Some people love the creativity involved in giving parties. Organizing the menu, the decorations, the table arrangements, the entertainment — all that designing turns them on, even though, in most cases, it also stresses them out, as they strive for the perfect gathering.
Then there are those of us that just love to see our friends come together in an unpredictable swirl, enabling us to surf the waves of friendship and ride on the joy that results — but we don’t have much money and would rather invest our energy in socializing than in organizing.
My husband Sparrow and I fall into this second category. So here are our tips for creating parties that don’t cost much and don’t drive us crazy. Actually, he’s a natural at this kind of creation, while I had to learn, as you might have to, how to let go of being the ideal host and trust that your guests know how to enjoy themselves.
Make it a potluck
The number-one rule is to ask people to bring either food or drink. Not only does this step eliminate the work of menu planning and cooking, but it also means you don’t have to worry about RSVPs and how many people are coming to the party, since more people automatically means more food. The ones who can’t cook can bring a bottle of something, and since alcohol is the most expensive aspect of a party, you’re saving a lot of money right there. The guests who like to cook will generally make enough for several people, so food will not be a problem, as long as you’ve invited enough people to cover a range of potluck styles.
Ask yourself, do you really love grilling? Some people do, and they are welcome to perform all the work that grilling involves, not to mention spend the money on food and fuel. But if you’re interested in a low-stress party, my advice is to push the grill in a corner, throw a tarp over it, and save it for intimate family dinners or four-person dinner parties. (I do not own a grill, so I’m not an expert, but this one seems like a no-brainer.)
Let guests fend for themselves
Sparrow is a Taoist, go-with-the-flow kind of fellow, but it took me a while to learn that I don’t have to play the gracious hostess, since I don’t have a gracious-hostess personality. For instance, when guests arrived with food I used to bustle around tracking down serving implements, making space on the table, turning on the oven for items that needed heating up. This alertness to duty meant interrupting, every five minutes, whatever conversation I was in, and I ultimately felt frustrated and put-upon. I discovered how easy it is to just point to the right drawer and let my intelligent guests paw through for the big spoons and forks. They know how to turn on an oven, and they are certainly capable of moving platters around on the table.
At every party, there are people who can’t resist clearing away empty plates, and will voluntarily plunge their hands in soapy water or place dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Let them exercise their generosity! They will feel good about themselves, as they should, and you won’t have so much clean-up to do. Also such activity is sometimes an outlet for social anxiety, so you will do them a favor by letting them take a break from conversation.
Entertainment makes a party more festive, and live music has always worked well for us. Be selective about inviting musician friends, since electronic music means amps and such. Is your house laid out for heavy noise-making equipment? I’m thinking more of a friend who plays acoustic guitar obsessively and has a repertoire of cover songs, creating the possibility of a singalong. You could add someone like me, who studied flute in fourth grade and likes to jam along, if another musician provides structure. Someone with a beautiful singing voice is another nice touch.
What to set up in advance
There is a small amount of low-pressure work you can do in advance to make your party go smoothly. Clear off the biggest table you own and throw a tablecloth over it. Even if the tabletop is not wood, clean-up from a variegated potluck can be arduous, whereas it’s easy to shake out a tablecloth and throw it in the wash.
You may think that buying paper plates and plastic cutlery is the key to a low-stress party, but I get stressed just thinking of sending all that junk to the landfill. Also, it costs less to wash dishes than to buy disposables. It’s your decision, but I recommend picking a corner of the table to stack up every plate and bowl in the house. Put out all your silverware as well. See my comment above regarding guests who will, I am confident, help with the washing, especially if you run out of plates. On the drinks counter, you can place glasses and mugs, or better yet, station the drinks under the relevant cabinet and leave the door open so people can select drinking vessels.
An ecological and strategic alternative is to request, in the email invitation, that each guest bring their own cup, plate, and spoon. Then they will quite naturally wash their own items.
Unless you’re having an alcohol-free party, which we did once because of a dear friend who was on the wagon, it’s vital that you put out a corkscrew and a bottle opener. Otherwise, you’ll be scrambling to locate tools while drinkers tap their feet.
Since it will take a while (hopefully a short while) for dishes and drinks to arrive, I like to buy two bottles of seltzer, a bag of chips, a jar of salsa, and a container of hummus, just so the first few guests to arrive don’t feel deprived. It’s a small investment that does not require cooking and alleviates anxiety in the early stage of the party.
Lastly, bring out every chair you own (desk chairs, lawn chairs, beanbag chairs, etc.) and arrange them in small groups. Soon they will be filled with talking, eating, laughing people, and your party will be a grand success.