Parties/entertaining for dummies
April 16, 2010 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Parties 101: What do I need to know about hosting a successful party? Not a dinner party, not a crazy late-night drinking party, but something in-between.

My main goal for the party is to build more and better friendships with folks, by socializing with them at the party and by showing through the invitation that I like them and want to be friends/better friends. The invite list is primarily casual friends and friendly acquaintances. I've never thrown a party before, and have only been invited to parties by a couple of these people.

I have some specific questions, but feel free to skip them and tell me what you think is the most important advice. And I know that a lot of this isn't universal so "here are the pros and cons of X and Y" is just as good as "you should do X."

- Invites: How far in advance? And should I do a public invite (like an evite or Facebook) or private by e-mail? On the one hand, people might choose to come if they see there'll be others they know there. On the other hand, I'm afraid that'll work in reverse and even fewer people will come.
- Numbers: Ideally I'd want to have about 8-12 folks there, I think. How many should I actually invite? How much should I push the envelope on inviting friendly acquaintances who seem nice but who it might be totally awkward if they show as part of a small crowd? I'm also kind of terrified that most people won't come so I lean towards erring on the side of inviting more people.
- Timing: What's a good time for a not-really-a-dinner party? 7? 8? I'm fine with serving substantial food but don't want it to be a sit-down food-focused thing. What are the expectations conveyed by having a party at a specific time?
- Food and drinks: Speaking of food-- anything else I should think about? How much alcohol (kinds? amounts?) should I have?
- Games: I have board games. I have a Wii with games including Rock Band. Should these be part of the party and if so, how to do it? Should I mention them in the invite?

I'm sure I'm overthinking things, but I'm socially anxious so doing something like this feels pretty scary to me, so any advice is greatly appreciated!
posted by EmilyClimbs to Human Relations (21 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I think the easiest party to throw is:

Get some hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, watermellon or other fruit, some soda, diet soda, and beer. Grill up the food, have some music playing in the background, have stuff like Wii and board games available, and just let people drift and socialize naturally.

It's nice to have activities available, but not scheduled or forced on people who don't want to participate.

If you invite people who aren't part of your normal social circle, you should do your best to introduce them around and get them talking to people. You can use the activities here to help break the ice for them if they are having a difficult time talking to people.

I think two weeks is good notice as far as invites go.
posted by Menthol at 8:47 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have serious phobias about throwing parties and having them bomb. That being said the last party I threw was actually a raging success. It was a holiday open house sort of thing.

Lots of booze and a good mixture of it with fresh garnish, etc.
A mixture of light and heavy hors d'oeuvres
Conversational level music. Jazz, Blues and Lounge music are all good for this.
Easy lighting. Nothing too bright/glaring. Err on darker if you must.

Seating should also be "social". Look at your place. Are there places for people to gather in small groups?

Keep people out of the kitchen. At my party it wasn't an issue because I had a loft then and the kitchen was open to the rest of the place but this is a common complaint - everyone winds up in the kitchen? WHY? Because that's where the food and the booze is. So bring that stuff all out into the party space. A tub of ice and a cooler (as ghetto as that might seem) for the beer will work. For the food I recommend placing plates/platters around the party space.

Skip the games unless someone specifically says "hey, let's play..."
posted by FlamingBore at 8:51 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of this really depends on the party culture among your friends...

- Invites:
How far in advance do your friends usually send them? Do they usually send by evite or email? Personally, I have gotten irritated lately by sending out evites because people are so damn noncommital and hate to respond to them and it makes it look like way less people are coming than really are. So, I'd suggest email and sending it about three weeks in advance (though I think I send out invites way earlier than a lot of people).

If you want 8-12 there, I'd invite about 15, as long as you have room if they all show up.

- Timing:
I'd say 8 pm, but again, when do your friends usually start their parties?
What are the expectations conveyed by having a party at a specific time?
Among my friends, not much. I wouldn't expect anyone to show up right at the scheduled time.

- Food and drinks:

Can you count on your friends to bring a bottle of wine or a six-pack? If so, then don't be like me and go insanely overboard on the alcohol buying. And just serve finger foods and snacks, a cheese plate maybe... Depends how classy or casual you want to be and your budget.

- Games:
Do you want it to be a game night? You have to decide that. But if it's that many people, that's probably too many to make playing most games feasible with the whole group. You can maybe have the Wii visible and available; but that can backfire into a bunch of people staring at the TV.

