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Favorite entertaining tips

Now that the holiday season is over and fresh in our minds, I'd love to hear about your favorite entertaining tips, either for a dinner or a cocktail party.They can either be from the vantage point of the host or from the guest's viewpoint. As a host, what do you do to make your party less stressful/more successful? As a guest, what little thing did the host do that made your visit special?
Here's one to start: When having a large group over for a buffet dinner, always use place cards. The first year that I hosted 22 people at my house for Thanksgiving, I thought I would just let people sit where they wanted to instead of forcing them to sit next to someone they didn't want to sit next to. BIG mistake. After setting out all the hot dishes and announcing that everyone could begin the buffet, people stood around and debated, deliberated and/or argued about where to sit. Meanwhile, the hot food grew to lukewarm, the lukewarm grew to coolish, and so on.
I've never made that mistake again.

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  1. If you're having a small dinner party, clean the house as your guests will notice. If you're having a big party, don't bother as they will be looking at each other.

    1. I agree on placecards and I always use them for holiday dinners. I can't stand when people just mill around waiting for someone else to sit down. In fact, I find it stressful as a hostess and as a guest.

      When hosting a big dinner, I keep a list of all dishes to be served, including what needs to be heated when (and where -- toaster oven or top/bottom oven or microwave), at what temperature, and what serving dish will be used. This makes it less stressful on me when trying to get all the food out in a timely fashion.

      1. the tip I always have to work to remember - the guests are there to socialize and enjoy each other. Any food crisis will be far more apparent to me than to them. Even the worst food crisis can be laughed off & fixed with takeout in extreme situations. The people are more important than the food.

        1. I have several times opened the fridge the day after entertaining to find something I forgot to serve. So my tip is to have a checklist of everything that has to be done - right down to 'put the salad on the table' - so I don't miss anything!

          1. Formal Entertaining

            Have Black linen napkins on hand and offer them for guests dressed in black.
            Have a variety of non-alcoholic beverages or cocktails you can make for people.
            Have a pre-printed drink list and a list of alcohol that you have on hand. It’s so much easier for guests to pick what they want rather than a “what do you have moment.”
            Print out menus for the evening along with the wines that are served with each course, many guests like to know what they are eating and what wine it was.
            New guests must be introduced to old friends and key facts that the couples can talk about be pointed out as an ice breaker.
            Steam wine glasses and check for odors before the guests arrive.
            If you guests must bring kids hire in a baby-sitter and set up a special kids area away from the adults.
            Chargers make a formal dinner table look very formal.
            On the invitation print out what time dinner is served and what time the party starts, it helps keep the confusion down and forces people to be on time.
            If you don’t RSVP there is no place setting for you and we aren’t going to create one – they were the rude guests don’t destroy the party, place settings or flow of the kitchen for their faux pas.
            Divide duties between host / hostess and keep that line drawn clear.
            You can never have too much ice.
            You may need to direct parking or hire a valet service depending upon your house and parking situation.
            A limo service that picks up and drops off guests (even several couples at a time) adds an elegant note and also allows people to drink alcoholic beverages without the risk of driving.
            For coffee service have cream, ½ N ½ and milk on hand.
            Serve GOOD coffee.

            Informal Entertaining

            Have plenty of beverages for kids and if you are worried about carpets/stains keep them light in color.
            If you are doing a special toast or celebration, involve the kids, martinelli's is champagne for them.
            Buffets allow people to pick and choose and come back for seconds.
            When people are going to eating throughout the day cook buffet food in batches to keep it fresh.
            Put the buffet on lower tables so kids can help themselves.
            If whether permits do it outdoors so spills and whoops are laughed off
            Paper plates and large trash cans allow guests to clean up after themselves.
            Put someone in charge of the bar.
            Mix large amounts of certain theme drinks (colodas, margaritas, etc) but don’t add alcohol. The kids can have them too and guests can put in their desired amount.
            You can never have too much ice.
            Be kind to your neighbors and let them know, discuss parking problems ahead of time.
            Make sure you have activities for the kids (We have a large outdoor projector for showing movies in the summer. The kids can sit in the pool on floating chairs while watching a huge screen while the adults are on the deck enjoying a fire and company yet able to see the kids.)

