'Tis the season to have friends over. And to host a successful holiday party requires three things: planning, planning and planning.
Oh, and don't forget planning.
Lori Chase, owner of The Chase is Over, a Kenai catering company, suggests hostesses and hosts begin the planning for a party four weeks in advance.
"The very first thing you need to do is figure out what your budget is," she said.
Chase emphasized that planning a budget does not mean planning to spend a lot of money.
"Regardless of your budget, you can throw a wonderful party without anybody knowing how low your budget was," she said. "It's all in the details."
Chase said a host should figure on spending $8 per person, minimum, without alcohol; $10 a person with the libations. At that rate, a 20-25 guest party would be a reasonable $160 to $250.
"It's very easy to go over-budget," she cautioned. "Make a wish list and then mark off the things you can't afford."
With a budget set, the next thing to do is pick a menu.
"If you're having family and friends over, you want some really nice stuff, like shrimp or crab. Pick up two or three very nice items and the rest can be very inexpensive or easy to make," she said.
Chase suggests contacting the butcher or fishmonger as soon as the menu is set, as they may need two weeks or more to acquire a specialty item.
For preparation ideas, she said butchers love to talk and are a wealth of information.
The items surrounding the main course on the buffet table should include what Chase calls "fillers," such as cheese, bread and vegetables.
"Those are the low-cost items that people will fill up on," she said. "Then get your protein in there with some shrimp or chicken skewers. You want a nice balance of protein and fillers.
"And you can't forget the sweets."
Drinks should include nonalcoholic beverages and punch for teetotalers.
Determining the guest list can be as complicated as a hostess wants it to be.
"Etiquette is very important," Chase said. "You need a good mix of people to come to your party. Make sure you have good conversationalists and that there are no feuds going on.
"Take a hard look at your list and make sure you have what it takes to have a good party," she added. "You want lots of conversation and lots of personality."
Making invitations by telephone or e-mail is acceptable except for more formal parties, where a written invitation would be more appropriate. However, Chase advises against the wisdom of Martha Stewart and Miss Manners when it comes to R.S.V.P.s.
"I don't necessarily recommend them," she said. "Guests don't usually send them back."
She suggests making a follow up phone call the week before the party in any case.
"Something personal that says, 'Hey, I'd love to see you,'" she said.
With people so busy around the holidays, Chase said invitations should go out a month in advance.
At a party with alcohol, there is always the danger of someone over-imbibing and ruining the atmosphere.
"I've been in many situations where I've had to act as the bouncer, unfortunately," Chase said. "The key here is not to offend anybody. The last thing you want is to get a drunk person to become obnoxious."
She said a host must be diplomatic in dealing with an inebriated guest.
"Find them a cab and talk to them until they feel they are making their own decision to leave," Chase said. "Your concern here is your party and the other guests, so if that person is ruining your party, you need to remove them."
Preparing the home is important and should not be left to the last minute.
"You can buy or make some very simple and elegant decorations," she said.
Chase said buying magazines on gracious living, such as Martha Stewart Living, can be the source of a wealth of tips.
"Even if you don't want to buy it, you can thumb through a magazine at the check stand and get some great ideas," she said.
She also said local craft stores such as Jo-Ann Fabrics have many ideas for decorations, such as topiary centerpieces that the hostess can put together herself.
Chase also said flowers and candles brighten up the home on these dark winter nights.
"When we entertain, I put candles in every room," she said.
"Be creative. Use color. Color is important, use glitter and silver and gold ribbons," she added. "But don't over do it. Just little touches here and there, that's what makes a home sparkle."
Using holiday linens is an excellent way to make the home more festive, she said.
"And use linen napkins instead of paper," she said.
The same goes for the dinnerware.
"They have excellent prices at Kmart and Gottschalks. Buy inexpensive china and silverware instead of using plastic and paper," she said.
Preparing the home for a party can begin the week before, but Chase suggests giving yourself enough time to get it done, to avoid being overwhelmed at the last minute. She said hiring a professional cleaner to come in and put an extra polish on the home is one of the best things a hostess can do.
The hosts also should relegate the family pets to the back bedroom or the basement during parties to avoid any mishaps and to ensure no guests are affected by pet allergies.
And unless the invitation clearly states it's a family party, Chase said children should be left with a sitter.
"If you're in doubt, call the hostess," she said. "Even though we love our kids and want to invite them to everything we do, adults need time to ourselves."
Chase also suggests notifying the neighbors if a large number of guests, who may be parking all up and down the street, are expected.
"Communication with the neighbors is key," she said. "If they are aware a few days in advance, you shouldn't have any problems."
In any case, Chase said to do as much in advance as possible.
"You are the hostess and host, and you want to attend to your guests," she said.
One good, and surprisingly inexpensive, option that will give the gracious hostess more time to mingle is to hire a caterer.
Where a hostess can spend $8 to $10 per person and still have to do all the menu preparation, set up and clean up herself, Chase said a caterer can provide a buffet package for as little as $12 per person. A carved tenderloin buffet, with dinnerware, linens, set up and clean up is only a little more at $15 to $20 per guest.
"Even on a low budget you can use a caterer to your own advantage," she said. "The food is done and you can enjoy your guests, which is the whole point of throwing a party."
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