I'm sure I'm overthinking things,
you're totally overthinking things. Relax. Parties are supposed to be fun.
posted by amro at 8:53 AM on April 16, 2010

As for invites: since you're looking to host relatively small parties, I'd do both a Facebook invite and email or ring them individually so that they feel obliged to RSVP. Games are great at this sort of thing (and I say this as someone who loathes board or parlour games), especially things like Mafia.

As for food -- I find platters and self-assembly type things work well for smallish groups. People try things, new combinations, etc. For instance, I recently had a pavlova bar, with piles of chopped fresh fruit, crushed meringue, whipped cream and a couple of non-traditional additions for extra interest. People really enjoyed competing to make up their own dessert and it needed little work from me.

If you have access to an outdoor area and a warm sunny weekend, a barbeque might be even better. If people have something to do, they tend to circulate more. Relaxed outdoor games like petanque are great for groups like this.

An easy way to dip your toe might be to throw a joint party with a more sociable friend so the burden isn't all on you.

If it's at dinner time, many people will bring wine. Someone else will have more to say about quantities, since I always overdo. This response is helpful for estimating large numbers of people.
posted by tavegyl at 9:02 AM on April 16, 2010

a joint party, ie a co-hosted party, though the other sort would break the ice very well too
posted by tavegyl at 9:03 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Games can be lame, but one 'game' that is always fun, especially when the booze is flowing, is PiƱata!
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:03 AM on April 16, 2010

At my parties, I like to not set a dining table -- that is, I put all the food & drinks out on the dining room table, and then people sit all over the place to eat. I find that this makes everything nice and informal. There's also more energy -- people are getting up and down, moving around more. Keeps away the deadened feeling I sometimes experience when at a more formal dinner party.

I put the dessert stuff on a different table in the living room, 'cause it changes the circulation patterns and helps keep the energy up.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:14 AM on April 16, 2010

Good for you! Parties are a great way for socially-anxious people to be more social. My wife and I have thrown a few and we find people really appreciate them and the fact that you invited them.

If it's a dinner party, say it's a dinner party. If not, start it some time after the usual dinner hour, maybe 7:30-8:00. People will get the idea. You can also say something like "light refreshments will be served" in the invite.

Chicken wings and ribs, although delicious, are not good party food unless you're specifically throwing a party. You don't want anything too messy and if people are shaking hands they're not going to want sticky sauce all over their fingers. Keep the food simple and remember people will be standing with a beverage in one hand and a plate in the other.

Games: Apple to Apples is a great party game. Wii, not so much, unless you're playing something like Rock Band. You want to give people a reason to talk to one another and laugh over something common. You don't want to all sit around and watch the one Mario Kart expert play for half an hour. It's also best if the Wii is in another room so it doesn't dominate the party. People can play it if they want or ignore it if they want. Unless Rock Band is the focus of the party, which can also be fun.

Booze: I find buying a case or two of beer and several bottles of wine is enough. People will tend to bring stuff to drink. You can also say something like "Bring your favorite beverage" on the invite. To me, this isn't tacky the way "BYOB" might be. Most of the time we end up with more booze than we started with.

Keep a roll of paper towels handy along with whatever cleaners are appropriate for your couch and floors. Keep them by the kitchen sink so when someone runs in saying they've made a mess you can just point them to the supplies. You don't want to be searching for these things when someone spills red wine on the floor.

Someone WILL spill red wine on the floor. Don't stress about it. Clean it up as best you can and deal with it after the fact. Laugh it off, even if it's tough to do at the moment.

Think about the people you invite and who might get along with whom. Think about the different worlds that might be coming (your D&D friends and your old cheerleading squad), and think about how they might interact. But don't stress about it. Social people will get along with anyone and non-social people will just stand by the food table. Introduce people but remember people are who they are and not everyone will hit it off.

We just sent out email and Facebook invites. I like eVite but remember not everyone is comfortable signing up for a new website or, if signups aren't required, even entering any sort of personal information.

A Big Ass Ham makes for great party food. A few sides, some roles and cheese, and people can make sandwiches or eat it as part of a meal. It's also a no-brainer to cook. You just toss it in an oven for a couple hours. Ditto turkey breast.
posted by bondcliff at 9:15 AM on April 16, 2010

Invites: two weeks is good, go with evite or facebook. Having an easy way to track who is and is not coming is useful and it doesn't really cause people not to show up. People (generally) like to be where there are other people.

