Planning a party or holiday event is a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. To cover all of the details and not end up as a stressed out mess (which will not be fun for you, and will probably make your guests uncomfortable, too), it helps to have a plan. Click Next to see our steps for how to plan a party like a pro.
How To Plan a Party Step 1: Figure Out What Kind of Party You Want To Have
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1. Decide on a date for your event.
2. Decide on how much money you want to spend for your party.
3. Decide how many people you are going to have. Do you want to have an intimate gathering for 6 or 8, or a bigger group?
4. Decide what kind of event you want to have. Will it be a sit-down dinner, a buffet, or a cocktail event? The number of people you can have at a sit-down dinner is usually limited by the number of dinner table seats you have available. Buffet style or cocktail parties can cater to larger numbers.
5. Decide how formal you want the party to be. Is it a black-tie event or a come-as-you-are get-together?
6. Decide on a theme. This may or may not be something that you tell your guests, but I always find it’s easier to decide on food and decorations if you have a theme. This may take more work for some holidays than for others…as an example, the theme decision for a July 4 party may be if you will be having a bar-b-q or a low-country boil, whereas a Halloween party might call for a more elaborate theme with costumes and decorations to match.
7. At this stage, you have enough information to send out invitations or “evites” to the intended guests. I usually do this about 2 weeks in advance (but if it’s a date that people are likely to have multiple invitations for such as New Year’s Eve, you may want to do it a little earlier).
How To Plan a Party Step 2: Start Your Party Plan
1. Decide where you will have the party. Will it be in the backyard, in your living room & dining room or in the great room? Make sure the space you pick will be big enough to accommodate the number of people. If it’s an outdoor event, always have a back-up location in case of bad weather.
2. Decide on layout. Where will the pre-dinner drinks be served? Where will people sit? If you are serving buffet style, where will the food, plates and utensils be placed so that people can help themselves?
How To Plan a Party Step 3: Figure Out Your Party Menu
1. Hunt through your cookbooks and recipes on-line to find a menu for your event. This is just an idea-generating stage (you won’t necessarily have to make all these things from scratch!) Even cocktail parties should have some type of food so that people are not drinking on an empty stomach.
2. As you find things that you like, add them to a list of menu items.
3. Once the list is complete, look it over to make sure you have a variety of different kinds of foods (so that everyone will have something they like). For buffet and cocktail parties, try to have finger foods or things that are easy for people to help themselves (eg. cupcakes work better than a cake that has to be individually sliced). Sit-down dinners have more flexibility in food choices since the hostess is usually helping to serve.
4. Now decide if you want to make the items on your list or buy them pre-made and heat them.
5. Make your grocery list. This should contain the list of ingredients for anything that you are making, or the pre-made item if you are buying it already made, as well as where you will get them from. If you are on a tight budget, you might also want to include an estimated price so that you can make sure you are not going to be spending too much money.
How To Plan a Party Step 4: What Will You Be Serving To Drink?
1. Decide what kind of drinks you want to serve. This can be anything from completely non-alcoholic to beer and wine to a fully stocked bar with specialty martinis. Usually the further along the scale you go with this, the more expensive it will be. All events should have some non-alcoholic options for those guests who do not want to drink alcohol.
2. Decide if you want to have one (or more) theme-specific drink. If so, you will need to do the same kind of research for this as you did for your food menu above.
3. Make your shopping list for drinks. If you are making specialty drinks that need special mixes, fruit or rims, make sure to include these on your list as well. This can get very expensive so also make sure that you are staying within your budget.
How To Plan a Party Step 5: Figure Out Your Party Decorations
1. What plates, glasses, napkins, etc. will you be using? Make sure you have enough to cover the number of guests that are attending. And the dinnerware should match the formality of the party (if people are showing up in black-tie tuxes, paper plates are probably not the right choice!)
2. Will you be putting up any other decorations to match your theme? If so, do some research to get some ideas on what you want to do, and an estimate of cost.
3. Make another shopping list of décor items that you need to buy and where you will get them (or order them, if you are shopping online…make sure there’s enough time for them to be shipped and get to you before the party).
