So you want to throw a party—but you don’t want to spend days planning and prepping? Here’s how.
If throwing parties were easy, everyone would do it, right? But the fact is that many people are put off by the time, energy and effort that go into planning and giving a great party. Veteran party givers know certain tricks that make entertaining fun and easy. We asked local hosts and entertaining experts to share their ideas. After reading this, you’ll have no excuse for not giving a party. So get out your calendar and start planning!
Come to dinner—and don’t forget to bring the salad
Here’s how some food-loving friends have turned entertaining into a group effort.
Pat and Alice McAuliffe have discovered the secret of effortless entertaining.
The Sacramento couple are part of a large and convivial group of friends who enjoy good food, good wine and good times. At least once a week, the McAuliffes host a casual get-together at which the guest list can swell to 20 or more.
Though they are gregarious hosts, they learned a long time ago that feeding that many people can be an arduous task. So they devised a foolproof formula for cutting down on the work while upping the fun: They prepare the main course and outsource the rest of the meal to their guests.
“Everybody brings something,Â” said Alice, a former school principal who works as an educational consultant. “When everyone pitches in, it’s easy.Â”
Make no mistake about it: This is not your grandmother’s potluck—there’s nary a gelatinous Jell-O mold or gloppy casserole in sight. Instead, the food is sophisticated and farmers-market fresh, with a heavy emphasis on French and Italian cuisine. The group’s members are well-traveled—most have been to Europe numerous times (last summer four of the couples rented a house in the Pyrenees for the Tour de France)—and severely food-obsessed. (Earlier this year, a few of the men took a French cooking class together.)
The group’s collaborative approach to entertaining recently was on display when the McAuliffes hosted a Mediterranean dinner party in the back yard of their East Sacramento home. At 6 p.m., Pat, an energy consultant, was marinating thick pork chops in balsamic vinegar when the first guests arrived bearing hors d’oeuvres, salads and bottles of wine. Kathy Ullerich, who works in sales for Java City, brought a peppery arugula salad and a platter of grilled radicchio, fennel and eggplant. Her husband, Tim Imai, a project manager for an events company, proudly displayed his contribution to the meal: two French apple tarts. John Luther, who works for the state, created a salad from ripely red sliced tomatoes and soft Teleme cheese that he’d purchased earlier that day at a local farmers market. Steve Uhler, an engineer, whipped up two homemade sorbets—blackberry and lemon—while attorneys Erik Frye and Paige Gorham arrived with their own unusual homemade frozen treat: goat-cheese ice cream, which they’d first tasted in France last summer. Another of the group’s members, Tamera Baker, co-owner of Selland’s Market-Cafe, couldn’t make it to dinner but still sent along a dish: an enormous platter piled with French cheeses, cured sausages, pâtés, olives and cornichons.
Bob Dahlquist, a graphic designer, is a rarity in this group: He doesn’t cook. That night, however, the men decided to put him in charge of preparing the mushroom risotto. “He’s our project,Â” Pat explained. “We’re going to teach him how to cook.Â”
So while the women sipped Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine, the men gathered around the stove and instructed Dahlquist in the fine art of risotto making. “You have to keep stirring,Â” Pat told his student, ladling chicken broth into a bubbling pot of Arborio rice. A bowl of chopped crimini mushrooms sat on the stove, waiting to be stirred in just before serving.
“Now this is group cooking,Â” said Imai, rubbing fleur de sel, a chunky, gray-hued salt, into the marinated pork chops before Pat whisked them away to the barbecue grill. Outside, two long tables were laid with French Provençal linens underneath a gazebo where an Italian flag hung from the rafters; nearby, olive trees, a grape arbor and a built-in boccie court gave the back yard an unmistakable Mediterranean air.
When the chops were cooked through, Pat anointed each with a dollop of pesto and placed them on the buffet table, which Alice had decorated with squash blossoms and bunches of grapes from the garden. As guests filled their plates, the air rang with compliments to the chefs. “Where did you get these beautiful pork chops?Â” one inquired. Taylor’s Market in Land Park, answered Pat. “Mmmmm, the risotto is wonderful,Â” a guest murmured. “Is there cheese in it?Â” No, said Pat; he prefers to serve Parmesan cheese on the side as a condiment, like salt, rather than add it to the risotto during cooking. “Some people like it with cheese; others don’t,Â” he explained.
After the plates were cleared away, Uhler brought out the chèvre ice cream and the sorbets, which he’d kept frozen on dry ice, and served up tiny scoops of each, drizzled with Limoncello, the lemon-flavored Italian liqueur. The goat-cheese confection was an enormous hit. Where did Gorham get the recipe, someone wanted to know. “I looked at some ice cream recipes and just kind of made it up,Â” she explained.
As dusk turned to dark, people split up into small groups to talk and laugh. Surveying the party with satisfaction, Alice talked about the lesson she’s learned about entertaining. “Dining is about friendship,Â” she said. “Food is just a pleasant byproduct. If you treat it that way, you’ll always enjoy your parties.Â”
Kathy Ullerich is known among her friends as a talented party giver. Here, she shares her tips for making entertaining easy and fun.
