Preparing for a cocktail party takes some work. Back in the day a tub full of "jungle juice" and a killer playlist usually did the trick, but now that I'm an adult (ahem) I feel the need to up the ante and keep it classy. I'm known to throw an epic New Year's party at my small Manhattan apartment- always with rave reviews. This year, I also invited a dozen friends to my parent's country home in Pennsylvania to celebrate the 4th of July. There are so many ways to make a party successful, but here are my top 10 tricks that never fail.
1. Invitation Only
When creating a guest-list, it's important to think about how many people will fit into your event space and how many people you can accommodate with food and beverages. I like to create a Facebook group or Evite and clearly state whether it is an open invitation or if guests are limited to a +1. Have guests RSVP and don't be afraid to remind them to do so! It's important for you to know how many guests are coming, so you can purchase the appropriate amount of food and drinks.
2. Food Prep: Consider Store-Bought
Always serve snacks at your party. You don't have to go overboard but people expect something to nosh on, and you have to give the people what they want. A good rule of thumb is to have at least 1 appetizer for each type of foodie: vegetarian, low-carb and/or gluten-free, decadent, and healthy. Of course, some of these categories overlap. (You can make a vegetarian, gluten free pasta salad for example.)
To save time and energy, don't try to make everything from scratch. Instead, choose low-fuss, pre-made, and high-quality ingredients.Think: fresh fruit and vegetables, quality dips, freshly baked bread, and one pot dishes. Everything should be made ahead of time, so you don't have to slave over the stove during the party.
I just tried Alouette's new "skinny" Le Bon Dips and cheese spreads for the first time (c/o) and they are to die for! They're low in calories but rich in flavor: a win-win in my book! You can serve the spreads on crostinis with a drizzle of rich balsamic glaze or rosemary honey. For the carnivores? Just fold a slice of prosciutto on top! The dips are perfect for a crudite, which is a fancy word for "veggie platter." Buy a pre-made platter and swap out that generic ranch dip for the Alouette Fire Roasted Vegetables or the Basil, Zucchini & Parmesan. You can also serve these dips with some nice crackers or pita chips.
3. Food Prep: Bite-Size
You'll want to keep portions small for a cocktail party, so your guests avoid making a mess. It can be very challenging to juggle a drink, purse, and dinner plate in your arms, so think about bite-size snacks that don't require knives and forks. Many of your favorite dishes can be reinvented into smaller, more manageable dishes like Lasagne Cups, Spinach Artichoke Cups, or Sausage Rolls. Using Alouette spreadable cheeses, you can easily create little sandwich sliders with your favorite deli meat, tomatoes, and arugula.
4. Beverage Duty
Depending on the size of your party, you should offer at least 4 types of liquor: vodka, tequila, whiskey, and gin. Find a large bucket, fill it with ice, and display the options next to mixers, cups, straws, and napkins. For mixers, I recommend club soda, cranberry juice, and ginger ale. These choices are based on what my friends and I like to drink, so don't be afraid to ask around and see what your guests enjoy on the reg.
Most guests will bring a bottle of wine or champagne to a party. It's the American way! Because of this, you should avoid purchasing too many wines or champagnes yourself. Play it safe and offer 1 red and 1 white, plus a few options for beer.
I like to let my guests know what I've purchased in advance, so they know to bring something else if necessary. Remember that although you are the host(ess), you're not here to cater to everyone's needs. A small variety of party favorites should do the trick. We went with Titos Vodka, Menage a Trois vodka (c/o), Maker's Mark Bourbon (c/o), Jack Daniel's Whiskey, Espolón Tequila, Corona Light, Yeungling Lager, Micholob Ultra, and Bud Light. (Because we were in bathing suits all day, most guests requested "light" beer.) For wine, we offered Ribera y Rueda's red Ribera del Duero Aster (c/o) and a white Carrasviñas Verdejo (c/o)- both of which hail from Spain.