            1. You have gotten some terrific advice so far. My biggest tip to any kind of entertaining is to make a project plan. First, create the menu including wines, drinks, nuts, candy, etc. Then, develop your grocery list and determine which store(s) you need to visit. Review your menu and figure out what can be made in advance, what needs last minute prep, etc. Also make an annotated list of what serving pieces and cutlery you will need with each dish. I am a HUGE fan of list making and task forethought so the BIG DAY is as stress free as possible and I can enjoy my guests. We set the table(s), clean the house, do all the bar set up a day in advance.

              Don't be afraid to enlist others in your household as long as they are clear with their roles. Our children often passed hors d'oevres or mixed drinks for guests and have grown up knowing how to do a lot.

              The key to successful entertaining is to make it look effortless - and that takes A LOT of planning.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Diane in Bexley

                Yes, I totally agree on the effortless thing. For me, it is imperative to clean dishes as you go, so that your kitchen is in pretty good shape when guests arrive and you have time to get ready yourself. Do all shopping the day before so that you don't feel so harried on the day of the party. The dishwasher is emptied beforehand. Try to do small things ahead of time, like have coffee (decaf and regular, if you can) prepared to just "turn on" after dinner, maybe set the table or have the wine opened, the correct serving utensils out, etc. Also, make room in the closet for guests to hang their coats.

                1. re: sophia519

                  I also have the coffee maker ready to go ahead of time. And if I am making both decaf and regular, I will usually make one of them shortly beforehand and store it in an airpot. One less thing to do since dessert time always seems to be the time when I end up rushing around.

              2. 1) Music makes a big difference. Having a pre-set playlist which starts with mellow, yet upbeat music sets the stage for people to welcome themselves and mingle. Dinner should be energetic, but not loud. After dinner comes the bass-heavy, energetic music that sends your guests home with a bang. My default is Latin and Classic Jazz followed by Bossa Nova, slowly moving to alternative instrumental and then ending with pop.
                2. Levels make a buffet more visually appealing. Use boxes draped with cloth to tier foods, or otherwise build height organically.
                3. One signature cocktail saves time and effort, particularly if it can be pre-blended.
                4. If throwing a cocktail party, save fried or carby foods for the end when people will most want them. It is fine to start with cold or room temperature hors d'oeuvres in this case.

                4 Replies
                1. re: JungMann

                  How could I have forgotten music?

                  Good call, my wife has it all pre-recorded on her i-pod thingy and we have hidden speakers in the entertaining are and the dining room. She seamlessly manages the music so well I forgot all about it - but is a very big element of the party.

                    1. re: JungMann

                      I agree. While I offer a variety of choice beers, wine or alcohol for my cocktail parties, I recommend a signature cocktail and one that can at least partially be prepared ahead of time. It makes a party so much easier!

                      1. re: JungMann

                        " Levels make a buffet more visually appealing. Use boxes draped with cloth to tier foods, or otherwise build height organically."""

                        the designer christopher lowell does this very well. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1400...

                      2. If serving buffet style; make two identical dishes ~~ one for each side of the table, so that you have two lines instead of one.

                        Label (I use a folded index card for informal gatherings) small sandwiches, etc. so that guests with specific dietary restrictions can tell if it is something they eat. example: I made cheese spread and put on cocktail bread as a sandwich and label it *cheese*
                        (yes, I am the mother of a vegetarian)

                        Offer a non-caloric, non-sugar sweetened, non-alcoholic beverage choice.

                        1. Send a thank you note! Sounds obvious, but I'm afraid that many in our dear land have lost (or never learned) their manners.If someone has invited you to dinner and spent hours preparing a lovely evening for you, show some class and take a few minutes to write a short note and express your appreciation. In my book, those who do so go to the top of my favorite guests list and are sure to get a re-invite. Those who don't....not so much...

                          1. Prepare platters of raw veggies and/or fresh fruit - these will please even the most discerning diner. And don't forget to have fun - so long as the hostess is having a good time, everyone else will as well.

                            1. A few years ago, I started making punch for larger gatherings and it works out really well. I know that it may sound cheesy or odd but I make good punches and it makes it far easier to ensure that everyone has something to drink. I make a champagne punch with Cointreau, Chambord and Cognac that is excellent. You blend the liquers with pineapple juice 48 hours beforehand and it is very nice. I also do a mega mojito in a punchbowl with mint, fresh grapefruit, grapefruit Vodka, lemongrass, simple sugar, and club soda. I add mint, grapefruit peel and lemongrass to the vodka the day before and then strain it out - add fresh mint to the punchbowl when you put it all together.