Entertaining 101: Overcoming Pre-Party Panic

Dear Ms. Demeanor,

I have difficulty determining whether to open gifts at parties or not. (With the exception of a bridal or baby shower.) For example, we tend to host small casual parties frequently. When someone walks in with a wrapped gift (usually wine or champagne), do I open it there? Is the gift a thank-you gift or is it a real gift? Do I need to send a thank-you note for it? Am I supposed to serve the wine or champagne they've given that night?

Along the same lines, I would like a resource to help me fully plan a party. I find that in the final three hours, I can't pull it all together between the vacuuming, my appearance, the last-minute meal assembly. I always have someone show up exactly on time, too. I am at such an intense stage of preparation, I can't easily delegate tasks. What can I do to make things run more smoothly?

--marta50

Question:

Dear marta50,

When guests show up for a casual party or a dinner, the gifts they bring are basically "hostess gifts." It's not a good idea to open them on the spot because it might be embarrassing for the other guests who came empty-handed. When the gift is wine, there really is no reason to drink it at the party. A good guest, though, will be savvy enough to say something like, "Here's something for you to enjoy later." And no, you needn't send a thank you note, as the gift was given to thank you for the invitation.

Everybody gets flapped when they entertain. Perhaps you're biting off more than you can chew? Is there a way you can simplify your parties? (For instance, instead of trying to do a sit-down dinner for ten on Friday night after work, invite fewer people for a more intimate dinner, or hold a crowd-pleasing buffet on Saturday, when you have all day to prepare. And no one is going to give you a bad-hostess citation if you serve a few gourmet "ready-mades" instead of cooking everything from scratch.)

I've always used this trick to help prepare for parties and avoid last-minute angst over forgotten items: Ten days ahead, write the menu course-by-course, then, next to each course, write down what you'll need for it. That means ingredients, serving dishes and utensils, condiments. Even if it's a soup-and-salad supper, taking the time to do a detailed list when you're not rushed will save lots of time later.

Finally, here are some ways to get organized the night before and not feel so time-pressed the day of the event:

  • Set your table and put out whatever things you'll need ready in the kitchen to prepare and serve -- serving plates, ingredients that don't need to be refrigerated and so on.
  • Do whatever prep work you can -- for instance, wash salad greens and wrap them in paper towels, then put in plastic bags to refrigerate.
  • Put anything you need for the bar out, too: mixers, wine, soft drinks. If the bar will be self-serve, lay it out where it will be used.
  • Get coffee service ready by putting mugs or cups, empty creamer and sugar bowl on a tray, together with spoons.
  • The night before a party always seems to be a late one for me and often I go on adrenaline the day of the party. However, it sure cuts down on last-minute pressure!

One final note to guests: Never, ever show up early for a party!

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