I wrote a list of 18 blog posts that I’d never write, but this one got some requests… so here you go.
This summer, I spent more time than I’d like to admit researching table cloth lengths, looking at centerpieces for Vegas themed parties and consolidating RSVPs between a Google Doc and Evite. I was co-hosting a black tie birthday party for a friend and putting every event planning skill to the test to ensure that we pulled off a nearly perfect event. I picked up all the tips and tricks hosting Shabbat and holiday dinners, throwing low key and high key parties in my home and working at a Public Relations agency.
In 2014, I’ll be channeling that energy into grad school, but here are 13 things that I’ve learned hosting parties in my 30s.
1. Table Runners Matter
For the birthday party in question, I bought red table runners and black tablecloths on the internet. The tablecloths were great – a heavy fabric that looked more expensive in person and set the stage for a black tie event. The table runners looked every $1.99 that I spent on them. Cheap, chintzy, ugly. It’s embarrassing how much time I spent worrying about table runners in my head and out loud to friends, but I wanted the party to feel as fancy as the dress we requested people wear. In the end, I found a red paper runner to layer under the chintzy cloth runner. Doubled up, they looked great and made the centerpieces pop. The waiter even complimented me on how nice the runners looked.
Why do table runners matter? And tablecloths? And centerpieces? They set the stage for an event. People may not remember that you layered paper and sheer cloth, but they will remember the feeling of walking into a well appointed room that matches the invitation.
2. Slider Bags are Your Friend
A week before the party, I did a trial run of the centerpieces. Each was a low profile bowl with red glass blobs, plastic diamonds, dice and floating candles. After I decided they looked okay, I bagged ’em up. I divided the red glass blogs, diamonds and candles into 10 bags. The night of the party, I didn’t have to try and explain my vision to helpers, I just put out the box of bowls and bags of stuff, then said, “just add water.”
I also did this for Christmas with stocking stuffers, just to make things easier when it was time to be Santa. So if you can portion it out in advance to make for fewer decisions or explanations the day of the party, it’s worth the time.
3. Be Specific
Sometimes I fail at this, sometimes I succeed, but if you want your invitees to bring something or wear something, be specific. For the big party, we just wanted people to dress up, leave presents at home and arrive on time. So we communicated that again and again. For smaller dinners and events at my house, I try to be very specific – a vegetarian side dish, fruit, something sweet, red wine, name tags (yes, I’ve asked for name tags), gluten free munchies, etc.
4. Run of Show
For events in PR, we make what’s called a “Run of Show” for our events. It lists all the things that have to happen at specific times for the event to be a success. So now for bigger dinners and parties, I make a run of show for myself. What are things that I need to do in the days before, the morning of and evening of the events. This includes shopping lists, tasks that can be given to someone else and when to put things in the oven (or pull them out of the freezer). For the bigger party, it also included phone numbers of everyone involved.
5. How Much Clean Up Do You Want To Do?
At Rosh Hashanah this year, I asked people to sign up to help set-up or clean-up. Since I was going to have help for cleaning up, we used real dishes and silverware. When nobody is going to stay to clean-up, I use plastic silverware because I loathe washing forks and knives. I always use real tablecloths and paper napkins, because it’s the right amount of laundry for me. I prefer real glasses to plastic, in part because real glasses are easy peasy in the dishwasher.
The lesson here is to strike a mix between “looks good and feels good” during the party with “spent less time cleaning than hosting.”
6. The Bathroom
Someone is going to have to use the bathroom, so I try to make sure that I’ve got extra toilet paper in easy reach, clean towels for hand drying, Kleenex, a lit candle and an easy to find plunger. Anyone who plugs a toilet should have the option to try and fix it for themselves before they hunt down the host.
I say that as someone who used the toilet after the guy who plugged it at a party at a crush’s house… In total horror, I watched the toilet bowl not empty as it should, then I searched his bathroom for a plunger. When I couldn’t find it, I had to elbow through mutual friends and strangers to find him and tell him that IT WASN’T ME, BUT I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT THIS THING IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW AND OMG YOU WILL NEVER FORGET THIS WILL YOU?
Make the plunger easy to find, folks.
Let’s call 2013, The Year of the Apron. This is the year I bought one and realized that it serves a real purpose. For both Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, holidays when I am in and out of the kitchen all night, I wore an apron over a nice dress. Kept my dress clean from food spills, but let me cook in my special messy way.
8. Prep in Sneakers
You’re cleaning alone in your house, prepping veggies in the kitchen and running upstairs to get the candles and you’re doing it all barefoot. If you’re me, that means you’ll be immobilized the day after the party with a sore back and the “dogs will be barking.” Save yourself the pain and wear good shoes while you prep. Hell, wear good shoes to the party, too.
9. Room for Elijah
I’ve found that the space will grow to accommodate extra guests, just make sure you have enough chairs or that you know which guest will happily bring extra chairs.
10. Introductions and Name Tags
I’m not above making friends wear name tags at my parties or doing around the room introductions at a sit-down meal. If you have someone who only knows you, make sure to introduce them to guests or provide some activities that make it easy for solo guests to join in. At the Big Party this summer, it was a beginner’s table for Black Jack.
11. Leftovers/Single Men are always “growing boys”
As the night winds down, make sure that extra food finds a home if you aren’t going to be able to eat/freeze it. Over the last few years, I’ve learned which friends love leftovers and which don’t. In general, single men are always “growing boys” who will take food home, just don’t let them take your good Tupperware, they will never bring it back.
12. Pet Allergies
Some of your friends are allergic to your cats, so make sure first timers to your house know the score on animals and have a pet-hair-free zone for their coats.
13. Spontaneous is Awesome, too
For as much as I’ve hosted planned dinners and parties over the last few years, spontaneous parties are my favorite. A few years ago, I hosted an impromptu Eve of the Eve party for my lady friends. This year I had a “You’ve never seen Before Sunrise or Before Sunset???” emergency viewing and “come drink all this leftover beer” night on my roof. Spontaneous nights are usually heavier on the potluck and have a more random guest list, but they are worth reveling in.
So, there you go, 13 things I’ve learned from hosting dinners and parties over the last few years. I deleted the lesson about supplementing home-cooked with catering, but it’s okay to order in for part of a big dinner. It’s totally okay.