Party Like a Pro: Our 55 Fave Entertaining Ideas

Throw an unforgettable get-together any time of the year with our tips for hosting big or small gatherings with ease.

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May 16, 2019

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Photo By: Sarah Busby; Styling by H. Camille Smith

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Soirées, Simplified

Hosting doesn't have to be stressful. You *can* throw a party that you'll enjoy just as much as your guests. The key is careful planning: Make a list of what you really need to do — but don't plan to do it all yourself (purchase readymade items or ask friends to bring a dish) and pre-make or pre-decorate or pre-clean any areas you can. So, when party time rolls around — just set-up and celebrate.

Serve a Signature Cocktail

To save time mixing drinks on the fly, whip up a big batch of one signature cocktail before guests arrive. A few recipes to try: Savannah Fizz, Long Island Iced Tea, Mai Tai or Whiskey Buck. Welcome guests with a drink upon arrival, then invite them to help themselves to refills with a large punchbowl or pitchers filled with your signature concoction.

Get the Recipe: Boozy Bourbon + Peach Summertime Smash

Host a Block Party

Warm spring, summer or fall nights are perfect for gathering friends and neighbors together for a block party. Fire up the grill and ask everyone to bring their favorite side dish or dessert to share. Learn how to get your grill ready to party, below.

Get the How-To: How to Deep Clean Your Grill and Grates

Keep Kids Occupied Indoors ...

A designated kids' area ensures any party runs smoother. Cover the table with brown Kraft paper to create a doodle- and spill-proof surface. Stock the table with a ready supply of tasty treats and art supplies so the kids can craft and munch the night away.

... And Out

Upcycle an old yoga mat and pool noodles into outdoor fun for little ones. Featuring all soft surfaces and lightweight pieces, this game is safe for even the youngest party guests.

Get the How-To: Turn Pool Noodles Into a Backyard Bowling Alley for Kids

Brunch: The Weekend's Perfect Party

Whether you're celebrating a holiday, a bridal or baby shower, a birthday or just toasting the weekend, brunch it up with our ideas for easy-yet-healthy recipes and setting a beautiful spread.

See More Photos: Brunch Like a Boss With Our 20 Top Tips

Stock the Bar

Invite guests to help themselves at a well-stocked bar. An assortment of sodas as mixers, spirits — gin, vodka, rum and whiskey — and liqueurs — vermouth, orange liqueur and bitters — will ensure they're able to mix up their favorite cocktail.

See More Photos: Bar Cart Essentials for Every Style

Or, Try Another Kind of Bar

If cocktails aren't your thing, treat guests to a coffee bar instead. Stocked with mugs, fresh-ground beans and a variety of flavored syrups, they can whip up their favorite cup o' joe in a flash.

Get the How-To: How to Create the Best Coffee Station at Home

Don't Forget Your Best Friend

Pets are family so include them in your party plans. Invite outgoing pets to the party; alternately, provide a safe, quiet zone for pets that are skittish around strangers, not feeling well or are afraid of loud noises.

Party With Your Pup: How to Throw a Gotcha Party for Your Dog

Let Guests Help With the Prep

As any seasoned host knows — whether you want them there or not — guests always end up gathering in the kitchen. Rather than lamenting the fact that they're underfoot — put them to work. Most guests have taken a turn at hosting themselves and understand how much work it can be so they'll be more than happy to pitch in with the prep.

Pre-Party Prep: Chill the Wine

Oenophiles agree: Wine tastes best when served at the correct temperature. As a general rule, serve white wines chilled (between 49-55 degrees) and red wines at room temperature (between 62-68 degrees).

And the Bubbly

Before guests arrive, use a large, ice-filled beverage tub or porcelain bowl to chill sparkling wine to the perfect temp. Want to speed up the chill time? Put science to work and add water (an excellent conductor) and a handful of kosher salt (which lowers the water's freezing point) to the mix to rapidly bring your bottles to the ideal temp, which for sparkling wine is around 50 degrees Farenheit.

See More Photos: Spring Sips: Set Up a Sparkling Wine Cocktail Bar

Always Include a Centerpiece

What would a beautifully set table be without the star of the show — a centerpiece?! Crafting one doesn't have to be hard or expensive; check out our 50+ fall centerpieces, below, for tips and inspo.