How To Plan a Party Step 6: What Kind of Music Will You Have?
1. Figure out whether you are going to provide the music yourself or hire a DJ or band.
2. If you are doing it yourself, decide how you will get the music. You could create a playlist on your iPod, buy mixed CD’s, or find what the type of music you want on an app like Pandora (my favorite since it’s easy to set up and keeps playing all night!)
3. If you are hiring someone, you’ll need to figure out who you will hire, and how much they will cost.
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How To Plan a Party Step 7: Write Down Your Plan…and I really mean write it down
1. This is where you create the timeline of when you will get everything done. Start by prioritizing everything on your 3 lists (the menu items, the drinks and the decorations) into 3 categories – “have-to-have”, “want-to-have”, “nice-to-have”.
a. The have-to-have’s must get done before the party or it will just not work (eg. if you are having a sit-down dinner, the main course of the meal falls into this category).
b. The want-to-have’s are things that you will be upset about if you don’t get them done, but the party will be okay without them (eg. the Hollandaise sauce for the broccoli you are serving might be an example of this).
c. The nice-to-have’s are all of the cool ideas that you found in your research that you thought would be nice to have at your party…but if you run out of time and don’t get them done, no-one will really know (eg. the red velvet cupcakes with devil decorations on the top for your Halloween party).
2. Start with your list of menu items:
a. Make a list of all of the things you need to do to get them done. This includes putting pre-made menu items in the oven, setting the table, laying out the buffet, figuring out which serving bowls to use, preparation time for any of the items that you are making, and any other tasks you might have related to the menu.
b. Write down an estimate of how long you think it will take to do each of the items.
c. If you are cooking, add another column for the amount of time it will take for the item to cook, whether it is to be cooked on top of the stove or in the oven and what temperature it will need to be set to
d. Create a schedule for getting all of the items done. Also take note of any items that can be made ahead of time (the less you have to do on the actual day of the party, the less stressed out you will be). Your schedule should end up with things like 1 PM – Make Crock Pot Mac & Cheese, 3:30 PM Put chicken in the oven, 4:30 PM – Heat up cheese dip, etc.
e. Now go over your schedule and look for conflicts. If you need to have 3 things in the oven at the same time, all at different temperatures, your schedule won’t work. You’ll either need to re-arrange the schedule, or remove something from your menu. This is where your prioritization comes into play…if one of those items is a nice-to-have, you may have to save the idea for your next party. Similarly, if you get your schedule together and realize you’re not going to have enough time to get it all done, something will need to change.
3. Now do the same process with your drink menu.
a. Make a list of all of the things you need to do. This includes setting up the drink station and glasses, cutting up any garnishes that you need, making sure you have enough ice, and doing any prep work required for any special cocktails that you are making.
b. Add your drink menu tasks to your schedule list.
c. Do any re-arrangements or removals that are required to make the schedule work.
4. Repeat the process with the decorations you have decided on.
a. Write down all of the tasks required to complete your décor.
b. Make a schedule of when you will do them. This usually does not need to be as detailed as the menu items schedule, but I usually set a cut-off time…whatever decorations are done by 2 PM on the day of the party is all I’m going to put up (I always want to do more decorating than I actually have time for, and generally speaking, decorations are a want-to-have or nice-to-have).
How To Plan a Party Step 8: Execute Your Party Plan
1. Use your lists to do your shopping. If you find that you are going over budget, remove some of the “nice-to-have” or “want-to-have” items from the list.
2. Do the items on your schedule. If you’re like most people, you will have planned more than you can actually get done (things always seem to take longer than you expect). Use your prioritized list to determine what you can NOT do so that the have-to-have items get done.
3. At a certain point on the day of the party, usually about an hour before the guests start to arrive, I do some deep breathing and tell myself that it is what it will be. At that point, there isn’t much more you can do to get ready, and there is no point in getting too worked up about what didn’t get done. At the end of the day, people are usually there to enjoy the company, so relax and enjoy the company!