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how to host a party the right way
Parties are an excellent excuse to get everyone together and let loose. But whether you’re throwing an epic holiday bash for Christmas or New Year’s Eve, or an intimate dinner party any time of year, there’s more to being an excellent host than stocking up on food and drinks. Knowing how to host a party boils down to knowing a few important etiquette rules. Far from restricting you, these rules will ultimately make your guests happy and your party memorable—and help you enjoy the party too.
“Hosting a party is your opportunity to delight and surprise your guests while sharing things you enjoy,” says Valerie Sokolosky, author of the etiquette guide Do It Right. “You don’t have to be Martha Stewart! Being a good host is about prioritizing and planning, and it always should come from the heart.”
Here’s everything you need to know before you plan your next party, from who to invite and what to serve to what house guests notice and what you can leave off your cleaning schedule. You’ll be a party pro in no time!
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Do it: Party with a purpose and a plan
Picking a theme or vibe for your party isn’t just about being cute—it’s also practical, says Sokolosky. Deciding why you are hosting the party allows you to plan more easily and host from your heart, ensuring it will be a positive experience for you and your guests. Choosing a specific vibe or theme (even if it’s as simple as “BBQ birthday,” “home for Christmas” or “family game night”) will help you be more efficient in choosing invitations, decorating, menu planning, making the guest list and even budgeting. Write it down or even make a vision board; a little effort up front will save you so much time later on, she says. Having a defined theme when you host a party will also make your get-together feel more cohesive and memorable.
Do it: Craft the perfect invitation
A good invitation is the foundation of a good party—and the thing that makes an invitation good is the information on it. The key is to make it as specific as possible, says Maryanne Parker, a party planning expert and the founder of Manor of Manners. Include the date, the time it begins and ends, the location, RSVP instructions and any extras like a theme, costume or potluck.
Also remember that the invitation is part of what will convince people they want to come, so take the time to make it festive, put-together and compelling. A good invitation tells a story and intrigues people. One more tip: Don’t forget to spell-check it!
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Do it: Follow up on missing RSVPs
We live in a time when many people don’t bother responding to invitations of any sort, but knowing the number of guests to expect will reduce your stress level and also let you know how to plan. Put a request to RSVP on both digital and paper invites. Make it feel fun and important, says Sokolosky. Then, a week before the party, follow up on missing RSVPs by sending a lighthearted and personal text or email. Something like: “Let me know if you can make it—just want to make sure you get the good dessert! Plus, it won’t be as fun without you and your hilarious Christmas sweater!”
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Do it: Ask about food preferences
Between allergies, food intolerances, religious standards and special diets, many people have preferences about food. A good host will take those into account when planning the menu, says Sokolosky. A simple line, like “Please let me know about any special food needs,” is sufficient.
If you’re doing a buffet or hors d’oeuvres, cute printed or written labels will add a decorative touch and provide important information. Be sure to label foods with the most common allergens, like nuts, seafood and gluten. If you’re doing a seated dinner, consider printing out the menu for the evening on pretty card stock and place one per table or at each place setting. It lets guests know what to expect, adds a touch of class and even becomes part of the table decor on a holiday like Thanksgiving.
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Do it: Make meaningful introductions
A hallmark of an excellent host is being able to make every guest feel welcome and included, and this starts with making proper introductions. Always begin by saying the name of the more senior or important guest, and include a tidbit of benign-but-interesting information about each person, says Sokolosky. For instance, “Dr. Scott, I’d like to introduce you to my nephew Jack. Dr. Scott and I met in med school, and Jack is considering becoming a doctor someday.” You can also use one of these interesting conversation starters. In large groups, offer name tags and/or name cards at each place setting to help guests get to know one another.
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Do it: Pay attention to the napkins
It may sound like a small thing, but napkins make a big impact on the tone and decor, adding pops of color and fun, says Sokolosky. Festive patterned paper napkins are great for casual get-togethers, while artfully folded cloth napkins automatically upgrade a normal meal to luxe. And don’t forget cocktail and hors d’oeuvres napkins if you’re serving those things. It’s little touches like these that make a party feel elevated and fun—and you don’t have to spend a ton of money to do it. Here are more tips to decorate for the holidays.