See More Photos: Our 60 Fave Thanksgiving Centerpieces

Serve an Easy-to-Munch Menu

Hand-held bites, like these mini tacos, are easy for guests to enjoy while mingling. Other two-bite favorites include: Mini Quiche Florentine, Smoked Gouda and Herb Puffs and Chile-Lime Roasted Cashews.

See More Photos: 25 Easy Party Food Ideas That Won't Break the Bank

And, Make Desserts Portable + Personal

A summer classic, banana pudding is a southern cookout staple. Beloved by kids of all ages, this clever portable version is ideal for any summer get-together — from kids' birthday celebrations to pool parties. And, they're a snap to make: just layer the familiar ingredients in a single-serve cookie bag.

See More Photos: Party a Go-Go With Our Favorite Handheld Sweets

Pick a Palette

The same rule of three (main colors, that is) that applies to interior design also works when setting the table. Choose three main colors to create a theme then carry those colors throughout with accessories like napkins, dinnerware, glasses, place cards and flowers.

Palettes Simplified: Celebrate Seasonally

The easiest way to pick a palette for your party? Incorporate colors of the season. After all, what would a Fourth of July or Memorial Day party be without the tried-and-true red, white and blue? Incorporate pastel and cheery pops of color for spring. Summer parties look great dressed in bright, tropical shades while fall's hues are more saturated and subdued.

See More Photos: Party Patriotically With a Red, White + Blue Backyard Bash

Silverware: What Goes Where?

Setting a guest-impressing place setting is easier than you may think. Start with a charger (check your local dollar or craft store for inexpensive options), followed by the dinner plate. Top it with a smaller salad plate, followed by a place card. To the left, place the napkin and forks, to the right: the knife (blade turned in) and spoons. Voila, a beautiful place setting in a snap.

Dine Alfresco

Weather permitting, take your party outdoors. Everything — even a simple supper, brunch or midday snack — tastes better when enjoyed in the great outdoors.  

But, Keep Bugs at Bay

Easily whip up a few of these luminaries to keep mosquitos from crashing your party. Place a few slices of lemons and limes along with sprigs of rosemary into a jar of water, then add several drops of essential oil. We recommend citronella, lemon or lavender. Top with a floating candle and enjoy a bug-free fête.

Easily Make the Silver Shine

Put a little science and two kitchen staples (aluminum foil and baking soda) to work to easily vanquish years' worth of silver tarnish.

Get the How-To: Clean Tarnished Silver With This Easy (and Cheap!) Trick

Create Budget-Friendly Centerpieces

Assemble an inexpensive focal point for your table with flowers that are in-season. Pair backyard bloomers, like tulips, camellia and assorted vines with succulents for a lush, low centerpiece.

Or, Make The Centerpiece Part of the Feast

Wow guests with an edible centerpiece by serving up healthy and not-so-healthy bite-size treats on a series of stacked servers. No need for guests to leave the table to grab dessert at the end of the feast, the perfect ending to their meal is within easy reach.

See More Photos: Our 60 Fave Thanksgiving Centerpieces

Sometimes, More is More

With flowers so readily available — from your backyard or local florist or market — a single centerpiece won't do. Brighten up the center of your table with a grouping of small vintage pieces, like a sugar bowl and creamer, old apothecary bottles or punch cups, filled with an abundance of sweet-smelling blooms.

See More Photos: Spring It On With a New-Meets-Old Table Setting

Keep Place Settings Simple

Even a sophisticated dinner party doesn't require a formal place setting with a dizzying array of spoons, forks, glasses and plates. Only set the table with the utensils your guests will need — if the menu is fairly basic without a long succession of courses, a standard spoon and fork will do.  

But, Use the Good Plates

Ditch flimsy, disposable plastic, foam or paper plates in favor of your prettiest dishware. This is a party after all and everything tastes better off nice china — especially when there's no chance of your meal ending up in your lap.

Bandanas for the Win

Swap disposable paper napkins for reusable and budget-friendly bandanas. Check your local dollar or craft store — they’re typically $1 each — or save even more by buying them in bulk online.

