Got a big party coming up? Whether you’re hosting sophisticated colleagues or rambunctious toddlers, food should be one of your biggest priorities. Keep reading for party food tips and tricks.
What’s Your Theme?
Before you choose the food, you need to determine the theme of your party. If it’s a holiday party, that makes your job easier, though you can still shake things up with your own unique interpretation of the holiday.
If it’s a birthday party, your first consideration should be for the birthday boy or girl. Kids parties have a lot of fun options, with stores like Party City providing accessories for all kinds of movies and video game characters.
For adults, your theme should be something less over-the-top, accounting for the taste of the guest of honor. If it’s your own birthday, have fun with it! Make the kinds of food you love the most, or try exciting new recipes you’ve never tasted but always wanted to try.
For other occasions, you’ll need a little more creativity. Keep your theme on the vague side, as a more specific one will box you in. How basic or elaborate you make it should depend on a few factors, such as your budget, the types of guests you’ve invited, and when or where the party is taking place.
Whatever theme you choose, use it to help aim your menu in a particular direction. Party appetizers and snacks are the perfect way to incorporate fun, unique food into even the most cosmopolitan event.
Set a Budget
Every party planner should have a budget in mind before they get too deep into the planning. It doesn’t need to be an exact number, but you should have a general idea of how much money you’re comfortable spending. Otherwise, you might let the expense get out of control.
Writing up a guest list is one way to determine what your budget should be. If you only have a few people over, your budget is going to be a lot smaller than if the entire neighborhood is coming. You also need to account for plus-ones, or parents bringing their children, unless it’s an adult-only party.
Once you know who you’d like to invite, you need to determine how much money you want to spend on food for each person. Your theme can help guide that decision—an elegant evening in Paris will naturally be more expensive than buffalo wings on game night.
Keep in mind that food isn’t your only expense, and it may not even be the largest, depending on the party. Adult parties usually involve a decent amount of alcohol, the cost of which can add up fast. You should also factor party favors, decorations, music, and entertainment into the potential price.
Plan Your Menu
Once you have a theme and a budget, it’s time to construct a menu. Obviously, the exact recipes you choose will vary based on the above factors, but here are a few general tips to get you started.
Search online for party food ideas with your theme as a keyword. With the number of blogs and social media on the internet, you’re almost guaranteed to find other people who’ve had similar parties and posted their food ideas for everyone to see.
Make Detailed Lists
Once you have recipes picked out, make a list of all the ingredients you need. Sort the items based on how far in advance they can be purchased—you don’t want to wait until the last minute to go grocery shopping.
Consider making a separate list of drinks and alcohol, since you can buy them way ahead of time. You can also sort the items on your shopping list based on where they are in the store, so you won’t accidentally skip over anything.
Ask for RSVPs
An essential duty of the party host is to make sure everyone has enough to eat and drink. The easiest way to do that is to get a list of RSVPs before you go shopping. Paper invitations are usually reserved for kids’ parties and weddings, but a cute card from the store or a handmade invitation can add a sense of whimsy or sophistication.
Online invitations are another way to both get the word out and get a list of attendees. Facebook events and evites are two easy methods that take almost no time to create.
You don’t need to invest in fancy day-planners or desk calendars, but keeping track of everything you need to do for the party is important. Breaking out all of the tasks into smaller pieces spread out over several weeks will keep you from getting overwhelmed while still making sure everything gets done.
You can use the calendar on your smartphone to set task lists and alerts. Notetaking apps are another option for creating lists or just jotting down inspiration and ideas. If you prefer the physical act of writing (which has been shown to improve memory), then using grid paper or plain college ruled notepads can help keep things neat.
The Day of the Party
Now that the day is finally here, it’s time to make all the food you’ve planned for. Some prep-work can be done a few days in advance, but you should wait until the day-of before doing most of the real cooking.
Give yourself plenty of time. If a recipe says it takes 20 minutes, you should plan for 40 when you’re setting your schedule. Unexpected hurdles pop up in kitchens all the time, and it’s best to be over-prepared.
Make chilled or room-temperature food first, then work on the hot food shortly before guests arrive. Refrigerating and microwaving could ruin the taste and consistency of your party snacks. Use timers or alarms to keep yourself on track. Make sure you have at least one or two dishes ready for the first few guests to arrive, so they can keep themselves occupied while you finish up in the kitchen.
During the Party
The host’s job doesn’t end when the party starts—it’s really just begun. Keep an eye on your guests to make sure nobody’s empty-handed. Refill drinks, hand out party appetizers and point out dishes you think your guest would enjoy. Keep the table stocked with plates, snacks, and condiments so your guests won’t have to search around.
Rotate out the perishable food that’s been sitting out for a while. Don’t let anything with meat or dairy in it get lukewarm. If possible, keep one or two dishes in the fridge so you can replace the ones that you put away.
When you see that guests have moved on from dinner, swap it out for dessert dishes. Make sure everyone knows what’s available, so everyone gets a chance to try all the food you worked so hard on. Provide a fresh supply of plates, napkins, and utensils each time you change courses.
When you run out of a snack or dish, wash out the empty container. Rinsing it out now will only take a few minutes, but by morning it’ll be a caked-on mess on top of a pile of other dishes. You don’t need to spend all night by the sink, but a couple of quick washings will keep the table clutter-free and make cleaning up a lot easier.
Now that you’ve armed yourself with the fundamental knowledge you need to host a great party, it’s time to get to work. Here are a few resources to get you started.
You can find ideas for kids’ party food in parenting blogs and magazines online, as well as on Facebook and Instagram. Parents love showing off the cute, themed dishes they’ve put together for their children.
If your tastes tend more towards tv shows and comic books, sites like Reddit and Pinterest are full of pictures of themes ranging from Game of Thrones to Calvin and Hobbes and everything in between. They also contain loads of recipes, and you can talk with other party planners to get advice.
If you’re planning a high-culture dinner party or a formal work event, you’ll want food that focuses more on the flavors and presentation than on following a specific theme. Magazines like Food and Wine and Bon Appetit are fantastic resources for finding these recipes.
If your group is more health-conscious or has a lot of allergies and food restrictions, you have to ensure there’s a variety of food available for everyone. Veg Web and One Green Planet are popular vegan sites with recipes and support while Eating Well and The Healthy Foodie focus more on overall health and nutrition.
A Final Note
The overall goal of every party is to have fun! Whatever you decide to cook, you have to make sure you take the time to enjoy yourself and socialize with your guests. Have a glass of wine or two and mingle with your friends and relatives, even if that means your dinner comes out a little late.