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Do it: Connect with your guests
Your guests are coming because they want to spend some of their time with you, so make those moments meaningful. If it comes down to removing empty plates or listening to your niece tell you about her recital, choose the ballet story, says Parker. “Good hosts will listen and not interrupt,” she says. “And they ensure their body language matches what they are saying.” In other words, stay attentive, focused and calm. If you’re super stressed or distracted, your guests will feel it too.
Do it: Stock fresh towels and soap
When you host a party, your bathroom is going to be used, and while it’s tempting to leave cleaning it to the last minute, the bathroom will have a big impact on guests’ enjoyment of the party. A great host will go beyond cleanliness—though a sparkling toilet, a clean sink, polished mirrors and a hairball-free floor are musts—and offer a few festive touches as well. Think a scented candle, fresh hand towels and a seasonal soap, says Parker. Depending on your theme, you could also add one or two Thanksgiving or Christmas decorations. These touches will makes guests feel cared for and comfortable in your home.
Also, since the pandemic, it’s important to take steps to reduce the spread of germs—no one wants their party theme to be “super spreader event.” Depending on how many people you have, consider changing the towels halfway through the night or offering a stack of disposable towels. Also place a bottle of hand sanitizer and a box of tissues on the counter.
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Do it: Highlight one favorite tradition
Loved ones thrive on traditions, and if you’re throwing a holiday party, most people expect certain activities, food and decor. But trying to do everything over the course of a single event is a one-way ticket to Stressville, so get choosy. Depending on the holiday, maybe it’s a favorite family dish, a lavish fireworks display or a cookie exchange. Focus on one main tradition, says Parker, instead of spreading yourself thin. This allows you to put most of your time, creativity and resources into making your favorite thing the best thing—and ensures it doesn’t become the thing you resent. Check out our favorite Christmas traditions and Hanukkah traditions for inspiration.
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Do it: Set the mood with lighting and music
Warm, ambient lighting and quiet, festive background music go a long way in making a party feel like a party, says Sokolosky. The trick is to find the right balance. If a room is too bright, people feel on display, but if it’s too dark, guests might feel uncomfortable. And music that’s too loud will cause guests to have to yell to be heard, increasing the party volume to painful levels. Choose instrumental or low-key, inoffensive music, like these Christmas songs.
Do it: Serve a variety of drinks, including a signature cocktail
From eggnog to wassail, traditional holiday drinks are often of the alcoholic variety, but a good host won’t forget to include an equally nice selection of non-alcoholic beverages (like these festive mocktails), says Sokolosky. And just like with the food, it’s also worth the time to put the drinks in a pretty punch bowl, pitcher or arrangement.
Another easy way to elevate your bash? Create a signature drink to go with the theme or add a special touch, says Maxwell Weiss, mixologist and co-owner of Ten Homakase. You can use a seasonal ingredient, like mint for summer or cranberries in the fall, or tweak a favorite recipe and name it after a guest of honor. If you’re hosting a big party, batch cocktails are the answer. “Making the signature cocktail in a large batch, rather than one at a time, is easy but looks beautiful and impressive,” Weiss says. “Guests are often uneasy or unsure about what they should ask for, and a batched margarita or sangria is super easy to make, demonstrates effort and, most importantly, gets the party started!”
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Do it: Build in a prep day and a de-stress day
During the holidays, you can end up going from one event to the next until you collapse from exhaustion. But if you’re the host, cut yourself some slack, says Parker. Schedule an open day for prepping before the party and a day for relaxing and recovering after the party. “You don’t have to do everything, and being selective with your time will help you feel happier and allow you to be a better host,” she says.
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Skip it: Sending paper invitations
And now, onto the things you can skip when you host a party. Don’t get us wrong, sending a paper invitation is a lovely touch and shows that you, as the host, put extra care and thought into your guest list. But if you’re feeling stressed, this is an easy one to take off your plate, says Sokolosky. Digital invitations have become the norm these days. Plus, they’re an eco-friendly option, and they make RSVPing and updating information simpler.