Numbers: If you want 8-12, I'd invite 15-20. At best, parties usually have at 75% attendance rate, and usually at least 25% of people you invite will show. The median is about 50% so you should go with that. If you use evite or facebook you'll have a better estimate as party time draws closer and you'll be able to adjust your plans as necessary.

Timing: That really depends on where you live. In some places, people have dinner at 6p, and in some places dinner is at 10p. Mention in your invite that there will be hors d'oeuvres and that generally removes expectations about dinner. You can even invite people to bring appetizers or desserts if you'd like. In general, 8p is a good starting time.

Food: If it's not a dinner party don't bother with dinner things. Vegetable dips are nice, maybe some chips and salsa, maybe some pita and hummus depending on who you're catering to. As far as drinks, it's best to know you're crowd. Usually a small mix of beer, wine (one red - probably a merlot -and one white - probably a dry reisling) and liquor (a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of vodka) is enough to satisfy. Make sure you have ice. When buying beer, I'd assume that half the people will drink some, so 12-24 bottles should be enough. Don't get crap beer, but don't get really expensive craft stuff either. Something like Yuengling or Fat Tire would be fine. Of course, if people offer to bring their own booze, then you don't have to get nearly as much. In fact, when people bring their own booze, you'll often find you have more alcohol after the party is over than when it started.

Games: It can go either way here. Honestly, Rock Band is a great idea because it really gets people working in a group on an activity and can be a ton of fun. Even people who don't really know how to play can sing or work the drums (if they're shy). You should definitely mention this in the invite.

Sample Invite: Come on over to my place for a night of food, fun and drinking. Good music, good times, and good people! We've got Rock Band, Wii, and a selection of other fun games if that's your thing, as well as hors d'oeuvres and alcohol but feel free to bring something of your own if you'd like. The party goes from 8p until whenever, please RSVP and let me know if you can make it!

Another thing you may want to think about is music. If rock band isn't being played you might want to have some music going. Pick something that most people will like, even if they're not familiar with it. If you need suggestions, ask some of your musically inclined friends to help you. If they're helping to pick out music, that's pretty much a guarantee that they'll want to show up to the party. That's about it. You provide some food, alcohol and entertainment, and the people will do the rest.

Hope that helps!
posted by scrutiny at 9:16 AM on April 16, 2010

One more thing -- since there are friendships that sound newish, that you're trying to encourage, I would stay away from the video games & board games. Those can certainly be fun, but they can get really focused and become a way for people not to socialize. Unless you're doing a "Just Dance" tournament or something that really gets everybody involved.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:16 AM on April 16, 2010

Invites: I'd always go email or direct facebook message rather than facebook "event" as it seems more personal, somehow. And you're more likely to get a response.

To me, 7-8pm says "expect food"; 9pm+ says "expect nibbles".

For nibble food: bowls of nuts, crisps, tortillas. Dips (hummus, taramasalata, salsa etc.). Potato wedges (slice potato into chip/wedge shapes, shake in a freezer bag with 1tbsp oil, add salt and chilli if you like, stick in medium oven till crispy). Carrot and other vegetable sticks. Maybe something sweet like M&Ms or cupcakes.

Booze: Say on the invite if you expect people to bring a bottle. If you don't specify, for 12 people, I'd get 6 bottles of wine, 24 beers, some nice mineral water and a couple of litres of soda. You're not going to get an even wine/beer split but some people will bring stuff anyway. Make sure you have in tea, coffee, milk, sugar, herbal tea, and fruit juice. This is almost certainly over-catering, but you don't want to run out, and it's not going to go off (apart from the milk).

Games: I don't really like WII games at parties - attention tends to be grabbed by the television rather than the conversation and I don't go to parties to look at the TV. One party I went to had a printed quiz (a "Guess the language" quiz with the same phrase in lots of different languages) lying around - this served as a good conversation starter but didn't get in the way in the same way that structured events can.

Music: Don't over-plan it. There's nothing worse than a party where the host has set up a playlist and insists it goes on all night - your guests may want to listen to something different.

