves, we never take enough photos and people leave having made new friends. So for those reasons alone, I can say we, at the very least, throw what I consider successful parties BUT that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in regards to next year.
So, with the thought of giving in mind, I thought I would share some of my top tips (that I've learned by not doing and wishing I had) for hosting Friendsgiving (or any large dinner/cocktail/holiday party for that matter):
#1 Plan Ahead
I cannot stress enough how important it is to plan ahead. Trust me, this will save you so much time on the days leading up to and the day of your party, and most importantly it will save you from that frantic last minute "OMG I am not ready" meltdown.
(or maybe that's just me??)
What I typically do for planning ahead is the following:
1. Figure out the overall theme of the party and to do so ask yourself questions like 'what kind of food are we having', 'is it going to be casual or more sit down elegant', 'will it be inside or outside' etc. Answering these few questions will definitely help you discover the type of party it will be.
2. Send out your invitations as soon as you have the date, time and general theme. Whether it's paper invites (which I personally prefer) or e-vites - the sooner you can get them out the better. I mean let's be real… people are busy, especially this time of year - so get on their calendars before something or someone else does.
3. Plan out your menu - and by this I mean food & drinks - as well as your budget. And try to stick to it! It’s easy to decide on a whim that you need more flowers, gold acorns and extra candles for the centerpiece but, do you really?
4. Plan out the agenda - Are you going to have games? What time do you plan on having the main course? Can everyone arrive at the same time? And so on...
Trust me on this one, you want to map it out in your head before the party so that you can cover all your bases… as well as answering questions from your Type A friends (like me) who want to know what to expect.
5. Make sure you have everything you need at least a day before the party. I repeat, at LEAST a day before.Do not leave things to the day of unless it’s picking up the ice and flowers and even still, try to figure out if you can do that the night before. Speaking of the night before,try to set almost everything out at that time., I made the mistake of not doing that this year and was scrambling. Scrambling as in running around like a mad woman with mascara and eyeliner only on one eye, still in my bathrobe 15 minutes before people arrived and barking orders at everyone scrambling.
So get your tables set up, your place settings, your food signs and trays - make sure everything has a place so that on the day of all you are doing is filling in the blanks.
#2 Write Everything Down
This may or may not work for everyone, but I suggest writing everything that you need to do on the days leading up to and the day of the party down. Whether that be on your phone, your iPad or, if you are like me, on a piece of paper and stick to it. This will help ensure that you don't forget anything.
What I like to do is group my to-do lists into categories - each one outlining a different objectives.
For example, the first list has the things I need to do about 3 weeks out. The second list is the week and day before and the last list is what I need to do the day of. Throwing a large party is much less overwhelming when it’s broken out into smaller pieces that you can see, and even better, cross tasks off of as you complete them.
#3 Shop at Multiple Stores for Supplies
If money is no option and you don't mind blowing wads o' cash you can skip this step. If you are like me and actually have a party budget you'd like to stick to I suggest shopping at multiple stores.
For example, for big parties I get a lot of my stuff at wholesale stores like Costco, BJs, Walmart etc. There is absolutely no need to pay premium prices for things like napkins, paper plates, crackers, packaged goods etc. Chances are, your guests won’t think twice about these items when they’re wiping their hands on them after the delicious meal you served.
Get your decor items and any goodie giveaways from places like Michaels, Christmas Tree Shop, Target or local craft shops. They tend to have digital and/or email coupons you can use to get the best deals.
For beer and wine if you have a liquor store or wholesale store grab it there - you'll save big bucks on this. And if you have a lot of parties buy in bulk - most liquor lasts quite a while.
Last up is groceries - and this is where planning your menu in advance comes in handy - plan out your shopping based on where you are going to get the most quality items for the best price. What I do is think ahead of time what items I can splurge on vs. what items I can go off-brand. Pro-tip: never go off-brand when it comes to cheese. It’s never tastes the same.
#4 Ask for Help/Accept it when it's Offered
While we are on the topic of planning ahead & shopping for supplies I am going to throw this one out there: Ask for and/or accept help from others.
Really if they offer take it
And if they don't get new friends.
No, not really… well… mayyyyyybe… or just ask them and see what they say and then decide.
Okay, but seriously, this is another one I had to learn over time.. When we first moved into our house, we had lots of parties and people would always offer to bring something.Thinking I was being a “good hostess,” I would always say "no, no...just show up we've got it covered" but a good host knows when to take a little help. It’s especially helpful now that our parties have grown in size and frequency. Believe me, I absolutely take people up on their offers or straight up ask them to bring something.
The key here is to be specific and strategic (again the planning ahead concept comes into play) - so ask them to bring something that you know will make your life easier. For me I typically ask for guests to bring an appetizer, side dish, dessert or beverage and I stagger my requests. That way I supplement or completely fulfill needs making my life easier both before and during the party.
#5 Be Realistic with your Menu
A party or get together is not the time to try out a brand new recipe - again, take it from someone who learned the hard way - this just simply is not a good idea. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you will end up forgetting an ingredient, burning something or, worst of all, hating the dish all together.
Stick with that you know and what your guests will enjoy.
I also suggest keeping it fairly simple and to have a good balance between hot and cold items.
If everything that you are serving has to be cooked on the day of and/or has to be served hot it's going to be really hard to manage if you have more than 4-6 people. So my rule of thumb is to keep a good mix of cold or room temperature (ideally with the ability to be prepped the day before or morning of) items as well as "hot and fresh" items like your main course, a few appetizers and a few sides.
This will help keep the stages of your meal flowing and will enable you to enjoy time with your guests instead of being stuck in the kitchen the whole time.
