perfect cocktail parties

keep it simple

It’s the time of year when we welcome guests into our homes, and cocktail parties abound. Cocktail parties are the most practical way to entertain large groups, but they are a challenge to put together so that everyone — including yourself — has a good time. Detailed pre-party planning is vital if you want to be free to enjoy your guests.

Carol cheersNo matter what type of entertaining you host, the most important rule of thumb, no matter how many times you entertain, is MAKE IT SIMPLE! Being organized and streamlining your preparation will make things easier for you both before and during your party. Remember that people come to socialize, to talk to one another, and to meet new friends. Your guests will feel more comfortable, and things will flow more smoothly when you are relaxed and enjoying yourself. Making things simple will allow you to host a classy event and spend more time with your guests.

The main elements for a successful party generate from your thoughtfulness and planning: the guests, the setting, the atmosphere and the meal. With a little practice you can combine them artistically every time with confidence. A very wise person once told me “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”


Yes, it’s me again with the lists! Let’s get started: make a guest list, choose a date, send out invitations. Now, for a menu. It’s always a good idea to plan a menu around foods you know you prepare well. If you are trying a new recipe, you may want to try a “dry run” on your family before serving it to guests. This will give you a chance for a preparation rehearsal, as well as an opportunity to taste and maybe add your own personal touches to the recipes. It will also give you the opportunity to customize your preparation timeline and presentation ideas. 

As you plan, consider the amount of time required to make each dish. Usually one or two complicated foods are plenty, and they will showcase better if accompanied by simpler foods. This is a big part of MAKING IT SIMPLE; complex recipes are much more manageable if you can do them ahead. Try to prepare much of the food in advance, giving yourself more time the day of the party. If it can be made ahead, DO IT! Consider making the two stars of the show, and them supplementing the menu with some prepared items from your local market, the freezer section at Trader Joe’s or Costco. Do not feel that you have to make everything from scratch!

Also consider the available equipment – is your refrigerator large enough to store large platters? Do you have a enough baking sheets, etc.? Will all of the cooking be one the stovetop or in the oven (will it all fit)? And don’t forget food safety considerations. Keep food out of that ‘danger zone’ from 40°F to 140°F. Serve hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

How will you serve the food? For larger parties, the easiest arrangement is to set each dish out on a lavish buffet table so your guests can help themselves. Cold hors d’oeuvres are seldom a problem if they sit out for several hours. Rather than choosing large platters to serve, which tend to look bare as food disappears, I tend to prefer slightly smaller serving pieces.

Do not put out all your food at once, but replenish the platters often so the food always looks fresh. If you want to include hot hors d’oeuvres, chafing dish specialties are the easiest.


When you have many hands to help, the work is easier and more fun. Consider trading services with a friend who will also be entertaining this season, helping each other out, with simply serving on the day of the party or with prep as well. Get your kids involved in serving, learning about grown-up parties. Or hire a teenager or college student from the neighborhood to serve and help clean up. This allows YOU to be part of the party!

Next week, I’ll detail how to determine how much food and drink for your crowd! HINT: more lists!

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