The Three Things to Focus On When Entertaining in Your Home

I grew up in a family of natural hosts and hostesses, and from an early age I watched my parents entertain with ease.  When I started my own home and began to entertain, I looked back on their gatherings, and wondered if there was a magic formula to throwing a perfect party.  I found that a little advanced planning (and remaining calm) makes all the difference to the success of a party.  Here is my three-step approach to stress-free entertaining.  

1. The Guest List

The right guest list will make or break a party, and who you invite depends on the kind of party you throw.  

The Dinner Party

  • Limit a dinner party to eight people or fewer - you want everyone to fit around the table comfortably.
  • Don't invite anyone to a dinner party that you haven't already gone out to dinner with - This is a good "weed out" method and it also ensures that you really know your guests.

The Open House/Cocktail Party

  • This can be the "sky's the limit" party - asking people to drop by for a quick drink and a bite gives you room to add to the guest list.
  • If you're on the fence about inviting someone, do it - I've never regretted inviting someone to a party, but I have had regrets about excluding someone.

2. The Food/Drink

While it's important to give your guests something to eat and drink, it's not imperative that you provide them with an extraordinary culinary experience. Simple is best and it depends on the party.

The Dinner Party

  • My basic rule of thumb when selecting a menu for a dinner party is this: don't ever try something new when cooking for a dinner party.  It creates stress on you and the outcome is uncertain. Select your favorite thing to cook, and make it for your guests.  This could be your grandmother's chicken casserole or a pot roast.  If you are comfortable cooking it and love the meal, your guests will be at ease and enjoy it too.  (Plus, it's fun to share the food you really love with your friends).
  • Have one appetizer.  At a dinner party you are serving them an entire meal, you don't need a giant appetizer spread to spoil their appetite.  One appetizer is enough for before-dinner nibbles.
  • If you're having wine with dinner, put the glasses and bottle on the table and serve family style.

The Open House/Cocktail Party

  • My first rule of food for this type of party is this: The more people, the fewer things on the menu.  I'm not saying don't serve as much food - just don't have as many options.  People are there to have a drink and mingle, not sit down and eat. Have finger foods within reach for snacking and chatting.
  • For large parties, beer and wine is enough.  Don't stress over a full bar for 50 people.  If you must have a third option, make a signature cocktail in advance.
  • It's not what you serve, it's what you serve it in.  Nothing dresses up a Chex Mix like silver.  Put your snack foods in dressy bowls and your guests will feel special.

3. Entertainment

This is the most overlooked part of any gathering, because if a host does it well, you don't know your being "entertained".  In any group, sometimes conversation is enough, but if your guests are not well acquainted, you may need a jump-start.  

The Dinner Party

  • For this type of party, I keep the music low and in the background and focus on individual conversations.  
  • Plan potential talking points in advance of the dinner - knowing your guests and what they may have in common can help you keep conversation alive.
  • If topics are hard to come by, there is no harm in introducing a trivia game to the group to keep the party going - there are many boxed sets of trivia games on the market today, perfect for such an occasion.

The Open House/Cocktail Party

  • Music can be a more central part of the atmosphere - and live music is a great way to make people feel entertained.  If you know a musician or have a friend in a band, ask if they can provide a little ambiance.  
  • An organized game is more fun than you think. My husband and I once had a "Guest Scavenger Hunt" at a party.  We made a list of one thing we knew about each guest, passed out that list and invited everyone to find out who belonged to each item.  They got to know one another and it forced everyone to talk.

The most important thing to remember is that people follow your lead.  If you are relaxed and enjoying yourself, they will be too.  There is nothing more gratifying than making memories with friends in your own home.