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Planning your next party 

Parties are like snowflakes, or Rocky movies: They're all different. But there are a number of things any host can do to make the big night go as smoothly as possible. Here are a few. Happy planning.

Part I: Know the party you're throwing

1. On a shoestring
If you're looking to entertain a good-sized group of guests but also thinking about paying rent, hold a potluck. You'll have a good time, and you'll have enough leftovers to stave off buying groceries for at least two weeks. (Be on the lookout for the guy who just brought chips he sees through your whole ruse.)

To avoid looking like a total cheapskate, pick up something pre-made at the store.

"If you don't need equipment or delivery, order a platter," suggests Kathy Dreiling, co-owner of Picnic Basket Catering.

2. Midrange
Be careful when ordering food. You run out, people get antsy. You have too much, and you're suddenly spending your night with stacks of Tupperware, waiting to spring at anyone who treads near the coatroom.

According to Red Hot & Blue's Web site, redhotandblue.com, "When ordering sandwich meats, a good rule of thumb is to order one pound of meat for three adults, or perhaps two adults and two small children."

"Most people tend to overspend," adds Pat Kennelly, owner of the Mediterranean Caf. "They go to a huge warehouse and just get overwhelmed."

Call up your favorite restaurant and ask if they can cook the food for you. They'll know the portions needed, and they'll make it all in a production kitchen.

3. Hoity-toity
If you're planning something huge and want to give your guests more than celery stalks with ranch sauce, spring for an armed caterer. Workers will arrive, often in custom-painted vans, ready with steam-trays full of pork cheeks simmered with rabbit ragu, or gnocchi stuffed into a turducken.

Amid planning decorations, guest lists, seating, music and clean-up, having your party catered can help fight a rather brutal onslaught of madness.

"Employ some help," says Dreiling. "Once you have someone help you out, you'll never do it alone again."

Part II: Invitations

Are you just going to have three people in a room playing rock-paper-scissors, or is your house going to look like a '70s Who concert? Wouldn't you like to know before it's too late? Send out some invitations.

"Some people are good at responding, some are not," says Jerri Wilson, owner of A Special Occasion, a wedding planning company. "Then you just need to get on the horn and start making phone calls."

If your shindig isn't snazzy enough to justify physical invitations, use evite.com. Then all your invitees have to do is click an icon to RSVP and your guest list is instantly updated. Evite also has party-planning advice, and a to-do list you can set up in order to make sure you don't overlook small details, such as chilling your white wines or caging your pet wolverine. Marie McPherson, owner of Gentry's Flowers, says you can decorate a party economically by using candles or seasonal flower arrangements.

"And," she says, "if you put a flower on each plate, it's like a gift for your guests."

Or, go out into the woods, snag some pinecones, and throw them in with your own arrangements. They're free, and give the kids something to dare each other to eat.

Of course, there are other options.

"If you want longevity, go silk," says Marcia Stinson, floral designer for Michael's Arts and Crafts on North Academy. "You can put them away, cover them, bag them and store them until you need the arrangements again."

Part IV: Special Requests

You live in Colorado. Certain food requests are inevitable.

"The demand for vegetarian food options has become standard," Dreiling says.

Thankfully, the possibilities are plentiful. Ethnic influences have really opened up vegetarian choices, Dreiling says, offering alternatives like pesto, hummus and baba ghanoush.

Part V: Social Lubricant

You'll want to plan on each person having two drinks an hour for the first two hours of your party, and one drink each hour after, according to Jack Backman, owner of Cheers Liquor Mart.

"We encourage people to overbuy," he says.

Of course he does. But, he notes, with a receipt, customers can bring back any unused, unopened alcohol for a refund.

Part VI: Chatter

If you're going to take the trouble to make a seating chart, never group the talkers right next to each other at a table you'll get pockets of fun, excited conversation interspersed with pockets of horribly stilted small talk. Spread them out, and the talkers will engage the listeners.

Or, just let the guests figure it out.

"What most people do is let their guests seat themselves," says Wilson, the wedding planner. "They may set up table cards, but you want people to be around who they want."

Part VII: Denouement

After throwing your bash, you won't want to clean up. You'll want to decompress.

But someone has to take out those trash bags before some dastardly bear obtains a fake moustache and charms his way into your house. You might think you'll have the energy to pick everything up, but come on. You won't. Hire a cleaning service.

"You've prepared for the party, and gone through it," says Julie Wendland, office manager at Colorado Springs House Cleaning Services. "The last thing you'll want to do is start cleaning."

If you're worried about Mom-induced guilt over having someone else clean up your mess, don't worry. If your party was any sort of success, you won't stir when they lift you off the floor to vacuum.

Part VIII: Remember to enjoy yourself

The simplest piece of advice is also the easiest to forget: Stop worrying so damned much! You make all your guests nervous by running around like the caffeinated waiter who forgot his Xanax.

"It's a kind thing you're doing for your friends and family," Dreiling says. "Whatever you're doing will be great."

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