Whether you’re a first-time entertainer or a seasoned party pro, it takes a ton of work to throw the type of legendary bash your guests will be talking about for weeks (and maybe even years) afterward. But with the right planning and strategies from the pros, you can host the perfect party – and keep your cool.
Secrets to having the perfect party
Some SJ party hosts know what it takes to plan a party their guests will be talking about for days
“Our guests didn’t have any indication of what goodies I had planned. Everything unfolded as the night went on.”
Marlton’s Dean Danowitz had larger-than-life plans for his wife’s surprise 40th birthday party in the family’s backyard.
Despite the added stress, the party went off without a hitch. Guests were asked to wear white, and Danowitz brought in custom plants to make the backyard a tropical paradise. (The plants complemented the floating candles in the pool.) And that’s not all – guests enjoyed massage tents, a steel-drum band and Cuban cigars hand rolled on-site.
“People were surprised at all the details,” Danowitz says. “And now they ask me all the time, ‘When’s your next blow-out?’ Everyone had a great time. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“You should see their faces when we move the couch and hop up on the coffee table to dance.”
For Amy and Paul Jackson of Hainesport, you can’t have a good party unless everyone is dancing. “We don’t have a big house, but that’s what makes it even better,” says Amy. “We push the couches out of the way, roll up the rug, and then someone jumps up on the coffee table. That’s when we know this is gonna be a great party.”
Paul says they have a reputation for throwing parties people remember, not that they play hosts frequently. “We don’t even do one a year,” he says, “but when we do host, we plan and plan and plan.” Amy and Paul always hire a caterer, so they can mingle with guests. And that doesn’t mean they spend a lot of money. “One year, we had sandwiches and salads, but we put them on these elegant silver trays. It was beautiful, and it looked special.”
“For us, the key to a great party is getting people together who like to have fun,” Amy adds. “And then not freaking out when they have fun in your living room – on top of the coffee table.”
“It’s all about the champagne and the sugar.” At Ann Crossen’s house in Mullica Hill, her party guests start off with the good stuff: dessert.”
“We’ve been hosting a dessert and champagne party for over 10 years. People expect it. They love it. A lot of our guests make early dinner reservations nearby and come to the party ready for dessert.”
Having a limited menu makes preparation a breeze, Crossen says. And limiting the bar to champagne and wine also lightens any lead-in efforts. “We were surprised the first time we did this that no one complained about not having other alcohol. I think they expect it, though, and really, nothing goes better with chocolate.”
Crossen says she’s vigilant about updating the guest list, because there have been hurt feelings. “People know we’ll be having the party, so if they don’t get an invitation, they wonder if it was intentional.” She keeps an excel file on her desktop so she can easily update the list throughout the year.
“Our party is a tradition for many of our friends,” Crossen says. “That’s what makes it so special.”
Quench your guests’ thirsts with these lively – and easy-to-make – cocktails, courtesy of Harvest Seasonal Grill & Wine Bar Corporate Beverage Manager Alex Cadoux.
Apple Cider Hot Toddy
½ gallon apple cider
12-15 cinnamon sticks
12 star anise
24 oz Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey Whiskey
6 tbsp lemon juice
In a saucepot, combine apple cider, cinnamon and star anise. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and cover with a lid. Allow spices to steep for 10-15 minutes. Strain spices, then add whiskey and lemon juice. Stir to combine. Serve with cinnamon sticks.
PRO TIP “Add a cinnamon-sugar rim to your glasses for a special touch your guests will love,” says Cadoux.
Pear-Infused Vodka Martinis
8 cups very ripe pears
½ cup sugar
750 ml bottle of
375 ml bottle of Riesling
To taste cloves and
Place all ingredients in a large pitcher or beverage dispenser and stir to combine. Serve with pear wedges, if desired
PRO TIP “You can serve these delicious martinis cold or warm,” says Cadoux.
Americans consume nearly 360 million glasses of sparkling wine during the holiday season
– Wine Institute –
These easy steps will help you enjoy your party as much as your guests.
Four weeks before:
• Send invitations – mail or email invites are both acceptable
Three weeks before:
• Plan the menu – assemble your recipes and shopping list, or place your catering order
• Line up your help – if needed, now’s the time to hire cleaners, bartenders or servers
Two weeks before:
• Take inventory – make sure you have enough china, glassware, flatware and linens
• Start shopping and cooking – prepare any dishes that can be frozen
One week before:
• Clean – do a thorough cleaning, and don’t forget to make room in the coat closet
• Declutter – clear off kitchen counters and pack away fragile knick-knacks
• Stock the bar – the common rule of thumb is three to four cocktails per guest for a two- to three-hour cocktail party
Three days before:
• Finish grocery shopping
• Decorate – bring out the candles and switch out lightbulbs if you’ll be using special lighting
One day before:
• Cook again – prepare as much food as you can, or do as much prep-work as possible
• Set the tables or buffet – don’t forget to set aside extra cutlery and napkins
• Touch-up the house – give rooms a quick once-over
Day of the party:
• Finish cooking – this shouldn’t take much time!
