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Friday, March 4, 2011

Be a kick ass party host!

Now that the weather’s warming up, it’s a great time to consider entertaining friends. And who doesn’t love a good party? It seems simple enough – just get a bunch of friends together, give them some food, and let the magic unfold.
But planning a successful shindig can sometimes become a tumultuous and stressful event in itself. How to get the word out? Where will the keg go? What to serve that won’t break the bank? How to prevent the drunken people from sleeping in your bathtub? Read on to get the answers to three of these questions (the last scenario is, unfortunately, sometimes inevitable).
Dinner Soirees, Cocktail Parties, and Raging Keggers…Oh My
Now that you’ve decided to throw a get-together, it’s time to figure out exactly what kind of party you will have. This will help to determine who to invite, what food to serve, and what kind of activities will be in store for your guests. From casual gatherings to formal dinners, each event has its merits and detriments.
The Fancy Shmancy Dinner
PRO: Dinner parties are very intimate and provide ample opportunity to show off your cooking prowess. They’re also great for hidden agendas (i.e. a less-than-obvious set-up, a way for your friends to get to know your new beau).
CON: Dinner parties require a lot of prep time and can be frustrating to organize – especially if cooking is not your forte. The guest list will be limited to how many seats you can fit at your dining room table or outdoor patio.
The High Brow Cocktail Party
PRO: Cocktail parties are a great way to informally mingle and provide a great excuse to unveil your new signature martini. It’s also the only time you won’t feel silly for calling everyone “dahling.”
CON: Cocktail parties can require some length of prep time (assuming that your guests will need some sort of food to sop up all that wine). Also, alcohol ain’t cheap.
The Standout Theme Party
PRO: If planned well, theme parties can be great fun. Whether it’s the mainstream (Hallowe’en costume party, Superbowl party) or the unorthodox (70’s party, come as your favourite cartoon character party) you’re after, these types of parties are often memorable and require very little outside of your imagination.
CON: Theme parties only work when all guests participate in the planned idea. And finding decorations and foods that fit your theme might be pricey.
The Equalitarian Potluck
PRO: Everyone’s a winner when it comes to potlucks – you basically take in what you dish out.
CON: If not organized properly, potlucks can run awry – especially when you end up with three apple pies, two potato salads, and no main course.
The Fool Proof BBQ
PRO: Everyone loves a good BBQ, and even novices in the kitchen will find that grilling meat is easy and requires little preparation time.
CON: Feeding the masses many BBQed delectables can run the tab high, and clean up may be a bitch. Also, the weather can make or break your event.
The Just Because I Wanna Get Drunk Party
PRO: These raging good-time parties only require a group of your closest friends, some quick snack foods, yummy drinks, and the whole night to just let loose.
CON: These raging good-time parties can sometimes lead to drunken messes, unruly party guests, and angry neighbours.
The Rendezvous Point
When it comes time to get the word out, there are several ways to alert the masses of your awesome party. The old-fashioned paper invitation works well if a) the event is at least two weeks away; b) it is a formal to semi-formal event; and c) you have time and ample postage at your disposal. For all other occasions, and especially for informal affairs, sending an electronic invitation is a quick and cheap alternative. Sites like evite.comamericangreetings.com, and sendomatic.com have a myriad of invitation templates to peruse and customize, and will automatically e-mail the invitation to your guests. Guests can RSVP in real time, so that you can keep a running tally on how many people to expect.
When writing an invitation, remember to include key information: the date and time of your event, the planned location, and the type of attire, if applicable. These may seem obvious in theory, but can sometimes be overlooked in the excitement of it all. Also, make sure to create a list of invited guests ahead of time so that all invitations are sent out at the same time – this will avoid sore feelings later on (and try to avoid having other people do the inviting for you). If it’s an intimate affair you’re after, be sure to mention that space is limited; if it’s a large shindig you’re planning, indicate that it’s okay to bring a guest or date. A week before your party, get on the computer or the phone and call anyone who has yet to RSVP. Last-minute stragglers and unexpected guests can often put a crimp in your plans.
Prep Time
Professionals advise that party preparation time should begin two weeks before the actual event. But since real life seldom leaves much time for anything but work, sleep, and reruns of “Heroes” on DVR, here are some quick tips on how to get party-ready in a couple of days.
  • Make a list of what needs to be done, and delegate if necessary. For instance, if cooking isn’t your forte, don’t be afraid to grab some take-out or have a Martha Stewart-like friend give you a hand. If you hate cleaning up, consider buying paper plates to avoid dishpan hands.
  • Notify your neighbours about your party a couple of days ahead of time, and bring them a small morning-after gift as a token of your appreciation.
  • If you need to make a trip to the grocery store, bring a list so that you can adhere to a budget and nothing will be left to last-minute pick-ups. For added protection, get a friend to be on call, and ask them to be ready to pick up any forgotten items on their way over.
  • If your space is limited, consider using your bathtub or washing machine as a makeshift cooler/freezer. Yes, it might seem ghetto, but it will save you precious fridge and sink space, and will be a cinch to clean up in the morning.
  • Most guests will probably bring a bottle of something to your shindig, but it’s the non-alcoholic beverages that will most likely need to be well stocked. Keep plenty of water bottles and pop on hand (individual cans and bottles will fare better for next-day storage than the 1.5 L bottles), and some coffee for late-night stragglers. And don’t forget to stop serving alcoholic beverages at least an hour before the night winds up.
  • Unplug or remove your television set and remove most chairs to set up an atmosphere of mingling. There’s no greater party mood killer than having everyone glued to the television set or sitting mutely by the wall all night. If you are planning on serving both food and drinks, consider setting up two separate stations so that guests will be circulating the room at all times.
