Party pointers from a hostess who learned later in life

John and I like to host parties. In our dozen years together, we’ve hosted multi-course dinner parties, booze-fueled cocktail parties and backyard barbecue parties.

John grew up with parents who threw parties so whether through nature or nurture, it comes naturally to him.

We liked to put our back deck and picnic table to heavy use hosting friends al fresco.

Though my mom often had friends pop over for a beer, other than her 30th birthday, I can’t remember a social event in our home. My stepmom hosted the family for Christmas Eve when I was young but stopped by the time I was old enough to learn much beyond her tendency to panic because she’d left too much til the last minute.

So when we were dating and John wanted to have BBQs in his backyard, I had a lot a lot to learn. Of course I’d been to parties over the years – but buying tickets to a Broadway musical is not the same as producing one.

Over the years we borrowed some of our favorite party tricks by watching the good hosts we knew:

  • Rachel and Timo always seemed to greet us at the door with a hot snack. It felt so warm and welcoming.
  • Curt and Kathy stocked their bar with all kinds of booze and condiments – pickled onions and cherries, good vodka, good mixers — that made it really fun to concoct cocktails. A step up from simply putting beer and wine in the fridge.
  • Matt and Rene would not only have course after course of great food and drink, but they’d also create a cozy mood with loads of candles and nice music.

As we got more practice as hosts, we learned a few tricks of our own that made the evening go more smoothly:

  • Putting out numerous paper grocery bags to encourage people to pitch in their empties. If people didn’t see a logical dumping place for bottles and cans, they tended to leave them all over tables and floors.
  • Setting out pretty much every serving spoon and fork we owned, along with a stack of dish towels, before guests arrive. No matter the occasion, someone always seemed to show up with a dish to pass but no serving utensil and someone always made some sort of mess. Putting these tools out helped guests manage if we were both in another room.
  • Spreading out the party – putting the bar some distance from the food – to try to diffuse traffic jams. Of course everyone still wants to hang out in the kitchen.

John liked to serve what he calls post-dessert dessert -- a surprise course of extra sweets at the end of a dinner party. Here we've lulled our friends into food coma in our Ann Arbor living room.

And throwing more parties also made us observe what guests could do to make our lives easier, and we tried to take that insight to our friends’ homes when they invited us:

  • If someone asks for RSVPs, do so promptly. It’s important to know how much food and drink to get, whether you have enough plates, if you have room to make a few last-minute additions to the guest list. If someone is kind enough to invite you over, take the time to acknowledge that generosity.
  • Once you have committed to a party, treat it like a commitment. Show up on time, and if you can’t, be sure to call asap. If it’s a big cocktail party and you’re going to be an hour late, that might be fine, but if it’s a dinner party, you might hold up everyone else from eating and there might be food on the stove or in the oven that’s cooking past its prime while your hosts wait. If you no show completely, an apology is polite.
  • Don’t show up empty handed. Even if your hosts say they have everything covered, it’s kind to say thank you with some flowers, a bottle of wine, anything you think they might like.
  • We hosted a New Year's Eve party last year, taking advantage of the opportunity to watch Central Park fireworks from the roof of our building. It was incredibly cold but champagne helped.

    Don’t be afraid to help, or least offer. Some hosts prefer not to have anyone in their way in the kitchen but it doesn’t hurt to ask if they’d like assistance clearing the dishes from the table. If your hosts are close enough friends, bagging up the trash when you see the bag is full, wiping up a spill when it happens or changing the toilet paper roll are wonderful ways to let your hosts relax a bit more. Katie was always the master of wordlessly pitching in to keep the party humming.

We also really appreciated when guests would drop us a prompt thank you note after a party, whether in e-mail or in the mail. Putting on a party takes a fair bit of work — fun work, but work nonetheless — and having that effort acknowledged helps make it all worthwhile.

What pointers do you have for holiday parties — either for those hosting or those attending?


Categories: food and drink, home and family, lifestyle

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. People, NEVER FORGET TO BRING A BOTTLE FOR THE HOST. I CANNOT stress this enough. (How do you think we keep so jolly during a party?) Oh, ha-ha-ha. I kid. Licorice is fine, too.

    The last party we threw, our guests were generous to the point of absurdity. We had SO much good stuff left over (desserts, snacks, beer, wine, bubbly, fruit, etc.) that we’ll need to have another party to draw down the overstock. (a New York apartment is only so big, after all) Woo hoo!

  2. Thanks, all.

    One of the things I learned from John was that if the hosts are having a good time, that creates a good atmosphere for the guests — so we try to throw the kind of party we’d want to attend and try not to stress about the details.

    And Kathy, if I’ve inspired you, I’m honored. You’re one of our hostess role models.

  3. I’m in the party mood now!! Thanks for this post!

  4. I always love how relaxed you seem at parties. When I give parties, I feel like a spinning top, trying to do it all. Even when you ARE doing it all, you make it seem easy.

  5. Colleen,
    Whether or not you grew up with a model for party hosting (I empathize, as I had the same experience as you did), you are the consummate hostess. Whether in your home or out, everyone always feels welcome and special just to be in your company. I feel more than a little lucky to know both you and John and look forward to many more gatherings in the future. I’m with Mary Jean – you inspire me to consider the possibilities of future parties myself…

  6. Most excellent. Coming out of my shell as a hostess is on my list of 2010 resolutions. I’m lucky to have such a good friend as a teacher!

    Ah, the Pinecrest picnic table. It always made me think of ketchup and mustard, which after all is pretty appropriate for a picnic table.


  1. On hosting dinner parties and tradition, inspired by NOLA red beans and rice « Newvine Growing
  2. Realizing hosting is part of my life’s purpose | Newvine Growing
  3. Resolve to build your social connections – Newvine Growing

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