Why is it that the same cook who thinks nothing of casually bringing a dozen hungry friends home for potluck dinner will agonize at the very thought of a "planned" party at home for the same number?
Could the answer be "anticipation"?
When we entertain spontaneously, guests are invariably dazzled our virtuosity. But when we issue formal invitations, we worry that setting a date and giving notice will be interpreted to mean "Expect fabulous eats, stylishly served."
We fear that, no matter how fabulous and stylish our efforts, we will never be able to deliver what our guests anticipate.
In most cases we're wrong and the event goes swimmingly.
But why waste emotional energy fretting when, with good planning, we can arrive at party day confident that everything will work out well?
Start first with the event. Write everything down.
Is the party to be casual, formal or somewhere in between?
Decide at the very beginning and keep everything -- menu, decorations, serving style -- in the same vein.
For our daughter's high school graduation party, for example, the menu featured country foods -- ham, chicken, baked beans, pasta, homemade breads -- served on white ironstone plates and in rustic bowls and baskets. I made tablecloths from patchwork-patterned cotton and provided afghans and potato sacks for those who wanted to picnic on the lawn.
For a wedding rehearsal dinner, I'd want each table to wear a pretty skirt -- made from a new floral sheet -- and something feminine such as an organdy square for a tablecloth. I'd plan garden or wildflower centerpieces and a menu that looked pretty on the plate.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you get organized.
*Is your home big enough to handle the number of guests you want to invite?
If it isn't, can the party go outdoors? Our tiny house couldn't possibly handle 30 guests in the heat of a spring day, so we planned to spread the graduation party out on the lawn and under the trees on our property's four acres.
Parking is another consideration for bigger parties. We had room around the perimeter of the property but a party in the city could be disastrous if guests had to circle the neighborhood for an hour looking for a parking space.
*In warm weather will your house be cool enough to be comfortable? If it rains, where will guests go to stay dry?
We couldn't take a chance on having guests huddled on our small porch, so we rented a small, open-sided tent for the graduation occasion. By shopping around, we were able to find one we could pick up a day ahead of time and set up ourselves. The cost was around $80.
*Where will your guests eat?
A seated and served meal will require serving help. If you want an inexpensive alternative to hiring catering help, how about tapping a local youth or church group? See if it will lend a hand in exchange for a contribution to the organization.
If you want guests to serve themselves from a buffet and then sit down to eat at tables, will you have enough room for tables and chairs to fit comfortably? Folding chairs are fairly inexpensive to rent. If your party is dressy, you can always outfit the chairs with prettily patterned cushions and back covers. If you sew and there's time enough, the covers and cushions can be made inexpensively.
If you serve buffet style without dining tables, guests will need comfortable places to sit.
*How conservative are your guests' palates?
I let our teen-ager tell me what she and her friends would enjoy eating. For family members, I had only to look back to what "they" served on festive occasions to know that the food would need to be good-looking and delicious but not exotic.
Try to remember that many of today's guests are health-conscious and would welcome good-tasting foods that aren't loaded with saturated fats, calories or cholesterol.
*How much time do you have before the event?
If you give yourself plenty of time (in my case that was two months) and have an empty freezer, you can make and freeze much of the food. I shopped for and made one or two items a weekend for several weeks before the graduation. Big foil pans that held about 30 servings of each recipe were bought at a discount house that specializes in such things. If you lack time, it's wise to keep your menu simple.
*Do you have a way to heat hot foods and keep them hot?
You can always rent, borrow or buy chafing dish-type servers, but that will add to the cost and make the room in which they are served warmer. A better idea for home entertaining in warm weather is to limit the number of hot dishes and focus on dishes designed to be served at room temperature.
*How much do you have to spend on the party?
The more money you can spend, the more work-saving shortcuts you can employ and the less time you'll need. We were on a fairly limited budget, so I shopped for supermarket specials on things like the meat and poultry, but I did take advantage of some convenience items such as refrigerated pie crust for the desserts.
*If you have helpers, what will they do?