With Independence Day approaching, I've been reflecting back to a few years ago when we had an all out 4th of July extravaganza. We had so much to celebrate: My husband had just returned from deployment, my sweet baby girl was turning one, and it was Independence Day! The following week we were moving across the country, so it was also the last time we'd be with our closest friends. I had WAY too much alone time in the evenings while my husband was deployed, so I channeled my energy into planning this party. It was a labor of love and it's still one of my favorite parties to date.
It was even featured on my favorite party blog, "Hostess with the Mostess." To me, this was like winning an Academy Award! It's so hard to believe that I'm now planning my daughter's 5th Birthday! Where does time go???
All of this got me thinking about how important it is to be organized before you host a gathering. I spent years as a professional event planner, and I learned that preparation is KEY. My philosophy is that you do all the prep work ahead of time so you can relax and enjoy yourself during the party. It's like daily life. If you prep for your day the night before, you will have a much smoother and more enjoyable day. The same is true for parties.
Whether you are hosting a holiday party, birthday party, or wedding, here are some PARTY PLANNING 101 TIPS to ensure a stress-free and enjoyable party.
TIP #1: SET UP STATIONS
Set your guests up for success. Allow your guests to help themselves to food and drinks, so that you don't have to be serving people the whole party. (Remember the goal is for YOU to enjoy your party too!) The way to do this is to set up stations that have everything your guests need in ONE place.
Drink Station: A drink station should have glasses, an ice bucket with tongs, straws, a selection of drinks out on display or in a cooler, bottle openers, and some way to identify drinks (a permanent marker for plastic cups and bottles, peel-and-stick labels, drink flags, washi tape, or charms for wine glasses). It drives me crazy to see plastic water bottles that are mostly full but get thrown out because no one can remember who they belong to! If you are serving beverages in pitchers, be sure to clearly label the contents on a tent card next to it. It's always fun to make up festive names for your drinks too.
Food Station: Insead of having someone spend the entire party standing in front of a hot grill, serve food that can be prepared ahead of time. For my 4th of July party, I had a Taco Bar, where guests assembled their own tacos. I kept shredded chicken and beef warm in crock pots and had cut and prepped all the other toppings the day before, so I just had to set them out on the party day. It's also a good idea to serve some kind of "kid" food. It seems like children are always ready to start eating before everyone else, so let them! For my party, I made PB&J sandwiches and used a star cookie cutter to make them more festive. Place the plates, napkins, and utensils close by the food. I like to wrap up utensils in napkins ahead of time to make it easier for guests to carry.
Dessert Station: My favorite station! When you set out all the desserts ahead of time, then you have one less thing to worry about during the party. Put all the desserts in one area along with plates, napkins, utensils, and take-home bags. I chose to do a candy and cookie bar for the kids and some individual berry cobblers that I baked in short mason jars for the adults. I chose this dessert because I could make them all a week ahead of time and then freeze them until the day of the party.
Craft Station: For kid-friendly parties, I like to set up a craft station to keep children busy. When the kids are happy, then the adults can relax and enjoy themselves. It can be a craft project or even just themed word searches or coloring pages that you print out for free on the internet. For my party, I had pinwheels that kids could decorate with stickers. I had clear instructions on display so that the children could do it without their parent's help.
Bling or Photo Booth Station: I tend to think a party is more fun if you add a little "bling." It sets the mood that you want people to relax, let loose, and have fun. For my party, I put out red, white, and blue glasses, necklaces, and crazy pinwheel headbands near the entrance where guests arrived and invited people to deck themselves out in festive bling. When I've hosted a Cinco de Mayo party, I had sombreros and stick on mustaches for the men and flower hair combs for the ladies. These kind of props could also be used for a Photo Booth. Just hang up a sheet or shower curtain on a wall as the background and leave a camera sitting next to it. You can buy photo booth signs from a party store or make your own funny sayings and put them on sticks.
TIP #2: LABEL EVERYTHING!
I love to label, what can I say?! When possible, I always set up my parties the day or night before. Even if the party is off-site, I usually set up a mock table so I know exactly what I need to bring and how it will be arranged. I get out all the dishes I will be using for the party, arrange them on the table, and use sticky notes to label what each dish will hold. I do as much as possible the night before when I am calm and relaxed and not pressured for time. If I find that I am missing something I need, there is still time on the party day to make a quick trip to the store. This also allows others to help you set up. My husband doesn't have to wonder where the sour cream goes...he just looks for the label on the table.
You should also label the food on the day of the party. Your guests shouldn't have to wonder what they are eating, and you can solve this problem by placing tent cards in front of each item. If you know your guests have allergies, you can also label the food as, "Gluten Free" or "Peanut Free" so they don't have to guess.
TIP #3: MAKE A CHECKLIST
When I was a wedding planner, I made VERY detailed checklists for every wedding I coordinated. I would have a list of things to do at the wedding rehearsal, a list for the wedding day, and a list of everything I needed to bring with me. In the weeks leading up to a wedding, every time I thought of something else I needed to do, I would just add it to the list, and then I wouldn't have to keep it all in my head. It was a numbered list that was often 3-4 pages long, single spaced! This was for two reasons: 1. I have a terrible memory. 2. I often had other people helping me, so it was an easy way to delegate assignments. I could tell my assistant to complete #1-5 on the checklist and she would know exactly what had to be done. If you make a checklist for your party, you can guarantee that you won't forget any important details, plus you will feel less stressed because you don't have to keep remembering things in your head.
TIP #4: DON'T FORGET TO GET YOURSELF READY!
No matter what, I always stop my prep work an hour before a party and go get myself ready. I've learned from experience that it can be awkward if the host isn't ready when guests arrive. Regardless of how many items you still have to do on your checklist, STOP an hour before, get ready, and then continue your prep. Guests who arrive on time instead of "fashionably late" are usually happy to lend a hand with last minute things and you will enjoy yourself more at the party knowing you look your best. :)
TIP #5: ASSIGN A PHOTOGRAPHER
If photos are important to you, ask a friend or hire a professional to photograph the party. It's often too hard as the host to remember to take photos during the party. I also force, I mean, ask, my family to gather and take a photo before guests arrive. Everyone is together in one place, looking their best (no dis-sheleved hair or food on their clothes YET!), and it's the best chance we have of getting a good photo. Also, if you put another person in charge of the photos, you might actually appear in one!
A little prep work can go a long way when planning parties. I hope these tips will help you as you plan your next event. Above all else, once the party starts, relax and enjoy yourself!
If you haven't already, visit Hostess with the Mostess website. Her site is filled with party inspiration and some serious eye candy!
Happy Party Planning!