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Party Basics

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Planning for Food and Drink

Although your menu will change from party to party, one fact remains the same: Your guests will want to eat and drink. Before you get into extensive menu planning, consider a few basics.

Fire It Up! Candles and Other Forms of Illumination

Even if you cannot afford a single decorative item for your party, you can still create an abundance of ambience just by placing candles around your home. Try a few bright ideas:

  • Set floating candles in clear glass bowls filled halfway with water and place in several areas: the living room, the dining room, and, of course, the bathroom.

  • Purchase tiki torches (about $5 each, plus citronella oil) and plant them around your front walkway and backyard or patio.

  • Arrange pillars of different sizes (but the same color—perhaps white?) into small groupings in areas where guests will be lingering. Feel free to decorate the bases of pillar candles with décor appropriate to your party, such as flowers—just make sure you aren't inviting disaster with a fire hazard. Use new, tall candles, and ensure any décor is far from the flame.

  • Dim overhead lighting and cover lamps with sheer, colored scarves. Check your local thrift store for pieces that you might not be caught dead in, but that would look great draped over your too-bright living-room light. Keep safety in mind, ensuring anything draped doesn't touch the light bulb or feel hot to the touch.

  • Combine radiance with aroma by lighting assorted scented candles in each room. Keep the flavors the same in each room so your guests don't get overwhelmed by several different odors.

If your budget is extra-tight, don't worry. Candles are inexpensive, especially when purchased in bulk at discount stores or chains that specialize in closeouts.

Save yourself a series of headaches by purchasing several disposable or refillable torch-style lighters and stowing one in each room where candles will burn. During your party, you won't have to search for matches or try to find a lighter that works.

Finally, no mention of candles would be safe without pointing out the dangers of leaving open flames unattended: Don't do it! In the bathroom, leave a candle burning in a fire-safe holder. In other parts of the house, don't light candles at all unless you plan to have guests in those rooms. Check your candles frequently, just to ensure the flame is burning at a safe height, far away from anything flammable. Trim wicks to 1⁄4" before lighting, and make sure the candle wax doesn't spill over onto your furniture or carpet.

Understanding Party Food Basics

Food will probably be the largest, most important variable at any party you host. Although I will go into much greater detail about food later in this book, you should know a few basics about what kinds of food go with what kinds of parties.

  • Standing parties (cocktail, casual gatherings) call for nibblets and finger foods, and at least six different kinds of appetizers, including dips and sweets.

  • At buffet parties, plan for one or two main courses (chicken and meat or fish, usually) and up to six side courses, including vegetables, grains, salads, breads, and desserts.

  • At seated parties, one main course and related side dishes are all that is required, but you will want to serve dinner prefaced by an appetizer and/or salad, and follow it with dessert. Don't forget to have a few pre-dinner noshings available for guests: cheese and crackers, chips and dips, and an additional appetizer or two.


Try to keep your menu varied and surprising, but don't make it overly complicated. For example, you might make an exotic main course, but you should pair it with a relatively bland side dish, allowing guests to take a break from spicy flavors. Likewise, spend your time (and money!) preparing one or two significant appetizers, and then round out the menu with dips and breads.

Don't go overboard with food! You might think a sagging table will impress your guests, but if you overdo it, you'll only have leftovers that probably won't keep, as well as an empty wallet. To determine how much food you'll need per person, please consult the Food and Drink Calculator in Appendix B, "Party Tools."

Planning Drinks for Your Party

Although the beverage selection should vary from party to party, a few basic rules hold true:

  • Stock up on bottled water and assorted soft drinks (including diet drinks) and juices for guests that don't drink alcohol.

  • Make sure you have plenty of ice! A few hours ahead of time, fill a large bucket—or the bathtub!—with ice and chill a selection of soft drinks, beer, and water.

  • If you are serving spirits, take into account your guests' varying preferences. Include red and white wine and assorted cocktails.

  • Regardless of the event, always have regular and decaffeinated coffee ready to brew toward the end of the night, as well as sugar, cream, and a few interesting coffee condiments, such as cinnamon or vanilla syrup.

Don't forget two critical planning elements with respect to beverages: space and chill factor. Make sure you have enough space in your freezer for the amount of ice you'll need, or plan to hit the store just before the party so the ice doesn't melt before your guests arrive. Also, remember to chill your cold drinks at least 24 hours before the party so that your drinks are deliciously chilled when the guests arrive. You might think you only need a few hours of chilling, but your refrigerator will cool down 80 cans of warm soda more slowly than you might think. You'll need to make room in your refrigerator for all those cans and bottles, too, so keep your cold food requirements in mind.


