The experts agree: For stress-less party days, the key is to prepare as much as you can in advance. Look for smart shortcuts and preparations you can do ahead of time, leaving the moments before guests arrive as well as during party time carefree and fun. Photo courtesy of Denise Vivaldo.
Designer Lauren Liess of The Pure Style says, \"I always make sure I have enough time to prepare leisurely, then I turn up the music and wait for my guests.\" Some of her suggestions for day-before details: Take care of flower and furniture arrangements, set up lighting/lanterns, prep table settings and prepare foods such as undressed salads, burger patties, etc. On party day, it's time to lay out the tables and finish food prep. With about a half-hour to go, simply whip up beverages, light candles and set out food. Photo courtesy of Lauren Liess.
Culinary expert and author of Do It for Less! Parties: Tricks of the Trade from Professional Caterers' Kitchens, Denise Vivaldo adds to the pre-party prep with beautiful table decorations that help set the mood. Flickering tea lights add sparks of warmth to any get-together and take away the will-they-wilt worry of floral arrangements. Melt-in-your mouth starfish sugar cookies are dusted with powdered sugar and arranged with tea lights on a water-blue platter. Photo courtesy of Denise Vivaldo.
Simple-to-serve, gourmet-style sandwiches are ideal for backyard bashes. Stuff fresh bread with turkey, bacon, cheddar cheese, green apples and homemade basil mayo. Fresh gazpacho is the perfect menu-mate, says Liess, because \"it's served cold and people can walk around with it in cups or mugs.\" For the littler guests, go with no-fuss kids' favorites like mini hamburgers, pigs in blankets and apples with peanut butter. Photo courtesy of Lauren Liess.
Pros like Vivaldo know that, when entertaining casually, less is definitely more. When a meal is served family-style, she points out, \"Each table of guests receives its own beautifully plated serving platter of food, which makes for a wonderful and edible centerpiece.\" A table graced with thoughtfully cooked and presented dishes needs little else to enhance it. This classic chicken cassoulet is the center of attention at a French-countryside-themed party. Photo courtesy of Denise Vivaldo.
Always a party-pleaser: cheese! Vivaldo suggests an array of three to five cheeses, when part of a larger menu. \"Choose cheeses based on contrasting tastes and textures; balance the sweet with the pungent, the firm with the creamy,\" she advises. Round out the perfect platter with crackers, a baguette, roasted red peppers, olives, capers, nuts and assorted dried and fresh fruit. Photo courtesy of Denise Vivaldo.
\"For a laid-back party at home,\" Liess says, \"I like to keep table settings simple and natural.\" For easy elegance, she decorates with seasonal items whenever possible, allowing nature to lend a hand with the party's theme. A harvest-party table welcomes with pumpkins, gourds, in-season flowers and greenery. Adds Liess, \"It's also great to include mint or lemon verbena for their scents and they help ward off mosquitoes.\" Photo courtesy of Lauren Liess.
Pack a Picnic
\"[Something] I love doing for family outdoor dinners or smaller parties is to pack everything in a picnic basket in the kitchen, then bring it outside for a simple meal,\" shares Liess. \"If you're doing this, bring along a bucket for dirty plates and silverware for when you're finished, so you don't have to get up from the table and clean.\" Photo courtesy of Lauren Liess.
Drink in the Fun
Serving up a signature beverage has become practically de rigueur when entertaining today, so jump on this popular trend with a customized cocktail or non-alcoholic concoction of your own. Vivaldo livens up lemonade or iced tea with fresh lavender or rosemary — unexpected and pretty twists on classic faves. Come up with party-perfect names for these infused drinks, such as \"Provencal Punch\" or \"Vivaldo Splash.\" Photo courtesy of Denise Vivaldo.
Do a Favor
Send guests home with lovely reminders of your well-planned gatherings. Vivaldo suggests little mementos, like soaps, packets of herbs or garden seeds and scented candles all of which can be selected to coordinate with your party's theme. For a craftier, ladylike favor, Vivaldo instructs, \"Make old-fashioned nosegays to hang off [guests'] chairs. Roll decorative paper in a cone and attach a ribbon handle.\" Photo courtesy of Denise Vivaldo.
Fire It Up
\"The best way to end an outdoor party is with a fire and s'mores,\" insists Liess. Guests big and small won't mind getting their hands a little dirty for this classic campfire favorite. Plus, the gooey DIY dessert is one less thing for you to prepare and a sweet end to a low-key party. Liess believes dessert is more fun when it is served at the end of a party instead of having sweets throughout the event. \"Make a production out of dessert and people seem to enjoy it more,\" she says. Photo courtesy of Lauren Liess.