Serve dishes that you can make ahead of time, so you can enjoy your own party.
Make a few really good appetizers. That way, your guests won’t mind if dinner’s a little late.
Don’t make everything from scratch. Order things from your favorite gourmet takeout, or let friends bring their special dishes.
Shop at garage sales for inexpensive glassware and serving pieces.
For easy cleanup, place containers for trash and recyclables near the bar.
Flowers are an important element at any party. Here, Wes Green, owner of Twiggs Floral Gallery in Sacramento, offers ideas for creating visually stunning floral arrangements, using flowers from your local supermarket, farmers market, florist, even your own back yard.
Fill a shallow bowl with water and float flowers on the surface. (Gerbera daisies, gardenias and orchids are good choices.)
Raid the kitchen. For a natural look, fill bowls, vases or platters with lemons, limes, artichokes, grapes or fresh herbs.
Incorporate natural elements such as berries, thistles and grasses into your flower arrangements.
Keep it simple. Don’t use more than three flower varieties and two colors in a single arrangement.
Look around your garden. Star jasmine and heavenly bamboo make nice additions to floral arrangements.
In the autumn, scatter colorful fall leaves on the table. (Watch for bugs!)
Make a good first impression by placing flowers in the entry to your home. And don’t forget to put flowers in the powder room or bathroom.
Party tips from a pro
Tamera Baker knows a thing or two about entertaining. For a decade, she ran The Kitchen’s catering operation, and today she is part owner and manager of Selland’s Market-Cafe. And when she’s not at work, she’s likely to be hosting a dinner party for friends or family. Recently, she answered some common entertaining questions.
Q: I’m giving a party for 20—how can I make it less of a chore?
A: Don’t make all the food yourself—buy some of the elements of the meal from a gourmet takeout shop or a restaurant. For example, you can order enchiladas and salsa from your favorite Mexican restaurant. All you have to do is make a big salad. Another thing you can do is ask your friends to help. If you have a friend who makes an incredible Thai pork appetizer, ask her to make it for the party.
Q: How should I decide what to serve?
A: Pick a theme. A Mexican-themed party is one of the easiest and least expensive ways to go. The theme dictates your menu and beverage choices. One decision follows another.
Q: What about hors d’oeuvres?
A: I don’t like to spend time making intricate things. Instead, I assemble things, such as a cheese platter with cured meats, olives and roasted vegetables, flatbreads and crostini. It makes an impressive display, and it takes only 10 minutes to put it together.
Q: How can I figure out how much food to serve?
A: Think in terms of number of pieces or servings. For hors d’oeuvres, assume each guest will eat six pieces during a four-hour party. If you’re having 50 guests, you’ll need 300 pieces. For the main course, count on 6 ounces of meat per person. I always think it’s best to have less variety but enough of everything. So if you’re having 50 people, have 50 servings of one entrée, not 25 servings of two.
Q: What’s the best way to serve and display the food?
A: The simplest thing is to use big white platters. (You can find them at garage sales and places like Pier 1.) And garnish the dish with something in the food, such as an herb. It gives your guests an idea of what’s in it.
Q: What’s the biggest mistake people make when they give a party?
A: Making the cocktail hour too long. It should never be longer than an hour and a half—and I prefer an hour. Move things along; it’s hard for people to drink that long. Plus, they’ll load up on hors d’oeuvres and not want dinner.
Q: How should I set up the bar?
A: Keep it simple. Too much choice mucks up the look of the bar and slows down service. Stock the bar with one type of white wine and one red, and have enough for about a half bottle per person. I don’t believe in serving super low- or super high-end wine at a party. It’s not appropriate to serve Two-Buck Chuck. But don’t spend too much, either—most people can’t tell the difference. Just get something decent and drinkable. It’s also nice to serve a special cocktail, like a margarita. And provide some nonalcoholic choices: a sparkling water, a still water and a flavored water.
Q: Some of my guests are bringing their children. How can I make the kids feel welcome?
A: Have something for the kids to eat, even if it’s just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Maybe have a video for the kids so the parents have a chance to talk. I have a friend who keeps a box of toys and a little plastic table and chairs for my kids when we come to visit. It puts me at ease.
Q: I don’t have enough matching plates and glassware—what should I do?
A: I believe in rentals. You can rent everything: plates, glasses, linens, tables and chairs. It costs $7.50 to rent 25 wineglasses. When you’re done, you stick the unwashed glasses back in the crate, and the party-rental people pick them up. There’s no cleanup—it’s so easy.
Q: What else can I do to make entertaining easier?
A: Hire somebody to help serve and clean up. For my best friend’s 40th birthday party, I had somebody come clean my house the day before and the day after. It was extravagant, but I was able to enjoy the party. It was worth it to make it as pleasant for myself as possible