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As many of you know, we’re very excited that later this week, Sous Chef Andrew will be “Retiring” from teaching and taking a new job in corporate America. To celebrate his impressive tenure as a Social Studies Teacher at Westside High School (which includes winning teacher of the year), I knew I had to throw him a party!

I looked into having the party catered since it’s in the middle of the week, but it really is unbelievable how much money you can spend catering very little food. I priced out  catering lasagna, garlic bread and salad for 20-30 people; the cost was going to be over $500, just for the food – not including delivery, dishes, clean-up, dessert, or alcohol. Instead, I created a menu and priced out the food – just over $150 total for 6 appetizers and dessert. If you have the time, it really makes it more special (and much more cost effective) if you make the food yourself.

To help with your party planning, here are a few tips I’ve found particularly helpful when planning a party menu (and preparing):

  1. Menu and time: when you’re planning your menu, keep in mind the timing of the party; if you’re doing something that crosses through the dinner hours (or any major mealtime), you really need to provide enough food for it to “be” dinner, even if you aren’t serving it “as” dinner. Plan about 6-8 appetizers per person. If you’re having something earlier in the afternoon or later in the evening, you can probably half that number since people won’t expect it to serve as their dinner.
  2. Plan ahead! If you followed my Thanksgiving tips, you know I’m a HUGE believer in planning ahead. I write out my menu of what I want to serve, and then I always trim a few things off. You want to have variety, but don’t go crazy. Then, make a game plan for how and when you’ll get everything ready. It’s Monday and the party is Thursday: the table is set; groceries have been ordered and delivered; I have a plan for when I’ll cook the food so I’m not scrambling the day of the party.
  3. Make it ahead! Anyone who follows Ina Garten knows she lives by this rule! Plan a menu that you can make 80% or more of the food ahead of time. This frees your time before and during the party for last minute preparations and, of course, to enjoy the party!
  4. Balance food you make, food you assemble, and food you buy. Okay, if you know me, you know I’m not great at the last one – I really prefer homemade! But for the other two, you really do want to make a few things that your guests know you put love and care into preparing for them. Then, assemble a few things – assemble a Crudités which does double duty as a vegan/vegetarian option; assemble a beautiful Charcuterie which takes no more effort than artfully arranging cheeses, meats, crackers, pickles, onions and mustard on a board. Dessert is a great “buy” item.
  5. Create a menu for most food preferences. This includes being mindful of dietary restrictions, vegetarians and vegans, and other food allergies. I always think you’re best to aim for a chicken, a beef, something vegetarian and at least one option that can be vegan, like the Crudités. That way, your guests will be able to eat something no matter their food preferences or restrictions. I also like to include something guests can assemble and personalize themselves, like a slider bar with different toppings.
  6. Room temperature is your (best) friend! I can’t say this enough: make food that serves well at room temperature. No one wants to be running back and forth to the oven to refill food, or fussing with Chafing Dishes to try and keep everything hot; you’re throwing a party, not a wedding! Serving food at room temperature means you can put everything out at once and guests can help themselves throughout the evening.
  7. Self-Serve Drinks. If I’m throwing a really fancy (or really large) party, I’ll often hire a waiter (they are cheaper than you think), but for smaller gatherings, I think a self-serve bar is the way to go. Put bottles of beer, wine, champagne and water in a big bowl filled with ice, set out the glasses and a bottle opener, and encourage guests to help themselves. That way, you’re not spending your whole evening behind the bar or chasing everyone around to refill their drinks. Don’t worry, everyone knows where to find the bar!
  8. Be mindful of the drink choices! Everyone wants to be “the host with the most,” serving a full bar with three varieties of everything and Veuve Clicquot champagne with the finest wines. I get it – I wish I was that guy too; but think about the type of party you’re having, the people you’re inviting, and the budget you have set aside. For Andrew’s “retirement” party, there are people coming I’ve never even met. Though I’m sure they are lovely people, I don’t need to spend $55 a bottle on Veuve Clicquot for people I don’t know, nor do I need a full bar. Keep it simple – one or two varieties of beer, a white and red wine, and some bubbles – we’re using Costco Prosecco. I’m not saying buy “Two-buck chuck,” but buy economical bottles that are reasonably good that you would drink yourself, and don’t feel guilty – I always invite people to bring their own if they have a preference. Also, by serving things you would drink, if you have leftovers you can use them another time! I also don’t generally serve hard alcohol at parties so everyone “stays in line,” and because we don’t drink much of it ourselves. I always say: “when there’s an open bar, people suddenly don’t have much preference what they’re drinking – it’s free!”
  9. Think about the kids. We’ve recently started inviting people to bring their families to our events – it makes the kids feel included, and saves the parents a babysitter bill! That being said, since we don’t have kids (and nor do many of our friends), I don’t want the kids “front and center” all evening. To help the parents out and keep the kiddos at bay, serve something easy for them, like chicken fingers and fries – and no, don’t make you’re own. Then, when the kids are done, have an activity for them – we have a living room upstairs; I usually put on a Disney movie, lay out some kid-friendly snacks and bottled water, and encourage the kids to go upstairs. The dogs usually go up with them and you don’t hear a peep all evening!
  10. Have fun! Remember, it’s your party! Follow these easy tips and make sure you enjoy your own party – you are also a guest, and you should make sure you have time to interact with your friends and guests and not spend the whole evening fussing in the kitchen or cleaning up.

For all those who are curious, here is the Menu for the Party:

  • Beef sliders with topping options: tomato, arugula, onions, ketchup and Gruyere cheese
  • Israeli salad (vegan)
  • Crudités with dip (can be vegetarian or vegan)
  • Charcuterie
  • Chicken Skewers with Satay Sauce
  • Caramelized Balsamic Onion Flatbread (vegetarian)
  • Confetti Cupcakes

I hope these tips help you throw a fabulous and stress-free cocktail party! Bon appetit!

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