Take Storebought Goodies Up a Notch

You don't have to be a pro baker to create desserts that are both delicious and look like a million bucks. Just pick up readymade treats from your favorite bakery then embellish with a few craft-store supplies — like paper straws, twine and card stock pennants.  

Keep Cold Treats Cold

Entertaining alfresco is *great* but sweltering temps and high humidity can mean disaster for chilled desserts. Keep cold desserts cold by filling a container — large bowl, garden urn, kiddie pool or even a wheelbarrow — with ice, then filling to the brim with grab-and-go treats. Chill out with our portable ice cream sundae recipe, below.

Get the Recipe: Crowd-Pleasing Portable Ice Cream Sundaes

No Cooking Required: Cue the Charcuterie Board

Any seasoned host will tell you that selecting food to appeal to a wide variety of palates can be tricky. Enter a charcuterie and cheese board: With a mix of cheeses, meats, nuts, fruit and bread, it's an easy way to put out a savory-meets-sweet spread that has a little something for everyone.

See More Photos: How to Stock a Party-Perfect Charcuterie + Cheese Board

Turn an Inexpensive Tub Into an Outdoor Drink Station

A large metal or plastic tub filled with ice-cold soda is a welcome addition to any outdoor get-together. Anchor long wooden dowels in the ice, then add a card stock and ribbon banner to turn the budget-friendly tub into a cute drink station.

Enjoy an Outdoor Movie Night

Invite friends to join you for an after-dark movie night. Hook up a projector to your laptop, then display a favorite summer flick on a screen or blank wall. Movie buffs of all ages will love a laid-back evening under the stars.

Or, Go Big on Backyard Games

Backyard games are a surefire way to break the ice between guests who may be meeting for the first time. Badminton, croquet, bocce or horseshoes are all safe bets — or, turn a tarp into a fun-for-all game that folds flat for easy between-party storage.

Get the How-To: How to Turn a Tarp Into a Fun Party Game

Green Up Their Thumbs

Host a seed swap party to help your green- (and not so green-) thumbed pals get a head-start on beautifying their backyards or growing their farm-to-table faves.

See More Photos: Get Ready for Spring: Host a Seed Swap Party

Serve Buffet Style

Buffet service not only frees the host from spending the entire party in the kitchen, it also creates a more casual feel that promotes mingling and conversation. Be sure to provide a variety of options so guests with food allergies or dietary restrictions will be satisfied as well.

See More Photos: Host Happy: Throw a Festive Friendsmas Party

And, Include Some Healthy Options

Fresh fruit skewers drizzled with honey are a healthy choice that's sure to tempt even the pickiest of palates. Tip: Pick up a marble tile at your local hardware store for an inexpensive serving tray that, thanks to the cooling properties of marble, keeps chilled fruit (or cheese or cold desserts) cooler than room temperature longer.

Set Up a To-Go Station

Everyone loves taking home an extra serving of particularly tasty party food to enjoy later. Make it easy for your guests to pack up nibbles to-go by setting out a variety of eco-friendly paper containers in an assortment of shapes and sizes.

Bring the Indoors Out

No flimsy plastic picnic furniture here — set the scene for a spectacular dinner party by bringing your dining table and chairs outside so everyone can sit back and comfortably enjoy their meal.

See More Photos: Throw Mom a Colorful Alfresco Lunch

And, the Outdoors In

Backyard blooms are always pretty but slide their vase into a vintage tin and ... win-win! To keep cut flowers looking their best, gather early in the morning when the temps are cool. Place the cut blooms immediately into a bucket of room-temperature water, then re-cut the ends at a 45-degree angle before arranging. To prevent mold, always remove the leaves that will be below the water line and change the water every few days. And, for added texture, mix in a few bare branches or berry stems.

See More Photos: Our Favorite Easter Table Settings + Centerpieces

Craft an Easy Banner

A colorful banner adds a festive, fun touch to any indoor or outdoor party. Create your own with our free printable template, below. Just print the template onto sheets of card stock, cut out, and connect the pennants with metal brads.

Get the How-To: Free Printable Party Flag Banner Templates

Let Kids Help With the Decorations

Although you'd never guess it — what looks like a fashion-forward table runner is actually a kids' art project. Learn how to get crafty using your kiddos' fingerprints with our instructions, below.

