These 12 steps will help you throw the perfect party.

Entertaining Made Easy: 12 Tips for Less Stress

Throwing the perfect holiday party can be a fun, yet stressful experience. Here are 12 ways to prepare the perfect gathering.

These 12 steps will help you throw the perfect party.
These 12 steps will help you throw the perfect party.

The point of entertaining, anytime of year, is to provide a setting where people can relax and enjoy one another. It’s counterproductive to allow details of an event to stress us out, yet we do it all the time. The best gift we can give to guests, and to ourselves, is to be fresh and emotionally present. And yet there’s work to be done. Parties require preparation. Here are 12 tips for making it all a bit more manageable.
1. Start with the end in mind. It’s one of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” and it’s always good advice, whether you’re planning a party or a corporate merger. Envision the kind of entertaining you want to do this season. A sit-down dinner for family? A raucous-friends party with buffet and dancing? A sweet holiday brunch for your girlfriends? A Sunday afternoon open house? Who’s invited? Will children be present?
Do you want to want to set a party theme, like ugly sweater, or Italian Christmas, cookie-decorating or a sing-carols-around-the-piano party?
Be realistic about what you, your space, your budget and your schedule can handle, then dream big and set your vision. Think back on parties you’ve attended. What made the event fun or not so fun? How could it have been better? Most people agree that good conversation with interesting people is what makes a party great. Hold that vision as you work through the details.
2. Get the word out. Set a date, make a guest list and spread the word. The holidays are a busy time. Think carefully about the blend of people you invite. Are they likely to enjoy one another?
Even in the digital age, guests enjoy receiving a paper invitation with the vital information about the party. It makes the occasion feel a bit more festive and less like a work event – and it doesn’t get lost in the spam folder. It’s easy to order custom invitations from local printers like Rock River Printers, 5411 E. State St., Suite 2A.
“People don’t even need to come into our office,” says Teresa Brady. “They can email me and tell me what they want. I email back a few proofs for them to choose from and it’s just that easy.”
If you like, you can also have fun custom coasters and napkins printed up to match the invitations.
“We do all sorts of holiday party invites, from ‘eat, drink and be merry’ to ugly sweater party invites, holiday cookie swaps, trim-the-tree parties, Christmas cocktails, caroling thru the neighborhood, breakfast with Santa … you name, it we do it.” Place your order a week to 10 days ahead of when you want to get them back. A generally accepted guideline is to send out party invitations three to six weeks before the party.
3. Make your to-do list. Break down tasks week-by-week, day-by-day and hour-by-hour on the day of the party. Whether you work best on your phone, iPad or legal pad, keep your list close and check it daily. Make a budget, too. It’s easy for party expenses to get out of control. Set priorities. Maybe hiring some help is worth more to you than buying that fancy bauble you’ve been ogling on QVC. Which brings us to the next point …
4. Let someone else clean. It’s amazing how much dirt we suddenly notice in our homes when we know company is coming. Maybe your tile grout looks dingy or your kitchen cabinets need a good scrubbing or the carpet smells too much like Fido. Hiring a one-time cleaning crew before an event can save you many hours of work and our region has plenty of good ones.
“You can make a list of tasks for us to accomplish so that you can focus instead on the fun details of your party,” says Lisa Campion, owner of Kelce Cleaning in Rockford. “We were recently hired by someone just to clean out glass-fronted cabinets, polish up all the glassware inside and arrange it nicely. The homeowner wanted everything to sparkle for guests.”
Most cleaning services are willing to do a one-time-only visit, but be sure to schedule it well ahead. Consider having your carpets and other flooring professionally cleaned before the party, too. Some cleaning services, like Kelce, offer that service, too.
5. Let someone else cook. This is probably the biggest stress-saver of all, and there are endless options. Whether you want casual or elegant fare, a self-serve buffet or a sit-down dinner, ethnic-themed cuisine or an array of tapas – or perhaps just a killer dessert bar – there are all sorts of local businesses to accommodate your wishes. And the cost may compare more favorably than you think, when you consider the hours it saves you. Along with designated catering businesses, most area restaurants, grocery stores, delicatessens and bakeries are willing to prepare food for special events, either for pick-up or delivery service.
“We prepare trays of Italian beef, BBQ pork or beef, homemade lasagna, baked chicken breast and much more, which makes it easy to throw a party with delicious main dishes,” says Pete Lenz, owner of 640 Meats, 6410 E. Riverside Blvd. in Loves Park. He also offers seven types of salads and several hot side dishes, like au gratin potatoes, baked beans, corn and bread stuffing, plus several desserts. The food is sold by the pound, which makes the per-guest cost easy to figure out. Just be sure to call in your order ahead of time and specify your pick-up time.
