“Don’t sweat the small stuff” doesn’t apply to party planning. But stress-free preparation is possible, even with a big guest list. If you’re hosting a large group, prep ahead with this timeline to put your mind at ease and enjoy the merrymaking.
Three Weeks Ahead
Settle on your guest list and send out invitations. Make very clear in the invitations whether kids and plus-ones are welcome, or plan for uninvited, extra guests. Also decide if you will have activities during the party, such as a photo booth or cookie decorating.
Two Weeks Ahead
Make your menu and shopping list — but don’t think only about food. Consider napkins (you always need more than you think), serving platters, prizes for games, signage, decorations and whatever else you’ll need for your party’s look and function.
For the Menu
My top recommendations are slow-roasted pulled pork (which can be the centerpiece for tacos, ssam or a Hawaiian-themed luau bar) or Thai curry, since these can be prepared in large portions and don’t suffer from making ahead of time and reheating. For appetizers, charcuterie platters assemble quickly and make a lovely spread. For dessert, choose options that can be served at room temperature and don’t dry out easily, such as cookies or pie. Unless you have the budget for a bartender, plan a cocktail station with two or three posted recipes (including a nonalcoholic option).
One Week Ahead
Purchase the non-food items on your shopping list. Check out thrift stores first! You can pick up a variety of oven-safe platters and big bowls for reheating prepared foods directly in their serving dishes.
Four Days Ahead
Shop for your ingredients.
Three Days Ahead
Make your desserts or baked goods. Wrap desserts or breads tightly and store as directed.
Two Days Ahead
Cook entrees and appetizers. Don’t place the food in serving dishes or cut up raw veggies yet — only cook. Research simple ways to cook your items for a crowd. For example, here in Hawaii, we have rice with every meal. Although I usually make it in the rice cooker for my family, I can cook much larger portions in a foil pan in the oven with no fuss!
One Day Ahead
Open your living room. Your guests won’t all arrive at the same time, so choose various locations for stations so you won’t clog up one area when people are getting food. Move furniture that doesn’t serve a party purpose to other rooms. If you have extensive decorations planned, set them up.
The Morning Of
Put together final decorations and set up any activities or games you planned. Set out plates and serving ware. Buy ice and store it in ice chests. Hang signs designating areas for coats and directing guests to the bathrooms.
Three to Four Hours Ahead
Finish preparing food that requires cutting or assembly, and set out food that can be at room temperature. Put on music and get in the party mood while you get everyone in your house to work on these tasks!
One and a Half Hours Ahead Heat food in oven-safe dishes and leave it in a warm oven.
One Hour Ahead
Always reserve at least an hour before guests arrive for yourself.
When the Party Starts
Set out food just as guests begin to arrive. Food can sit out for about four hours, but you can alleviate your worries by leaving hot food in a large slow-cooker or using ice platters to keep cold food chilled.
When It’s Time to Go
Signal the end of the party by serving cookies and coffee in to-go cups and paper bags. Bring out takeout boxes if you have food to give away, and send your guests on their way. Don’t make any promises to do this again soon!
Mariko is a high school English teacher who has three children, illegible handwriting and an obsession with mail-order artisan ice cream. She lives in Hawaii, but she makes a point to eat her way through big cities as often as she can.