Get the How-To: Mother's Day Kids' Craft: Fingerprint Table Runner

Have Fun With Serveware

Playful serving pieces, like this pig-shaped cutting board, give any get-together an extra punch of personality. Search estate sales, flea markets and thrift stores to score them on the cheap. If they need a refresh, follow our steps, below, to give new life to an old cutting board.

Get the How-To: How to Restore and Maintain a Wood Cutting Board or Butcher Block

Light Up the Night

Bistro lights add a gorgeous glow to an outdoor party, but they can be tricky to hang if you don’t have trees or other tall objects to string them from. Below is a freestanding solution for hanging lights that uses planters and wood posts. It’s totally temporary, so it’s perfect for renters.

Get the How-To: String Light Solution: Hang Patio Lights Using Planters and Wood Posts

Cue the Candlelight

Those old brass candlesticks you have packed away in your garage or basement are actually back in vogue. Time to unpack them and put them to work adding a subtle golden glow to your table setting. Intersperse the tall candlesticks with lower floral arrangements to create visual interest by varying heights. And, don't worry about lining everything up perfectly down the center of the table, a meandering grouping creates a less formal, relaxed look.

Create Areas for Guests to Gather

Guests will naturally gather together wherever they find comfortable furniture so — whether you're planning an indoor or outdoor party — group furniture together to create conversation areas. Add plump pillows and warm throws to lend a cozy feel that will encourage guests to linger.

See More Photos: Party Patriotically With a Red, White + Blue Backyard Bash

Satisfy Their Sweet Tooth

Even the most diet-devoted guest finds it hard to pass up a bite or two of something sweet making individual desserts like cupcakes, tartlets, cookies and parfaits a tasty choice.

Or, Treat Them to a Sweet Spread

Kids of all ages won't be able to turn down a sweet treat from a dessert spread this cute. For a pro presentation, pick a theme and carry it through in the color palette or type of sweets offered.

Party Under a Pergola

Pergolas are great for filtering sunlight while still giving you the feeling of being outside. If you're lucky enough to have one of these structures in your backyard, position the dining table under it and invite guests to sit a spell.

Chilly Weather: Gather 'Round the Fire

Whether you choose to buy or DIY, instructions below, a roaring fire bowl or pit is the perfect way to keep the party going long after the sun has set — and an evening chill has set in.

Get the How-To: How to Make a Concrete Fire Bowl

Set Up a Snack Station

Kids and adults alike will enjoy helping themselves to a crunchy-meets-sweet snack mix of their own making. Fill small bowls with assorted nuts, candy, pretzels and popcorn; place them in a tiered serving tray for a pretty presentation and to make it easier for several guests to sample the snacks at once.

See More Photos: Set Up a Thanksgiving Snack Mix Station for Kids

Fake a Dining Table in a Flash

If you're short on serving space, try this designers' go-to trick: lay a hollow-core door or thick piece of plywood over evenly-spaced sawhorses, cover with fabric and voila — a beautiful buffet table with plenty of serving space that can be broken down again and stored when the party's over.

Craft DIY Fun for Little Ones

It's no secret that little girls love to play dress up. Indulge their inner diva by throwing a party where girls can be girls: let them come in costume or provide easy-to-make tulle tutus by stitching layers of inexpensive tulle around a length of elastic that's a little smaller than the girls' waists. Colorful hair accessories and a wide ribbon sash completes each girls' transformation.    

Try a Flower-Free Centerpiece

A beautiful centerpiece is the perfect finishing touch to any dining table — but flowers aren't required. Instead, line the center of the table with pillar candles and something colorful to coordinate with the party palette or theme, like glitter, fresh fruit, foil-wrapped chocolates or seashells.

Add Color With Homegrown Fruit or Veggies

Think outside the florist when pulling together a summer centerpiece for less. Instead of expensive hot-house greenery, clip herbs from your garden. For color, add stems of young tomatoes and finish your arrangement with a single large peony bloom.  

Fancy for Free

For an outdoor or garden-themed get-together, add an organic touch to each place setting by topping each plate with a bundle of clipped backyard vines, branches or grasses. The greenery adds a designer look without the designer cost.  

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