Things you don't mention - are there any smokers? Is there a place (yard/balcony) where they can go?
posted by handee at 9:19 AM on April 16, 2010

When I'm hosting my parties, I have two goals. Everyone always has access to something they want to eat or drink. And they always have someone to talk to.

If I see someone empty-handed, I offer them something. If someone is standing alone in a corner awkwardly, I pull a "Oh, Cornerstander, did you know so-and-so is interested in ___. So-and-so, Cornerstander actually studied ___ in college."

After that, I'm inclined to think everything else is details. But fun details! Enjoy!
posted by chatongriffes at 9:32 AM on April 16, 2010

I've always found success in themes. Not like murder-mystery, but have a general reason for the get together - whether it be a specific television show event or movie-watching party or game night.

So, quick and simple, have a board game themed night, where you invite people two weeks in advance (via email, not stupid evite) and then follow up with phone call to confirm, and ask them to bring their favorite board game or card game to share. It's a great opportunity to bring groups of friends together, and board games are perfect as an ice-breaker, especially games like Taboo or Scatagories, which are very active games, and extremely easy to pick up.

As for food, go with grab-and-go classic finger food. Also, if you're doing wine, assume 1bottle/person and beer would be 6bottles/person. Mix drinks are a pain in the ass, so maybe have just a bottle or two of Coke/Diet Coke and some white rum and some random fruit juices and gin and vodka. I wouldn't put hard liquor because, well, it's a pain to make cocktails in the middle of a heated game, and a lot easier to crack open a bottle.
posted by banannafish at 9:33 AM on April 16, 2010

I recommend against evites or facebook invites, especially since you are trying to reach out to acquaintances who aren't friends yet. You don't want them to think you just spammed your entire address book. They will think that you must have been targeting your "real friends" and that they shouldn't come. Reach out individually, whether in person or by email/phone, to let them know you'd like to see them at your party. And ask them to let you know whether they can make it.

Setup your room for small groups of people to talk with each other. If seating in your room is setup in a large circle everyone will try to have one conversation and it will feel painfully awkward with 12 people.

If you decide to serve hard alcohol, make sure you have a ton of ice (2 bags) and more mixers than you think you need. Nothing kills the mood like realizing the only drink option remaining is a warm rum and coke.

If the people you invite don't know each other very well, your job as a good host is to introduce people to each other. Try to find some common thread of interest between them for the introduction. Your more outgoing acquaintances won't need help with this, but the shy ones will. Making good introductions builds your social capital and is generally a fun thing to do.
posted by reeddavid at 9:36 AM on April 16, 2010

Invites - I think evite and the like make it quite impersonal and therefore reduces the likelihood that people will show up. I prefer to send a personalized email which states the details and tells people why they should come ( Debbie and Rob are going to be there ), and how much you would appreciate it if they did come ( I would be thrilled if you could make it ). Give yourself enough time so that you can cancel or postpone the party. A lot of times, parties bomb because of the timing, not the fact that people don't want to come.

Numbers - If you give yourself enough time, you invite 8-12. If you don't get confirmation or people just can't make it, invite some more people, or just have a party with 6. Don't gauge the success of your party by the number of people who show up.

Timing - This is key. Not only the time, but also the day. The timing should be determined by the people you hang out with. Some groups like Friday night parties. Some like Sunday afternoon. It all depends. But it your shooting for a party at night where you won't be serving dinner, I think the party can start at 7 but people may not show up until later.

Food - How much money do you have? Good food or snacks can really make for a good party. Why? Because it gives people something to talk about. It also let's people who don't want to talk an excuse to keep there mouths full with tasty treats. The type of food all depends on your budget, your skill, your time, your audience, and any theme you may be going for.

Drinks - How long do you want people to stay? How tame do you want to keep your party? How heavy do these people drink? Make sure you have plenty of non-alcoholic stuff to drink. Sometimes you can get away with just beer and wine. Some people have fully stocked bars and can offer up gimlets and pink squirrels. Make sure you have plenty of ice and water.

Games - Depends on how many people you have and what they are into. 8 people teaming on Catan is a lot of fun, if everyone knows how to play. The last thing you want to introduce is a game that is frustrating to learn. It depends on the knowledge and maturity of your party goers. Drinking games? Euchre? Charades? Games are a hit or miss.

Where is the music involved in all of this?