Although water, juice, and soft drinks are perfectly fine for those who don't drink alcohol, you might also add a few exotic options, such as freshly brewed iced tea, flavored bubbly water, or sparkling juice.

Although you can't be expected to stock every type of beverage your guests could possibly demand, a good host will have enough of a variety on hand to suit most requests.

As mentioned elsewhere in this book, you don't have to stock your bar with top-shelf liquor. Keep a few bottles of quality hooch on hand—citron vodka, a good scotch—and decant the bargain liquor into attractive glass bottles. You can also purchase two types of wine: the good stuff for the first hour, and the mediocre stuff for the rest of the night, after the guests have loosened up a little on the quality cabernet.

Basic Tools for Dining and Drinking

No matter what kind of party you're planning, if food and drink are involved (and they'd better be!), your guests will need something from which to drink and eat. You'll need a few basics:

  • Paper, plastic, or glass cups from which guests can drink cold beverages; guests will grab a clean glass at least once, so plan accordingly

  • Insulated cups or mugs for hot beverages

  • Large plates for eating the main meal

  • Small plates for desserts and appetizers

  • Enough knives, forks and spoons—plastic or metal—so that each guest has a complete set, plus a few extra, just in case

  • Twice as many paper napkins as you think you will need (linen napkins are great for the table, but guests will need cocktail napkins for drinks and appetizers)

  • An adequate stash of serving bowls, pitchers, and platters in assorted sizes, shapes, and colors

  • Any tools you will need to actually serve the food and drinks: large spoons, meat forks, a ladle, a corkscrew, a bottle opener, and a carving knife

For more information on recommended party tools, please consult Appendix B.

How much booze do you need?

If you're serving alcohol at your party, how much booze do you need? Although this subject is covered in greater detail in Appendix B, it's worth mentioning a little basic math right here:

  • Plan for two drinks per person for the first two hours of the party, and then one drink per person for every hour thereafter.

  • One 750-milliliter bottle of booze (wine, champagne, or liquor) will yield about six 4-ounce glasses.

  • Plan two cans or bottles of soda per person—change that quantity to three if you are hosting a sober party.

  • If you're hosting a party heavy on drinks that require ice, such as iced soft drinks or blended or shaken cocktails, you'll need 1⁄2 pound of ice per person.

Based on the preceding facts, we can calculate the following:

  • For a 4-hour party of 20 expected guests, you would plan to serve a total of 120 drinks.

  • To fill glasses 120 times, you will need 20 bottles of booze.

  • For this same party, you'll also need 80 cans or bottles of soft drinks or water, as well as 20 pounds of ice.

Of course, you can never predict what your guests will want to drink, so don't get 20 bottles of the same liquor! Purchase a mix of red and white wine, champagne, vodka, gin, tequila, rum, and scotch, plus a few six-packs of quality beer. You might also want to add a few extra bottles of wine, just in case the party runs late. No need to overdo it, though—many guests will bring a bottle as a hostess gift.

Thrifty Ways to Stock a Party Closet

Consider starting a "party closet." Similar to the fabled "gift closet," a party closet is a storage container large enough to safely store your party tools: dishes, cutlery, glassware, linens, candles, and leftover favors that might be put to some future use. Because these items are stored in one place, and only pulled out for parties, you'll always have a good supply on hand. One less detail to plan!

If you aren't independently wealthy and would like to stock your party closet nonetheless, scour local second-hand stores for dishes, glassware, and flatware. Keep one element the same—color, style, or pattern—and your guests will think of you as eclectic, rather than dirt-poor.

Whether you're using matched china or thrift-store finds, always make sure your party tools are clean, polished, and in good repair. Everything looks better when sparkling!


Take a cue from moderately priced restaurants and make "rollups" several days before your party. Nestle a complete set of cutlery—knife, fork, and spoon—in one napkin, and roll it up. Secure the roll with clear tape (if you're using paper napkins) or some other festive touch, such as theme-related napkin holders, or tuck the end of the napkin into the roll.


If you are thrift-store shopping for your party tools, avoid any plates or glasses made with lead. Generally, old china, glazed terra cotta or clay dishes, or dishes with highly decorated, multicolored interior surfaces can contain lead. If you are in doubt, err on the side of caution. Lead poisoning can lead to serious health consequences.


Cloth napkins don't have to be expensive! Most housewares stores sell white cloth napkins in bulk for under $20. Invest in a couple of packages and you'll be covered for a long time. Also look for plain, matching napkins at discount and closeout stores. Starched napkins fold and retain their shape better than limp napkins, so bust out that can of spray starch and heat up the iron.

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