Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Planning to Enjoy Your Own Party

I've thrown an annual Christmas Party every year since 1993. It was fashioned after the party my mother had thrown for years before that. Over the years it evolved. For the long time I lived in Pittsburgh the attendance grew each year as more and more friends considered it a part of their holiday traditions. As I've moved to new cities the tradition continues although the attendance is smaller.

But here's a secret. There were a few years when I didn't want to throw the party. I dreaded it. I only continued because I felt pressured by all those who looked forward to my party year after year. By the people who would ask as me for the date as early as October to avoid any December scheduling conflicts. By the people who had "already bought a new dress for the Christmas party!"

Why didn't I enjoy a party that was clearly successful? That so many people looked forward to? Because it had become too much work. At its peak I would have 40 or more guests. I made everything from scratch. Everything. I wouldn't even buy a prepared vegi tray! I'd start the day after Thanksgiving (sometimes sooner) preparing several dozen types of cookies and a full array of heavy hors d'ouevres. The work would build until the party itself during which I was constantly refreshing trays, heating small batchs of hot foods, and refreshing the mulled wine. I barely had time to greet my guests much less talk to them. I wasn't hosting the parties; I was catering them! Something had to change.

Instead of quitting, I scaled back the party. I didn't make absolutely everything. I made some simpler items such as more bar cookies than decorative ones.  I bought some prepared items like hummus and marinated cheese balls. Do you know what? People still enjoyed themselves! And what's more, I enjoyed myself!

Now, you may not throw parties of that magnitude, but hosting on any scale can be stressful. If you've ever been overwhelmed by the prospect of hosting an event, whether it be a small dinner or a large party, these tips will help make hosting fun again for the holidays and year round.

First, pare down your plans. Despite the holiday theme of my annual party, I haven't had a Christmas tree for 6 years.** Why? Sure, I love the look of a tree, particularly with the many beautiful ornaments that I've collected over the years.  However, getting a tree and decorating it had become a dreaded task rather than a lovely  tradition. Although I still fill my home with festive decorations, skipping the tree saves me hours of time that I can spend on cooking, which is my preferred activity. Perhaps you feel the opposite. Then, cut back on cooking (e.g. get a caterer, ask people to bring something), so you can spend more time trimming the perfect tree. Changing the type of party can help you pare down as well. A dessert only party will be easier than a dinner party. A tree-trimming party means you only have to bring the decorations out of the basement, but you don't have to do the actual decorating.

Don't be afraid to simplify.  Unless you are a chef, a caterer, or Martha Stewart and you have a professional reputation to uphold no one is going to judge you for ordering food or using something premade from the grocery store. Gatherings should be about the gathering of people. If you want to do something elaborate that's fine, but only do what's fun for you. When the party starts being a chore it's time to quell some of that gourmet pride.

Front load your schedule. Once you've come up with with a manageable party idea, you can continue to make hosting easier with some strategic planning. Take a piece of paper and fold it to create four quadrants. (You could do something on the computer as well, but this is one case when I prefer having something tangible to put on the refrigerator and mark off items.) Label the quadrants ">1 week," "1 week," "2-3 days," and "day of." Then list your "to do" items in each of the appropriate quadrants based on the earliest you can do each item. Your challenge is to make the lists for the day of the event and 2-3 days before the event as small as possible. (For smaller parties you may not need the greater than one week category, but getting thing done earlier in the week will still help.)

How do you achieve a front loaded schedule?
1. Use your freezer. I've collected a number of hors d'ouevre recipes that freeze well. Many cookies freeze well, too, or at least you can freeze the dough. Plan your menu strategically to maximize items that can be made early. Theoretically, you could start cooking months ahead of time.

2. As you get closer look for recipes that can store in the refrigerator or cupboard for a week or more.

3. Select menu items that won't require you to do a lot of cooking once your guests arrive. For a cocktail party avoid selecting hors d'ouevres items that need to be served hot unless you have access to a chafing dish or other mechanism for keeping them warm without having to constantly heat batches during the party. For a dinner party try to choose a roast or baked pasta as your entree, so you don't have to spend all your time in the kitchen.

4. Look critically at your items for 2-3 days ahead and the day of. Find ways to eliminate them, move them back, or at least minimize them. For example, if you have shopping on those lists try to get everything but perishable items early. You may still need to go to the store for fresh items, but your list will be much smaller, which will make shopping quicker.

5. Decorate as you go. Whether it's a holiday party or another theme, don't leave decorating until the last minute. Decorating a little each day is a nice but productive break from other prep, and you are less likely to be shoving decorations boxes into the closet as your guests arrive.

6. Pull out serving dishes early. Plan what food will go into which dish and decide where that dish will go. I basically set the tables the day before. I put a piece of paper on each space to indicate what is going where. Whether you made it, bought it, or faked it, you want to make sure that you have somewhere to put everything. Trying to figure that out as you are putting out food before the start of the party can lead to last minute chaos.

7. Ask for help. You don't get a medal of honor for going it alone. Ask that great baker if she'd supply some dessert. Ask someone to come over early and help set up, which should be easy if you did item 6! Ask someone to pick up your catering order or at least that bag of ice.

8. Stick to the plan. One of the things I inherited from my mother is an incredible fear of running out of food at a party. As a result, I would cook a lot of extra things at the last minute despite having food stored in every inch of my freezer, refrigerator, and cupboards. What did this get me? Leftovers 'til February. Now, I still worry, but instead of a last minute cooking frenzy I pick up a couple boxes of frozen hors d'ouevres to have just in case. That lets me relax without creating extra work for myself. And I've never had to use those extra store bought items for the party.

Doing this has let me reclaim my party. I'm a hostess again instead of a caterer. I can enjoy my own party! I hope you can do the same.

**I am considering doing a tree again this year to give my son the full Christmas experience. On the other hand, he's only going to be 9 months old, so he won't really notice its absence, right? Plus, he's pulling up on everything now, which could be a problem. Oh, and many of my ornaments are probably choking hazards... I guess we'll see about this tree thing yet again!

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