Confession: I am a reformed party-perfectionist. In the past, as a busy working mom to a crazy toddler (with another baby on the way), hosting get-togethers felt like just another thing to add to my endless to-do list. I fretted so much about being the perfect hostess — making sure the house was immaculate, putting together a gourmet spread, hoping my son would be well-behaved — that entertaining became more of a chore than something I looked forward to.
But my husband and I have a large circle of friends that just keeps growing (thanks to play dates and parent friends), and we recently moved from an apartment to a house, meaning that we finally have room to entertain like we’ve always wanted to.
I came to the conclusion that I needed to find a way to fit stress-free entertaining back into our lives. Because, let’s be honest: If I kept up my antics of over-the-top food prep and hours of intensive cleaning, my husband would probably ban any more guests from stepping through our door.
Fast forward to the present — now I love entertaining! Having friends over for casual get-togethers or hosting impromptu cocktail nights are highlights of my week. The holiday season was filled with parties, and I’m currently enjoying planning my son’s third birthday at our home instead of a party space.
So how did I manage to do a total 180-degree turn when it comes to entertaining? All it took was creating a great system of simple party-prep that literally anyone can replicate.
The first big step was to create a go-to menu of snacks. I start with store-bought basics like pre-cut cheese and veggie platters, then add my own personal touch with a homemade spin. I love setting up a bar with a bunch of dips and spreads that are a hit with both adults and kids. One of my favorite hacks is using Hidden Valley Ranch Dips to whip up great-tasting dips that are crowd pleasers while still being super easy to make.
In order to make the menu more mingle-friendly, I love plating apps in individual servings, using small plastic cups or silicone muffin tin liners. Then I fill them with either a dollop of dip and a few veggie sticks, or cubes of cheese and a slice of meat. Pro-tip: If you want to keep your party kid-friendly, cups of fruit salad or mini pasta make great snacks for little hands. My favorite part about this hack is that it gets guests out of the kitchen!
When it comes to drinks, I always make sure to keep things simple and streamlined — setting up a drink station featuring one signature cocktail will keep you from having to play waitress. For a brunch gathering, a “Mom-osa” station is always a hit. Pre-mix champagne and orange juice in glass carafes along with a display of fruit like strawberries, blueberries, and pomegranate seeds for a fun DIY pairing. Planning an afternoon get together? Just swap in a sangria station. And when in doubt, pitchers of fruit and mint infused water make for a great refresher that even kids will love.
Another one of my favorite party hacks is to stockpile entertaining supplies. Keeping supplies at the ready makes for easy last-minute party prep. I make sure I always have a pretty acrylic tray for displaying glassware, a wooden board for cheese platters, and various funky bowls and plates for dips and chips. Pick up packs of plates, napkins, and straws as you see them in discount stores and keep them organized in small storage bins for easy access at a moment’s notice.
Another crucial part of my system: Become a master of power cleaning. Instead of wasting time deep-cleaning before a get together, save the heavy lifting for post-party. Pre-party, just focus on high traffic areas where guests are likely to linger, like the entryway and the bathroom. In the kitchen, clear the countertops and wipe down the surfaces. Have kids help tidy up toys and play areas, but don’t worry about perfection since those are sure to be the first areas destroyed.
And never underestimate the power of a lighting a few candles to improve ambience…and to distract from a little mess!
Make sure to have designated areas for shoes and coats that guests can access themselves. That way, you won’t need a search party once it’s time to say goodbye. Strategically place a few garbage cans throughout your space to make it easy for guests to dispose of plates and napkins and cut down on cleanup later.
My final tip: Relax. Once guests arrive, it’s time to enjoy yourself! Grab an appetizer and a cocktail and get out of the kitchen — you’ve earned it.
Images: Gregory Reid; Food Styling: Heather Meldrom; Prop Styling: Alex Silva; Wardrobe Styling: Annebet Duvall; Makeup Artist: Mary Guthrie; Hair Stylist: Marcos Diaz; Art Director: Mary Blount; Design Director: Bry Crasch