  • For quick clean ups, don’t clean anything higher than your tallest guest (that means you can skip dusting most nooks, ceiling corners, and tall bookshelves). Tidy up as much as you can, and consider using dim lighting and candles to hide any errant dust bunnies (guests will love your cool “mood lighting"). For added atmosphere, try throwing a lightly coloured scarf or handkerchief over a lamp.
  • For privacy (or to hide any rooms that you haven’t had time to straighten up), remember to keep doors closed so guests get the hint. You can designate one room to store coats, or clear out a hall closet for the night.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the living room is not going to be the most popular room of the night – the bathroom is. To make guests comfortable, place a scented candle or spray in the room, and keep extra toilet paper and paper towels in clear sight.
  • Empty your trash before guests arrive, and keep empty bags at the bottom of the can for quick replacement.
  • If you’re a neat freak and can’t stand condensation rings on coffee tables or errantly wadded up Kleenex strewn about, resist the urge to start inspecting and spot cleaning the room – this will only serve to make guests uncomfortable or give the impression that the night is over. Instead, clean discreetly: pick up plates on the way to the kitchen and leave them in the sink, or ask a friend to toss away obvious debris like paper cups. Resist the urge to run the dishwasher or scrub the toilet.
Some Food for Thought 
You don’t need to be related to Martha Stewart – or even subscribe to her magazines – to throw together some great party snacks. To assess how much food you might need to feed the troops, here are some things to keep in mind.
  • Decide what kind of food you’ll need based on the event – is it a potluck, a barbecue, or a casual wine and cheese? For sit-down dinners, potlucks, and barbecues, making a few dishes ahead of time will save you stress in the end.
  • If you’re offering a myriad of finger foods, you can get away with less food. If you’re planning a few major dishes like pasta salad or quiche, you’ll need to stock up.
  • Assess what people will most likely wolf down, and then double up. Foods like shellfish and cheese are always crowd pleasers.
  • Use bulk items like vegetable platters, olives, nuts, chips, and pretzels in your spread. Yes, they’re inexpensive fillers, but when people are presented with free food, they won’t mind.
  • A quick rule of thumb: a 2L bottle of pop will cover five people, while a large bag of chips will feed three.
  • For alcohol, provide a variety of wine and beers, and choose a cocktail that you can mix in a large batch, like a screwdriver or vodka & cranberry.
  • If you’re going fancy or exotic, be sure to label your platters to alert anyone with food allergies.
If you’re not sure about what to serve, here are some infallible ideas. The bonus is that they are easy to throw together and are relatively inexpensive.
BBQ Fare
For starters, stock up on the barbecue favourites: hamburgers and hot dogs. For condiments, have an array of usual fixings on hand, but also offer unconventional provisions like salsa, brie cheese, feta cheese, or tzaziki sauce. Shish kebabs are easy to assemble (just remember to cut vegetables thickly enough to survive grilling), and chicken wings taste great with just a pinch of salt and cracked pepper. If you’re strapped for time or don’t have any inclinations in the kitchen, grocery stores offer great ready-made marinades and sauces. Also throw in some corn on the cob and potato salad in the mix. If you want to be fancy about it, consider using fish, shrimp, or Cajun seasonings when barbecuing.
For dessert, you can’t go wrong with ice cream and cones (having cones on hand will minimize mess and clean up), or s’mores. For a less filling dessert, serve frozen yogurt or low-fat ice cream. Grilled fruit is also a healthy alternative – just throw some bananas, pineapples, and melon on the grill (either as a shish kebab or straight on the fire), baste it with honey, butter, and mint, and enjoy.
Wine & Cheese / Cocktail Parties
For informal dinner affairs, throw together some simple finger foods like cheese and crackers, pita and hummus, veggies and dip, nachos and salsa, and chips and pretzels. The good thing about these common party foods is that many ingredients can be used for different dishes – for example, extra vegetables from your platter can be easily diced into your salsa. For some variety, throw in some bagel bites, quiches, and bruschetta. Grab several large baguettes and make sandwiches that can be cut into finger sandwiches.
For presentation, you can either go with your own plates or grab some inexpensive plastic ones for an easier clean up after the party. You can also try using casserole dishes or cutting boards for unconventional spreads.
Party Hardy
A good party host not only has to produce a great set-up for her guests, but also needs to make sure that guests enjoy themselves throughout the night. Here are some strategies to keep guests content and entertained.
  • Set up a bar so guests can make their own drinks. Many people like hanging out at the bar and it’s a great place for introductions and conversation starters. Set up a food area away from the bar so that people are constantly moving.
  • If you notice your guests coupling off or hanging out in their own social circles, ask one or two of your more outgoing friends to stray from the group and mingle with others. Chances are, everyone else will follow suit. Likewise, you can ask these extroverts to mingle with guests you know have arrived alone.
  • If you feel like your guests aren’t socializing, try using party games to instill some sense of camaraderie. Cheesy? Perhaps, but party games like charades, pictionary, or Scattegories can also provide hours of entertainment.
  • Don’t forget to mingle with your own guests. Nothing is more exasperating than a party host who disappears for the night only to resurface to ask you to fill the ice trays. You should be the first and last person your visitors see.
  • Consider imparting a small gift to your guests at the end of the night – yes, the usual party favour isn’t for children anymore. Consider a Polaroid of your guest at the party to take home, or a wrapped package containing aspirin, water, and Gatorade. This can serve as a memento of your successful night.
Now that you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to start applying your party savvy by organizing your own exhilarating get-together. Happy bash throwing! C.Ho. 

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