#6 Ask if Guests Have Food Allergies or Sensitivities
While we are on the topic on menus, this segways right into food requests. Now I don't mean taking a survey or poll of what your guests would enjoy most - but more so are there things that your guests can or cannot eat due to a food allergy or sensitivity?
You'd be surprised by how many people have certain limitations in regards to what they eat - and the last thing you want to do is have a guest who has nothing to eat, or feels guilty asking for modifications. You want your guests to feel at home, so take the extra time to ask guests about any food allergies or sensitivities when you invite them and encourage them to include it on their RSVP.
#7 Have Some Guests Arrive Early
This one is not a "must do" but more of a personal preference.
For me, I like to stagger my guests and have some people arrive a little earlier than others. These early arrivals are typically family members or close friends who I want to spend a little extra time with and who I know will help me out with last minute to-dos, like taste testing, setting up, wrangling the dog as people arrive, etc.
#8 Plan For Guests to Stay Late
Do not throw a party if you have a defined time that you need to be finished by - as in, don't have other plans after your party, because inevitably there are going to be a few people (or a lot of people) who stay later than planned.
They'll be snacking, drinking, chatting and having fun - and you will be too - so the last thing you want to do is rush them, have to tell them to leave, or finish the day or night sooner than the vibe calls for.
Rule of thumb...plan to go with the flow!
#9 Take A Lot Of Photos
I am so, so bad at this one! I always get so busy talking with people, refilling drinks, making sure that everyone is enjoying the food and playing the games that by the end of the night I realize two things: The first is that I haven't seen my husband once and the second is that I forgot to take pictures with everyone and both totally bum me out. Luckily my husband is always around for photos, but my guests aren't, so this always bums me out.
To be completely honest I haven't quite figured out this best way to solve for this but my suggestions are:
1. Take photos when your guests arrive - think of it as a red carpet arrival…
Bonus: When they’re taking photos in front of the backdrop, it’s the perfect opportunity to take the food they brought into the other room, grab them a drink, or whatever! When you perfect it, this is a great way to greet guests without being awkward and to seamlessly integrate them into the rest of the group.
2. Assign a few party goers to snapping some photos - if you ask 4 or 5 people to take some photos of you and the other guests you'll be sure to get at least 5 or 10 that you like.
4. If you can swing it, hire a professional photographer (and this is my plan for our next party). To keep costs down, look for a freelancer looking to build their portfolio or a student at a local college or high school - someone who is interested in a 2-3 hour gig. This will alleviate all of the above, will ensure that you have 100+ photos to choose from AND will give you something that you can send or give to your guests on the way out.
#10 Have an Icebreaker and/or Party Games
No, no. Don’t worry - I’m not talking about those painfully awkward, “Go around the room and tell someone a fun fact about yourself” type of ice breaker that we all had to endure back in highschool at the beginning of the year.
There’s are many great, sophisticated (and fun!) ways to help your guests get to know each other. In fact, this tip lends more to a larger scale party where you groups of people who may or may not know each other very well but also when you might not have time to fully engage. The right game will ensure that no one is left standing alone without someone to talk with and enables your friends and family to really get to know each other. Our two favorites are:
1. The name game - where you take sticky name tags and write the names of celebrities, athletes, politicians, musicians etc. on them. As guests arrive you place one of the name tags on their back so that they cannot see the name but everyone else can.
Each guest is then allowed to ask each other guest one question to help identify 'who they are' - the catch here though is that they can only ask each guest one question and have to talk to all guests before they can ask a second question. This ensures that they speak to everyone and keeps the game going longer. For the winner we usually like to give something fun like a bottle of wine, a candle or some yummy treats.
2. The puzzle game - this is a fun one. So for this you go out to a place like the dollar store and buy a few mini puzzles. You then take about 3-5 pieces from each puzzle that all fit together and put them into a bowl. As guests arrive they take 1-2 puzzle pieces and then have to go around the room to try and match their puzzle pieces to others.
This gets people talking and moving around and is a lot of fun. For this one we usually have a few winners since there are multiple puzzles to make, so we have 1st, 2nd and 3rd place and give the same types of prizes.
If neither one of these fit your fancy there are a ton of other options out there that you can see here.
We also just like to have games in general at our parties, especially when it's nice outside, as we’ve found that they help keep the party going longer and that our guests enjoy themselves more. In my opinion there is nothing worse than going to a party and just standing there the whole time. Can you say B-O-O-O-R-I-I-I-I-I-I-N-G?! Our party game favorites are:
2. Pinatas (these things are amazing, don't judge)
3. Apple Bobbing
4. Scavenger Hunts
5. Spike Ball
6. Pin the Tail on the Donkey (another classic that people forget)
7. Group Board or Card Games like Scattegories, Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity
#11 Send Your Guests Home With Something
Last, but certainly not least, I like to try and send my guests home with something. It's just a nice way to end the party and leaves guests feeling like you really appreciated them coming… and hopefully you did!
Some things that we've done in the past are:
2. Cute themed dishes (like thanksgiving dishes, ceramic christmas trees, coffee mugs etc.) filled with candy
3. Fresh baked cookies with hot chocolate or coffee in to-go cups
4. Scones or muffins for breakfast the next day
5. Succulents or plants
It's not a must but it certainly is nice and will definitely have your guests leave saying "wow...that was the best party ever!"
I hope these tips help you prevent some of the mistakes I made for your upcoming holiday parties.
The overall message here is that the key to a successful and fulfilling holiday season, or party in general, is balance. So, plan ahead, set proper expectations for your time and try not to over plan or over commit and don't beat yourself up if you can't "do it all."
Most importantly, take the time to enjoy the little things, sit back and listen to the buzz of conversation and laughter and bottle it all up in your memory. These are the moments that, as you get older you will cherish and look back on wishing you could freeze them in time - so enjoy them now!
And of course... every last sip of champagne!
xo - margaret