Skip it: Making all the food from scratch
If you enjoy cooking, by all means be the chef, but for many people, this adds a ton of stress to hosting holiday parties. It’s not only fine but sometimes even a better idea to buy some or all of the food in advance from a store, deli or restaurant. The trick, says Sokolosky, is to take the food out of the containers and display it in an attractive way. For example, put the rolls in a basket with a pretty cloth, or scoop the deli mashed potatoes into a decorative dish and top them with a garnish.
Skip it: Apologizing endlessly
Didn’t get all the decorations put up in time? Didn’t have time to do a deep-clean on every bit of your house? Burned the roast and had to go buy sandwiches? It’s OK! Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, says Parker. “Your guests won’t even notice these little things,” she explains, “and by apologizing, you’re calling their attention to it.”
On the day of the party, expect some things to go wrong. Plan to roll with whatever comes and have fun anyway, she says. Plus, apologizing over and over again for little things will make your guests uncomfortable and feel like they need to take care of you. When you’re the guest, follow these party etiquette rules to make sure you get invited back.
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Skip it: Doing everything yourself
Many hosts assume that by offering to host, they are offering to do every single thing. That’s often a recipe for disaster. Plus, people enjoy helping out, and it’s OK to delegate some tasks, especially if your guests offer, says Sokolosky. Someone asks what they can bring to a dinner? Give them a few options, and let them pick. Someone offers to stay later and clean up? Graciously accept the help, and enjoy the extra time you get to spend with them.
Skip it: Making a fancy new recipe
When you’re hosting a big gathering, it’s not the time to try out a new recipe or to make an overly elaborate one—unless that’s a specific tradition you personally enjoy, like making your secret-recipe holiday trifle or smoking meat for 24 hours before a barbecue. Stick to your tried-and-true recipes so there will be no surprises come meal time, says Sokolosky.
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Skip it: Honoring everyone’s preferences
It’s tempting to want to cater to every guest’s desire when hosting a party, but there are way more fun activities and delicious food than you could possibly include in a single party. This issue seems to pop up more during the holidays, especially with Christmas activities, but people can become very attached to special traditions for birthdays, Valentine’s Day and other festivities too. Pick the top few traditions that mean the most to you and your loved ones, and feel free to skip other “lesser” traditions that are nice but are more stress than they’re worth. If there’s a tradition you’re no longer loving but feel pressured by others to do because “it’s tradition,” that is the perfect opportunity to pass the torch to one of them.
Skip it: Deep-cleaning every room of the house
The day before the big party isn’t the time to decide to repaint the entire entryway or reupholster the dining room chairs, even if it does feel like a good idea in the moment, says Parker. It’s also unnecessary to deep-clean every room. Just stick to the common spaces, the kitchen and the bathroom, paying special attention to floors and countertops, and clearing out clutter and garbage, as those are the things guests tend to notice. It’s also perfectly acceptable to hire cleaners—it’s worth the money for many people to reduce the stress of party cleaning.
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Skip it: Playing therapist or referee
As the host of the party, guests may try to draw you into conflicts like family fights, work disagreements or epic meltdowns. And while it’s good to be considerate of people’s feelings, remember you are the host for all the guests and should avoid getting monopolized by one or two people, says Parker. Do what you can to help, and then politely excuse yourself to get back to the party. No need to lie—you can be kind and honest by saying something like, “I’m so sorry to hear you are going through so much right now, and I’d love to catch up next week when I can give you my full attention. Right now, I need to go check on the cake.” If people aren’t behaving, it’s well within your right to send them home or call them an Uber. You set the tone and tenor of the party.
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Skip it: Hosting open-ended parties
Having a set end time—and enforcing it—makes guests comfortable by letting them know what to expect. It also preserves your sanity. It isn’t being mean or rude to announce that while you’ve loved having everyone over, it’s time to say goodnight. In fact, ending the party on a high note is a hallmark of a good host, says Parker, as opposed to waiting for it to devolve or making people stress about when it’s OK to leave.
Now that you know how to host a party, find out which little etiquette rules you’re probably breaking all the time.
- Valerie Sokolosky, an etiquette expert and author of Do It Right
- Maryanne Parker, a party planning expert and founder of Manor of Manners
- Maxwell Weiss, mixologist and co-owner of Ten Homakase
Originally Published: November 17, 2022