Hosting gorgeous dinner parties and fanciful soirées can sometimes seem like a natural gift—either you’ve got a knack for it or you don’t. Almost two decades ago, I set out to see if I had such a gift; it certainly wasn’t genetic. My parents barely hosted backyard barbecues, but I wanted to practice my culinary talents with my friends and family, so I became the default host.
In the last 18 years, I’ve thrown monthly cocktail parties for women in food, my wedding, half a dozen baby showers, 18 kids’ birthday parties, 11 family Thanksgivings, three graduation parties, and more weeknight dinner parties and barbeques than I can count. Though I’m not a natural host, over the years I’ve developed a rule book for making any celebration memorable.
It relies on three principles that are both easy to remember and execute. Use this trio of rules to guide you at the planning, shopping, and prepping stages, and straight on through your celebration—you’ll see that even reluctant hosts can make any celebration unforgettable.
Implementing these rules for your next celebration will help you create some forethought, avoid decision fatigue, and make you and your guests comfortable so you can actually enjoy the party—and that’s what makes any event unforgettable.
1. When It Comes to Food, Plan More of Less
Menu planning is my favorite part of hosting! But it’s also really easy to get carried away with creating elaborate meals with multiple courses. This means you spend days on prep and end up feeling exhausted by the time you get to the big event. Cull down your ideas and focus on serving just a few things.
Once your menu is set, think about what you can outsource by either purchasing from a store, ordering from a restaurant, or asking a co-conspirator to bring. Be strategic and only make the dishes with the most impact. For example, make hummus from scratch if the main course is a mezze-inspired bowl, but grab store-bought if it’s just another condiment option in a build-your-own sandwich spread.
Instead of a cheese board with 27 components, opt for a single appetizer or two with broad appeal (bonus points if it’s from the Costco freezer section). For big party spreads, this might look like narrowing your favorite picnic salads down to one or two for your backyard burger bash. This helps you save money, avoid overly ambitious prep, and keep guests from feeling overwhelmed, too.
2. Give Your Guests Good Directions
This starts with the invitation, whether you send out a group text or print and mail paper invites. Let your guests know what they can expect right from the start. For more casual gatherings, a fun “Come around 5, we will eat at 6, and I’ll be in pajamas by 9:30,” will let your guests know your energy level. If you’re asking guests to contribute to the spread in any way, be specific about what they should bring. These requests aren’t demanding—they actually reduce anxiety for your guests, too.
Once guests arrive, make sure they know what to do with themselves (Pour yourself the signature drink! Grab a party hat!). Try to have some forethought about how guests will arrive and what they’ll need to do upon entering, even if it’s just a backyard barbeque. Make sure there is an empty space for gifts. I like to put out a basket or bowl for cards, too. An empty cooler with ice is ideal for BYOB get-togethers and leaving some fridge or freezer space for guests contributing to the meal is a nice bonus.
Don’t forget that guests want to know how to follow through the food line and what to do with their dirty drink glasses. I either feed one of my kids from the buffet first, so I can grab missing utensils, or do a mimed walk-through before guests serve themselves.
3. Every Party Needs a Rule
While strict themes can be limiting, creating a “rule” for each party can help with culling down your ideas—from favorite dishes to decor—or help guests mingle and spark conversation.
A party rule can look like a thesis statement for an essay. Knowing that this party is for Chloe’s friends and family to wish her congratulations on her graduation helps you minimize stress and stay on budget. While this might seem a bit boring, it makes decisions like, “Do we need to rent a venue or will a gazebo reservation at the park be just as welcoming?” easy to answer.
Some examples of merriment-making party rules we’ve used and loved: “This is a purple party, please dress accordingly,” which has brought guests in full-on violet outfits and purple flower crowns for a kid’s party. “No one pours their own drink” helped to break the ice when we hosted new neighbors last fall. You can have a serious party rule for planning and a whimsical rule for your guests.