Whatever type of party you’re planning, the first step is to think through what sort of experience you want to create for your guests. Whether you’re celebrating an occasion, gathering for a favorite activity or event, or simply wanting an excuse to use your new fondue pot, you’ll need to make sure that all the components of your party line up with that intention. 

For example, an intimate, sit-down dinner will be limited to the number you can seat around your dining table, probably ought to take place at dinner time, and may tend to be more formal than other gatherings. A Super Bowl party will revolve around the big game, and you’ll likely serve finger foods that are easily eaten on the couch. And of course a birthday or retirement party features a guest of honor who you’ll want to make feel special one way or another. 

Here’s a list of things to consider as you flesh out the concept for your gathering.  Start with whichever aspect is most important, and fill in from there: 

  • What’s the occasion, if any?
  • How many people? 
  • Amount you want to spend, aka your budget?
  • Date and time?
  • What sort of food?
  • Formal or informal? 
  • Kids, adults, or both?
  • Activities or events?

Make a plan

I think of party planning in three phases:  what can be done in advance, what needs to be done within a couple days of the event, and what must be left to the day of.  

Do at least one month ahead

  • Send out invitations.  Whether you’re mailing, emailing, or using E-vites, get the word out in time for people to save the date! For big deal events that you’d be sad if people couldn’t attend, save-the-date announcements 6 months in advance are crucial.
  • Complete big projects.  I have a friend who used to continue remodeling projects right up until party day, trying to get as much done as possible — and then had to make a mad scramble to get the house cleaned up. 
  • Make a detailed plan.  Think through the menu, so you know what you need to shop for and when, as well as what you can prepare ahead and freeze.  If you’re hiring a caterer, get that lined up. Same with any entertainment (band, DJ, bounce house etc.). Make sure it all works with your budget.

Do at least two weeks ahead

  • Deep clean your house.  Yes, you’ll need to vacuum again before your guests arrive, but let that be  “touch up” cleaning — not washing windows, cleaning under the fridge, getting six months’ worth of gunk of the ceiling fan blades, etc.  If you use a housekeeper, give them the detailed list of things you want done. I can’t tell you how many houses I’ve been in where the housekeeper was not doing much beyond the basics.
  • Catch up on yard work. Again, if you have a lawn you’ll need to mow again a day or two before your party, but don’t leave it till then to trim your bushes or clean out the gutters.  
  • Decorate.  If you’re doing a Christmas party or something else with extravagant decorations, go ahead and do the “big” stuff (tree, outdoor lights, wooden reindeer, etc.).  It’ll help you get in the spirit, and ensure that you don’t have boxes and packing material in your way as you try to do the last minute vacuuming. 
  • Advance food prep.  If there’s anything you can make ahead and freeze, do that now.  Be sure to wrap it well, and make note of any thawing, baking, and serving instructions. 
  • Follow up with invitees as needed.  Send a reminder email, or make a quick call if you were expecting an RSVP. 

The week of the party: 

  • Get vigilant about keeping  “problem areas” tidy. Read the newspapers and mail, rather than letting them pile up.  Keep up with laundry, and announce the “last load” a few days before your shindig. 
  • Plan (and delegate, if possible) your grocery shopping and food prep.  Some culinary schools have bulletin boards where you can post small help wanted jobs to students.
  • Iron tablecloths and napkins, if applicable. Set aside guest towels (not in the bathroom yet, just somewhere you’ll remember to change them at the last minute:). 
  • Plan furniture arrangements, if applicable.  If you hate it when everyone gathers in the kitchen, plan to put food and beverages somewhere else.  If you want to encourage people to mingle, make sure there’s room for people to move rather than plopping down on the couch for the duration.  Pro-tip: Move chairs away from the buffet table and make sure there’s room to access it. 

Up to 3 days before: 

  • Complete your grocery shopping.  
  • Task someone with picking up ice for the beverage cooler on the day of the party. 
  • Prepare all foods that can be done in advance. 
  • Finish decorating.

On the day of the party:

  • Arrange furniture. 
  • Empty the dishwasher. 
  • Set the table, or put out plates and silverware for a buffet. (remember the napkins!)
  • Create a beverage station (glasses, openers, ice bucket and tongs, coasters, cocktail napkins, cooler for cold beverages, etc.)
  • Do touch-up cleaning as needed (bathroom, wastebaskets, floors)
  • Thaw/bake previously frozen foods. 
  • Do last minute food prep, place dirty dishes in the dishwasher; wipe the counters
  • Get yourself ready. 
  • Put on the music, do a last-minute check to make sure you put the vacuum cleaner away and there’s paper in the guest bathroom…
  • Sit down with a glass of wine (or whatever) and relax. 
  • Remember, it’s a party.  As long as the bathroom is clean and you have something for your guests to eat and drink, it’ll be fun.  Enjoy your guests.

Bonus Ideas

  1. If you have kids, and your guests have kids, hire a babysitter to supervise games/crafts in the basement or playroom.  OR get together with your friends and hire a babysitter to watch all the kids at someone else’ house. This helps makes it fun for kids and gives adults a chance to relax. 
  2. Plan everything to be ready to go 1.5-3 hours before your guests are actually supposed to arrive.  If you actually stick to that schedule, you’ll have time for a nap! Or at least a moment to relax with a glass of wine to get you from planning/prep mode to host/party mode.  Or, if ALL of that 3-hour buffer evaporates, maybe at least you won’t be stepping out of the shower as your first guests arrive.  
  3. Remember, SOMEBODY will show up 10 minutes early.  So be dressed, have some music playing, and make sure there is some food out on the table to alleviate those awkward only-one-guest-here minutes.  
  4. If you’re having a large party, and it’s impractical for you to greet each person at the door, enlist some friends to take turns letting people in and introducing them to others.  With a lot of people, it can be helpful to put signs up identifying the bathroom, coat closet, and other key places. (If you don’t, be prepared for people wandering around your house looking for these things!)