5. Shop Smart
I always use plastic cutlery and cups for parties to ease with the clean-up. If you want to avoid those tacky red Solo cups, opt for some nice clear cups that resemble the real thing. Amazon.com has a great selection of plastic shot glasses, wine glasses, high-balls, margarita glasses and more. You can't go wrong, and they are very affordable! In fact, they're usually marked as "Add-on" items, and if you purchase enough they end up being $5-$10 each per pack.
If you're catering a large party, consider buying in bulk from Costco or BJs. Don't have a membership? Yea, neither do I. My sister-in-law does though, so I asked her if she could take me. Bring a detailed list of what you need so you can stay on track, and don't forget to pay cash.
Another tip is to head to the Dollar Store! For a cocktail party, I don't like using Solo cups, but for something like my July 4th extravaganza- they kind of went with the theme! After all, we were celebrating America, and what's more American than that? The Dollar Store has knock-offs, plenty of plastic-wear, table linens, napkins, and more.
6. Encourage A Theme
Speaking of the Dollar Store- there's no better place to get themed decorations and party favors. I LOVE a theme party, and it's fun to encourage your guests to get into it too! For my July 4th party, I purchased Star-Spangled napkins, Red, White & Blue table clothes, and tons of American Flag decorations.
If you're in the Giving Spirit, consider inexpensive party-favors that get people in the mood: American Flag sunglasses and Sparklers for Memorial Day, Hats and Tiaras for New Year's Eve, or even Photo Booth props. Don't worry about being corny- people love this stuff!
K-mart is another great shopping destination for decorations, and don't forget wardrobe. I donned my American Apparel American Flag Bikini on July 4th and encouraged my guests to do the same.
Committing to a theme makes for awesome photos and really sets the mood!
7. Let Your Guests Help
This one is hard- especially if you're a control freak like me- but you HAVE to let your guests help you prepare for the party. They will inevitably ask what they can contribute as soon as you invite them, so develop a menu, plan beforehand, and decipher what you don't want to make or buy. Then, assign each item to a specific person. "Molly, we need mixers- can you pick some up?" "Greer, would you like to bring desserts?" When my friend Cassie recently volunteered to bring extra booze to my party, I told her we were all set. "How about jello shots," she answered. Well, how about that! Sounds fab.
Assigning a specific item to each guests ensures you won't be left with 50 kinds of cupcakes or 10 bottles of tequila.
8. Let the Games Begin
For a small party, consider organizing some games. Not only will everyone have tons of fun, but games serve as amazing ice-breakers. Heads Up is great for indoor cocktail parties, and sports are great for larger outdoor fiestas. For a summer party, think: dizzy bat, soccer, flip-cup, volley-ball, horse-shoe, or football.
9. Keep It Clean
Clean-up is the least sexy of Party-Planning topics, but it has to be said. Make sure to purchase plenty of toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins. I've been to far too many parties (and restaurants, for that matter) that have run out of toilet paper. So gross! Hit up the Dollar Store and you can usually find a 4-pack for (you guessed it!) $1. It's much softer than you think it would be.
Stick to disposables as much as you can, so your sink doesn't fill up with plates and dishes. You can typically find really nice ones on Amazon.com or any party store- some of which don't even look disposable! Additionally, disposables avoid breakage and the danger of shattered glass.
Before your party, make sure to de-clutter and provide ample counter space for your guests to rest their food and drink. Take out all of the trash, and clearly identify where guests can toss used plates and glasses.
Finally, you need to relax! Throwing a party can be a little stressful- especially if you're new to the game. Don't worry so much! Take a deep breath, have a glass of wine, and remember that no one really cares if you're 100% organized or not. A little slip-up can even make for a funny ice-breaker, which will have people socializing more comfortably and recounting stories later on. Remember that as the host, your mood sets the tone. If you're cranky and stressed, your guests simply won't have fun. Lighten up, enjoy yourself, and be proud of all the hard work you've put into this get-together!