I think my number one thing is to be a good host. This means introducing people and opening up conversations and keeping people 'entertained'. This means keeping drinks flowing and making garbage disappear while trying to be invisible. Work your ass off but don't look like your working your ass off. People will feel uncomfortable if you are running around looking stressed. You know the best waiter you have ever had? Be that waiter while also having a good time yourself. See someone with an empty beer, point to the beer and ask "Would you like the other half?".

Throwing a good party is an art form.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:37 AM on April 16, 2010

Good suggestions here. Definitely say on the invitation what level of food you are planning -- nothing's worse than expecting food and not getting it or eating dinner before there's an awesome spread.

I'm much, much more prone to go to a party for which I receive a specific (non-evite, non-Facebook) invitation. If it's people who don't know one another or know each other better than they know you, then you may want to do both -- send individual invitations pointing them to the public one. That may seem like over doing it but if it's important to you, you should let folks know so that they can plan accordingly as well. If someone is 'having a party' rather than 'just having some folks over for drinks', I'm much more considerate about deciding if I want to go, RSVPing, etc.

Any sort of theme - even if that theme is "mmm, cocktails" -- is good for planning and letting people know what they are in for.

Games as an option are definitely loved by some and not by others. Fortunately you're planning on inviting enough people that you can have both. Though I tend to avoid it, being an organized activity can be fun sometimes -- I had a MarioKart tournament on my 25th birthday (Christ a decade ago...anyway...) and that sort of competition got people excited, even though who wouldn't normally play. (Warning: this might have just been 'birthday boy perogative' getting its way)

Since you're using this as a way to get to know people, try to do as much of the host stuff as you can beforehand, so that And when its happening, if people ask if there's something they can do to help, let them. Labor is an ice-breaker too and it will allow you to be more social.

Finally, you are over-thinking it, but if it's something that you are way nervous about doing are still going through it, congratulations. A lot of people - myself certainly included at times - complain about their lack of social life, but rarely take the steps to actually solve it. This is a B.F.D. and you should be commended.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:50 AM on April 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

THOSE who wouldn't normally play...
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:51 AM on April 16, 2010

My trick for getting RSVPs and letting people know what food to expect? I write something along the lines of "Let me know if you can make it, so I can organise some nibblies!" So far it has proved pretty successful!
posted by unlaced at 10:03 AM on April 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. Keep the advice coming.

So isn't the flip side of evites being impersonal that people know exactly how many people are invited and know they're 1 of only 20 or whatever? And re: personal invitations, are folks suggesting sending e-mails to each person individually (hi Jane, I'm having a party, feel free to bring Bob?) Wouldn't that make them feel a little put on the spot? Also, then how would they know that I'm not inviting everyone under the sun? And what if whether other people they know are invited/coming would make them more likely to come? I don't know how to make that clear besides an evite or a group e-mail at least.

re: timing, the other thing I'm concerned about is if people have other plans to go out later. Would 8 be too late if someone was going to stop by for a bit before a night out?

And yeah, it would be way easier if this was a group of friends who I regularly attended parties with and knew their preferences and the "party culture" they're used to, but for the most part, I just don't, so I've just gotta guess with help from y'all.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 10:51 AM on April 16, 2010

INVITES: you can do this two weeks ahead, you can do it several hours ahead. no matter when, there will be changes, cancellations, late arrivals. invite a few more people than you really want to have over, and enjoy everyone who shows up. or, get a few core compatriots, and get each of them to bring someone else (works best with non-couples).

Evites are impersonal, and they feel spammy. I don't need a personalized invite; a batch invite email is good enough.

FOOD: hamburgers/bbq is a great straight-forward idea. it has in common with my standbys (crepes, fajitas) that it is something people can do TOGETHER to ACTIVELY participate and to interact with each other outside of small talk. a dinner with additional components (bring your favorite crepe filling, e.g.) also helps scale your party naturally.
posted by whatzit at 2:30 PM on April 16, 2010

I host people at my apartment in SF. Well, not really, but I watch what my outgoing roommate does. I do not recommend Rock Band, in part because the worst singers will insist on singing, and we find that painful when it goes on and on. It also draws people's attention to the TV and is bad for conversation.

8 is fine for people going out later on -- at least for us, because bars shut down at 2 am, so people go out around 11. YMMV depending on where you live.
posted by tantivy at 4:18 PM on April 16, 2010

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