How to/ Basics

Seven Simple Steps for Party Planning Success

Here at chez Former Chef, we’ve been known to throw a party or two in our time. Our New Year’s Day brunch attracts 40-50 people every year and we often do a 4th of July BBQ for about the same. These are not pot lucks either. Pulling off parties of this size with food that goes beyond buying prepared sandwich platters and bags of chips takes significant planning and preparation. But once you learn how to do it, the same tips apply to parties of all types and sizes from sit-down dinner parties for 10 to buffets for 50.

A while ago we threw a party for 22 people to celebrate a friend’s 60th birthday. It was a “cocktail and canapes” event (see the photo of the menu at the top of the post) and I planned, prepared, and cooked 13 different items. The party was held on a Saturday night and I worked full time the week leading up to it (meaning, I had no free full days off before the party).

The table, ready for guests
Grav-lax with mustard sauce.
Caprese on a stick!

A few days before the party, I posted this on the FormerChef facebook page; If I’m planning a cocktail party and have an average of say, 13.64 canapes (12 different, 300 total) planned per person, is that too much? Am I overdoing it or are you more frightened by the fact I have a spreadsheet which details out the piece count as well as the ingredients and a 3 day calendar leading up to the event?” The replies were fun and varied to say the least.

If you are intimidated at the thought of throwing a party, take a deep breath and follow along…

  1. Plan, plan, plan. I make lists and spreadsheets. Make a list of every dish you want to make and then all of the ingredients for each dish. Turn those ingredient lists into shopping lists. Make separate shopping lists for different stores.
  2. Plan out what you can prep and shop for in advance. The gravlax was made two weeks prior to the party and frozen. Most of the shopping for the Saturday evening party was done on Tuesday and Wednesday so I could start cooking things Wednesday night after work. Look at the components of each dish and see what can be done in advance. Not everything has to be does last minute at the same time. For the chocolate cake with salted caramel, I made the praline and caramel a couple of days in advance. If your menu has too many items which have to be cooked last minute, switch it up.
  3. Plan out plates, platters and serving utensils. On my list of dishes I specify the serving vessel, platter and any necessary utinsils for each dish. For example, the yellow tomato gaspacho was served in shot glasses, the tuna poke went onto wooden spoons and a piece of slate, and the crostini went on a piece of butcher block. I often do a trial run and set the table the night before, putting post it notes on platters so that everything is designated a dish. Buy platters and tableware when on sale. Wash glassware and plates the day before.
  4. Prep up your mise en place for the day of the party. Figure out what you need to assemble all the dishes and prep it up as much as possible in advance; chop vegetables, slice and dice, and store ingredients in separate containers in the refrigerator. For example, on the morning of the party, I sliced up the fish, prepped the citrus, and sliced the watermelon radish for the kampachi crudo so that later assembly would be quick. For the tuna crudo, I did the same.
  5. Figure out what you can buy pre-made. I know for some this is heresy, but for others, it’s salvation. I used to make my own baguettes, now I rarely do because it’s just easier to buy them and they are just as good. It might make sense to buy a cake or pie so you have one less thing to worry about.
  6. Accept that you might need help and then enlist people you trust. For this party, I enlisted my husband and my mother to do advance grocery shopping. I also asked my mom to make some caramelized onions for me and come and help on the day of the party.
  7. Hand out tasks during the party. People always ask “how can I help?” Usually my answer is “Go have a good time” but sometimes during the party you need help. Designate a friend to help with bartending duties or bringing food to the table. During the cocktail party, while I was busy shucking oysters (this really can’t be done in advance), I had someone mixing cocktails and pouring glasses of wine.

And lastly, do your best to relax and have fun!

Do you have any party tips to share? Think any of these are helpful? Let me know in the comments…

Marinated beef skewers.
Yellow tomato gazpacho in chilled shot glasses.
Mushroom and caramelized crostini with Gruyere cheese.


  • Denise Casper

    I too like to freeze things especially cakes and cookies–wonderful to just pull out and let thaw before plating, or adding fruits and cream etc. Thanks for not ending your blog!

  • Myra

    The mistake I always make when hosting (which is rare) is not spending enough time planning. I’m always scrambling at the end, forgetting things, chaos starts, then it’s over.

  • Kate

    Oh, I plan, plan, plan, too. Much the same as you’ve described, though my menus are, perhaps, a tad less exciting. Great ideas in this menu. Thanks, I’ll be using some of them.
    I found that two VERY helpful things for me is the timer & reminder in my phone. Helps me get things to (and out of) the oven on time, and reminds me of that dish still in the frig.
    I do the same with setting the table early and using post-its.
    I keep my lists, too, especially for small dinners; then I don’t worry about serving the same thing to the same diners.
    I actually prefer this kind of entertaining to pot-lucks. I’m a little OCD about menus and balance of flavors, heat, spice, etc. I AM noticing, though, as I age I am appreciating pot-lucks more and more. 🙂

    • formerchef

      Great tips Kate! ANY time something goes into the oven I set a timer. I have to, or I might forget it! I also cannot do pot-lucks, I’m too much of a control freak. Basically, if I ask (read, “allow”) someone to bring food, I trust they can cook. Hope that doesn’t sound too horrible. 🙂

  • Kate

    HaHa! Not too horrible at all! I started to say in my comment that most of my friends…well…I’ll just keep cooking at home. 🙂

  • Karen

    This was such a timely post- I threw a 60th birthday party for my husband yesterday! Thank God for the help of my two daughters 🙂 My biggest challenge is cleaning the house while cooking all the food. This time, I ordered bbq and coleslaw and beans to save time, but made the ribs (as a compromise) and everything else..mac and cheese, strawberry salad, cornbread… Even so, I was still down to the wire getting everything done in time! Am I the only one that struggles with time management for these type of gatherings? The party was a success and everyone had a great time, but I’m exhausted! Next time, I will bring in a cleaning service to help to get the house spic and span 🙂 Thanks for the post!

    • formerchef

      Time Management is always a struggle, especially when it’s so easy to get distracted and forget things.

      For a really big party, like our New year’s day brunch, I often set up a timeline which begins at 6 am! it will tell me when to start putting the bacon in the oven so I can have enough ready when the hordes arrive. 🙂

  • Mary @ Fit and Fed

    Looks like a really lovely spread. My husband is great at helping get ready for a party, I couldn’t do it without him. I can see that you plan much more than I do (and cook a much more involved menu). Good to know how it’s done.

  • Isabel

    Party planning has always been something that I love to do! I really enjoy organizing all kinds of events…. the only thing I dislike about them is cleaning after. 🙂 The menu is something essential when it comes to parties so every new idea is welcome! Thank you for sharing! Greetings!

  • KimberlyGayeta

    Planning a party could be nerve wracking and the food is always the most crucial part! I strongly agree with number 6 and 7, getting some help could definitely ease the work. Thanks for posting!

  • Darell Christensen

    Hi, I liked the way you have given the minute details, I loved reading your post completely though I don’t always have the patience to read. Thanks for the post even I am thinking to write a blog someone suggested me to do so..:) as she likes the way i see things differently.

  • larissa

    Great tips. Gonna think of them the next time i plan a party. Really helpful. Probably took you a long time and a lot of parties planned to figure them all out right? lol. Great article. Thanks so much, I will be sure to bookmark this page so I can come back to it as a reference!

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