How To Host A Good Party

Hosting a party can be a stressful undertaking. Will people come? Will they have fun? Is vomit bad for houseplants? We answer all these questions and more.

Figure out what kind of party you're having

This seems obvious, but it's an important first step. I talked with Jorj Morgan, author of At Home Entertaining: The Art of Hosting a Party With Style and Panache, who told me that the kind of party you're having will determine how many people you invite, and when you invite them. The first question you should ask yourself: "How can I party in this space?" If you're having a sit-down dinner party, you're limited by the number of seats at your table. If you're having a buffet, you obviously have more leeway, but you still have to consider how much food you can make/buy and how much space you have for people to comfortably sit and eat. If you're not serving a meal at all, then you just need to make sure you don't pack your place so full that people start a) running out of alcohol or b) crushing each other to death. I tend to subscribe to the invite-everyone-you-know school of party-giving, which usually results in fun and sometimes in property damage. Just keep in mind that if you invite more people than you can easily keep track of, somebody is probably going to break a plate or get footprints on your wall (I still don't know how this happened).

Defining your party is also a matter of figuring out its level of formality. Morgan says the more formal the party, the farther in advance you should send invitations. You also want to allow a lot of lead time if there are guests you absolutely need to be there — if you're throwing a surprise party for a friend, for instance, and you want all his other best friends in attendance. She notes that there is no universal correct amount of time for any of this — I generally go with a week for your average fun-time bash, two for anything more official.

Let the invitation fit the party

Says Morgan,

The more informal the party, the more informal the invitation. Your invitation is almost like the poster to a movie, it's describing what kind of party you're going to have, it's setting the mood, it's telling them what to wear, and it's putting them at ease, so when they accept this party invitation, they know exactly what they're getting into. So if it's a formal sit-down party for eight people, it should be more of a printed invitation or a handwritten note, something mailed to them. If it's an informal party [...] it can be an email or an e-vite.

I'm always excited to get an actual paper invitation, but I'm aware that outside of weddings, it's become pretty rare. I think that for most events, a classy e-vite is fine — but obviously don't be like "hey guysss, 9 pm til late byob" if you're celebrating your mom's eightieth birthday. I tend to invite via both Facebook and e-mail — some people really want to have the Facebook invitation, while others studiously ignore everything that comes through that channel. There's always going to be a third group who are annoyed about getting too many messages, but if they really like you they will put that aside and come to your party anyway.

Start early.

One year I started preparing for my birthday party at 6 PM the night it was happening. I was so frazzled and confused that in my first foray out into the world I went to three stores and came back with: one six-pack of normal beer, one six-pack of weird beer, three limes, a bag of arugula, and a bottle of strawberry juice. Obviously I had to go out again, and the party ended up going fine, but I would've been a lot more relaxed if I'd started prepping a couple days ahead. Patricia Mendez, author of Easy Entertaining for Beginners: You Can Throw a Fabulous Party, from Holiday Fiesta to a Romantic Evening for Two, gave me this advice:

Pace yourself. DO NOT try to do the shopping, food prep, clean the house and have everyone over the same day. You will be too tired to enjoy your party and you run a much larger risk of being way behind schedule. Instead:

  • Shop 1-2 days before your party.
  • Prepare as much of the food the day before or morning of your party as possible.
  • Choose recipes that you can make in advance.
  • Feel free to fill in your menu with some fantastic purchased food such as a dessert from your fave bakery.

Obviously you might not have time for one or two days of prep work. If that's the case, just keep things simple. Don't make fancy hors d'oeuvres — buy chips or ask your friends to bring things. Don't worry about making fascinating cocktails — just get enough booze to get the party started and make sure your friends bring more. Whatever you do, try to leave yourself some time before the party to chill out. Says Mendez, "Two hours before guests arrive, take time to get dressed and get yourself ready. Turn on the music, light candles." Morgan also suggests a couple hours' downtime before the party, wherein you get dressed or take a bath. This will ensure that you're relaxed and in a good mood when your friends start showing up, and prepare to have fun rather than stress.

Make your guests walk around

When your friends do start to come, you want to encourage them to mingle. Morgan has an ingenious strategy for this: set up your bar/cocktail area/keg/what-have-you at the furthest possible point from the door. If you're putting out food, set that up along a square, where the door is north, the bar is south, and food is at east and west. Basically, you want to spread out the stuff that people want so they'll have to move around and talk to each other. This is especially important if your party is getting off to a slow start or if there aren't very many people — rather than letting your guests all huddle in one area, you want them to circulate and pump up the room's energy level a bit. If, on the other hand, things are getting too crazy, Morgan suggests sedating your guests with more food. And when it's time for them to leave but some are still stubbornly hanging on, start offering coffee — Morgan advocates a coffee station set up by the door to really drive the message home.

Help out shy people

Parties are daunting for the shy, especially if they don't know very many people there. Help them out by introducing them to a couple of other people they may have something in common with. Says Mendez,

As the host, be sure to introduce guests who may not know one another. It can be awkward to be the new person at a gathering when everyone else knows each other well. You can encourage conversation when making introductions by trying to offer something your guests have in common. For instance, you could say, "Mary, I would like you to meet John." "John, Mary was born and raised in your birthplace, New York City." Or offer a conversation starter with something interesting from your guest's life, such as "Mary works as a nurse at Memorial Hospital" or "Mary has run the L. A. Marathon two times." You get the picture. These attempts can encourage the start of a conversation for guests who are unfamiliar with each other.

Another tactic: "Privately ask a more outgoing guest (close friend) if they can befriend the shy guest and help bring them into the conversations." But don't be like, "so-and-so is a loser and needs a babysitter." Instead, say something like, "you should really meet so-and-so, she is really interesting but needs a little drawing out." Nobody wants to be a charity case.

Get help

Says Morgan, "if something takes a little bit longer in the kitchen than you planned, pull in two of your buddies, and get them involved. People love to help." In my experience, this is true. So don't feel like you have to do everything yourself — especially if you run into a snag. There's no shame in asking somebody to stir the sauce or open the wine or get the rabbits out of the sink and back in the moon-bounce where they belong.

And don't panic. Says Mendez,

Even the most seasoned hosts can sometimes run into unexpected problems when hosting. The ice-maker breaks, the smoke alarm goes off, a dish you are going to serve takes a turn for the worse. Don't let these challenges ruin your evening. Simply solve the problem and move on. It would be a shame if everyone enjoyed the party but you!

One of the best parties I ever threw was a Fourth of July barbecue where we ran out of propane. I sent someone out for more, but we couldn't figure out how to attach it to the grill (I'm not the world's best grill-master under the best of circumstances). So I moved the whole operation inside and made burgers one by one on a George Foreman. I'm not sure if they were any good — I also don't eat meat — but everyone was happy and then we all went out and sang karaoke. The point is: no one is expecting you to be perfect. They just want to hang out and have a good time, and that will be a lot easier if everyone is relaxed. Also, vomit is totally fine for houseplants. Just don't let anybody pee on them.


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Jorj Morgan [Official Site]
At Home Entertaining: The Art of Hosting a Party With Style and Panache
Easy Entertaining For Beginners: You Can Throw A Fabulous Party, From Holiday Fiesta To A Romantic Evening For Two

Image via Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.com