Likewise, Main Street Meat Co. in Roscoe has a huge catering menu with seven kinds of appetizer platters, multiple salads and deli salads, cold and hot sandwiches, and large variety of hot potato and vegetable dishes, breads and deserts. Among the 11 entrée selections are shaved roasted prime rib, roasted pork loin, double smoked beef brisket and chicken cordon bleu.
Or, you may want to do some of your own cooking, but supplement it with specialty purchases, such as a fruit bouquet from Edible Arrangements or a platter of gourmet cookies from Cookies by Design, 6415 E. Riverside Blvd., Rockford.
“We have 14 flavors that you can mix and match any way you like, in any number you like,” says Tasha Nafranowicz, owner. They include decadent chocolate, lemon drop, red velvet and oatmeal raisin.
“People often order a tray of assorted gourmet cookies and top it with some of the specially decorated cookie favors to make it look really fun and pretty,” says Nafranowicz. The cookies are made from scratch and can be ordered for a party up to one day in advance.
Even if it’s a Thanksgiving event that you’re planning, home cooking is not a pre-requisite to great entertaining. Maybe you don’t have the time or energy to cook a giant meal, or you just don’t want to heft an 18-lb. turkey into the oven at 4 a.m. You still want to welcome family and friends around your dining table for a tasty meal.
One solution is to order an entire meal (or just the turkey and stuffing) from a high quality provider like Giovanni’s Restaurant, 610 N. Bell School Road, Rockford. Giovanni’s carry-out Thanksgiving meal includes fresh roasted turkey, apple sage stuffing, buttermilk whipped potatoes, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls and pumpkin pie. The cost is $169.95 for a complete meal that serves 12 to 14 people, or $99.95 for a 14 lb. roasted turkey with stuffing and gravy.
For an additional $12.95, have your turkey applewood smoked.
Order your meal by Nov. 21, and specify a Thanksgiving Day pick-up time of either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m.
But what if your family observes certain ethnic traditions during the holidays? The food of our ancestors can be very meaningful this time of year, but we don’t always have time to roll those little Swedish meatballs or simmer that Indian curry dish.
Again, numerous shortcuts are available from local restaurants, grocery stores and gift shops that carry specialty foods from around the globe.
For example, Finials, at 4626 E. State St. in Rockford, carries bags of locally cooked and frozen Swedish meatballs; Korv (a Swedish potato sausage); plain or caraway Swedish Bond-Ost cheese; Norwegian lefsa bread; heart-shaped traditional pepparkakor cookies; Scandinavian almond cake; jars of lingonberries; and bottles of glug, as well as spice packages for making your own glugg, a delicious and potent Scandinavian mulled wine.
“If you know you’ll need a large amount of something, like the Swedish meatballs, it’s not a dumb idea to call ahead and make sure we have what you want, in stock,” says Gary Lindberg, Finials co-owner with wife Karin. “People come back for these meatballs year after year because they can carry on the tradition, without all the time and effort, and without skimping on quality for their families. A bag of them fills a crockpot.”
If you’re not sure where to start, search the Internet for local providers. You’ll be surprised at the number of possibilities we enjoy in our region.
6. Make holiday cheer self-serve. Don’t wear yourself out by mixing and serving drinks all night. Simply set out a well-stocked drinks table before guests arrive and occasionally check supplies. Choose a strategic location, away from traffic and food-serving areas, because people will congregate near the drinks. Make sure plenty of ice water, soda and coffee are available, especially as the party winds down.
Bar basics include vodka, gin and bourbon, plus a cream liquor for something festive, and beer and wine, says Anthony Artale, co-owner of Artale & Co. Wine, Beer and Spirits, 6876 Spring Creek Road in Rockford. You don’t need to set out every kind of liquor known to mankind, but do supply compatible mixers for what you set out.
“For mixers, I’d have on hand ginger beer, a high-end vermouth, bitters and tonic water,” Artale says. “Some fresh herbs for garnish, such as rosemary and mint, are nice, plus a bucket of ice, a shaker, strainer and maybe a jigger.” A muddler for crushing herbs is good, but proper glassware is essential. “There should be highball, lowball and martini glasses and pint glasses for beer, plus wine glasses.”
When it comes to stocking wine in your home, either for parties or for drop-in holiday guests, keep on hand what you most enjoy, Artale advises.
“If you get stuck with a lot of it, you want to make sure it’s something you’ll enjoy drinking,” he says. “Beyond that, my best advice is to keep a good white and red on hand. For whites, Chardonnay is a favorite, but it’s also nice to have something sweeter, like a Riesling or a sparkling Asti. For reds, a lot of people prefer full-bodied cabernet, but some enjoy something lighter, like a pinot noir.”
Keep snacks in the pantry and fridge that are easy to pull out for drop-in guests at a moment’s notice, such as crackers and cheese, thinly sliced salami or other deli meats, nuts, dried fruit and something sweet, like chocolate.