• Put out chairs – you don’t need a seat for everyone since fewer seats means more mingling
• Display food and drinks – set out food that won’t spoil one to two hours before guests arrive
• Relax and have fun – enjoy your guests and pat yourself on the back for hosting an epic night!
For a party with 15 guests, you should have a supply of 200 napkins.
– Rachael Ray –
All about the food
Professional caterer Cathy Gunn, owner of Cathy’s Catering, knows what it’s like to put together an amazing spread, whether it’s for groups of 8 or 80. She’s got a few tips to ensure your guests are treated to fantastic food – and you’re not stuck in the kitchen.
➽ 1. Keep it simple.
At a gathering with a lot of different taste buds in the room, it’s probably best to stay simple. Gunn suggests sticking to tried-and-true dishes like stuffed chicken breasts, light seafood entrées and pasta. “Cover all the bases,” Gunn says. “Then there’s enough diversity so everyone will like something.”
➽ 2. Your shopping list is important. Gunn encourages party hosts to do their shopping about a week before. It’s best to go through each dish you plan to serve and make an itemized list of what you’ll need. And don’t forget the obvious stuff. “A lot of people don’t think about what paper goods they’ll need,” Gunn says. “Plan from beginning to end.”
➽ 3. Don’t waste time and money overcooking. You don’t need eight main dishes at a special gathering, Gunn says – and you definitely don’t need 50 different hors d’oeuvres. “Know how much you really need to cook,” she adds. “Not everyone is going to have a full serving of every dish you make.”
➽ 4. Have fun and enjoy time with your loved ones. “People overcook, overanalyze and stress themselves out,” Gunn says. “It’s your family and friends. People are just happy to be at the gathering with you.”
Dress your table like a Party pro
A party tablescape is the host’s chance to do something dramatic, says florist Michael Bruce. “Today, people want to be adventurous.”
Instead of focusing on a floral arrangement, Bruce recommends using candles, holly and pinecones to create a unique, eye-catching centerpiece. “Holly is great because you can lay it down the middle of the table, no container needed,” Bruce says.
Finding new linens is a simple way to make your tablescape pop, and that’s precisely what will catch your guests’ attention. The trick to choosing linens, says Bruce, is sticking to a neutral color to complement the outgoing display on top.
At the core of being adventurous is a do-it-yourself approach. Bruce encourages party throwers to try it on their own – but also says, “It’s fine to copy. Every picture online, someone saw another set up and copied that. The simplest starting point is Googling ‘holiday table décor’ and sorting through millions of hits.”
10 musts for your grocery store shopping list
1. Trash bags – don’t just buy your normal kitchen size. Opt for large, heavy-duty bags with an odor shield.
2. Lemons, limes and olives
3. Ice – even if you have a built-in ice maker
4. Carpet spot remover
5. Paper towels
7. Mixers: club soda, tonic, ginger ale, orange or cranberry juice
8. Toilet paper!
10. Tea and coffee – don’t forget cream and sugar, maybe even some cinnamon sticks
Here are some songs to get your party rockin’ or maybe just groovin’ a little.
74 percent of Americans attend at least one party between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve
– Gallup –
Get invited back!
(How to be the guest your host will love)
Whatever you do, don’t be that guest – the one everyone wishes had just stayed home. Make a great impression with these few easy steps.
• RSVP before the deadline. Actually, RSVP as soon as you know you’re going. Whatever you do, don’t make your hosts follow up with you. They don’t need one more item on their to-do list.
• Bring a hostess gift. A bottle of wine is always good, but if you can personalize the gift, that’s even better. Try a special frame with a picture of you and the hosts together at a special occasion or even a throw that has the name of the hosts’ hometown or their alma mater.
• Talk to someone you don’t know. Every host hopes their guests will get along and have a good time. You can help by looking out for people who may not know anyone and feel a little left out. Start a conversation.
• Head to the table when dinner is served. Nobody likes to be the first to sit down, but respect that your hosts have put out food while it’s hot – and they’d like you to eat it before it gets cold.
• If it’s a potluck, take home your dirty dish. And bring your item fully cooked. Don’t depend on oven space that may not be available.
• Offer to help clean up. But if your hosts say no, don’t insist. Follow their lead and don’t create a scene. They really might prefer you help keep the party going instead of cleaning up.