“Most anything you’d find on a charcuterie board would be good with wine, but stay away from spicy things and vinegary items like olives,” Artale suggests. “They affect the palate and don’t complement the flavor of wine.”
If you’d like to keep your drink service on the lighter side, such as for a brunch or an afternoon open house, consider a champagne bar. Simply set out chilled bottles of sparkling wine along with mixers like chilled orange juice, pureed white peaches, pear juice, and ginger or elderberry liqueur, suggests Artale. Polish up your champagne flutes and have fresh fruit on hand for garnish.
“If you want to save money, there are a lot of wonderful sparkling wines besides Champagne, from a dry Spanish Cava to an Italian sweet Asti or a Prosecco, which is someplace between dry and sweet,” he says. Of course there’s actual Champagne from the Champagne province of France, too.
You may want to set out pretty recipe cards for suggested concoctions such as a peach bellini or raspberry mimosa.
Another idea, depending on the party type, is to set up a hot cocoa station complete with mugs, marshmallows, candy canes and a little add-on for grown-ups, such as Frangelico or Kahlua.
7. Rent what you need. If you need more chairs or tables, consider renting rather than buying bulky items that take up storage space. Lincoln Rent-All & Sales has plenty.
Need some chafing dishes, warmers, platters or a punch bowl? Head to North Park Rental in Machesney Park and peruse their inventory.
“If you can think of it, we probably have it available,” says Amanda Hill. “You can pick it up ahead of time or we’ll deliver it to your door.”
8. Order a fresh centerpiece. Few things say “festive” like a beautiful holiday arrangement of flowers or plants, and the Christmasy scent of fresh balsam and pine is delectable. Order ahead and pick them up or ask for delivery on the day of your bash.
Florists such as Enders Flowers, Broadway Florist, London Avenue Designs and Event Floral, all in Rockford, each have unique styles, but also a knack for personalizing arrangements to suit your vision. Let them know what you have in mind. Is your Christmas décor mostly white and silver? Ask for white and silver embellishments.
Remember that professional florists have a keen eye for their craft; trust them to put together something original rather than opting for a cookie-cutter FTD arrangement.
“To make the most of the amount you spend, I always recommend asking for ‘florist’s choice’ rather than what you see in a picture on a website,” says Michelle Joley, owner of Broadway Florist, 4224 Maray Drive, Rockford. “Often times, people think the arrangement in a photo is larger than it really is.”
With a little freedom, a good florist will make the most of your money.
“We can do pretty much anything you want,” says Joley. A hurricane glass with a candle is often incorporated into a centerpiece. Broadway Florist also makes up gift baskets with items like chocolate, fruit or popcorn.
You’ll continue to enjoy a floral arrangement long after company departs. Think of it as your reward for all the effort you’ve put into throwing a great party.
And if you happen to be a guest at a party, consider sending an arrangement to the host, ahead of time.
“It’s a nice way to say ‘thanks’ and you don’t have to worry about it at the time of the party,” suggests Joley.
9. Think through your music. Make a playlist of upbeat music that won’t repeat songs too often or interfere with conversation. If you’re really ambitious, consider a live performance by a string quartet or pianist. Or, ask a high school or church group of carolers to drop by and serenade your guests. Think outside the box and ask friends and local musicians for suggestions. A “dead spot” of quiet can dampen things fast, so keep the music flowing.
10. Don’t forget the little people. We don’t mean elves. If children are on your guest list, be sure they have an area stocked with things that interest them. Their parents will thank you. A few ideas: cover a wall or table with craft paper and invite them to create a Christmas scene using washable crayons; ask them to make and embellish simple party favors; give them plain cookies to decorate. Cookies by Design can supply plain sugar cookies with a side of sprinkles and frosting for young artists. As children tire, put on a kid-friendly holiday movie in an area of your home where parents can keep a watchful eye without leaving the conversation. Kids love other kids. Arrange for a responsible older child to help entertain young guests.
11. Check your curb appeal.
The party is indoors, but guests must traverse parking areas, walkways and front steps to reach you. Make sure these areas are well lit, free of ice and snow and sprinkled with salt if necessary. Luminaria lining steps or walkways provide a cheery welcome and are easy to make ahead. When guests reach your house, greet them at the door and have a plan for where they can stash their coats and boots nearby, without tracking snow and mud through the house. This will help you with No. 12.
12. Make clean-up easy. Use sturdy, disposable plates and napkins and keep large waste cans in plain sight so guests will use them; empty them often. Have plenty of plastic storage dishes and bags at the ready for leftover party food to send home with others or stash in your fridge. Keep one large surface clear for stacking non-disposable dishes and glasses. Put away anything that might harm Fluffy or Fido, unplug your lights and go to bed. The rest of the mess can wait until morning. You did it!