The fall and winter months are about gathering — whether it is for family holidays, out-of-town visitors, or long-time friends, one thing is for certain: we like to get together during this time of year.
No matter the guests, occasion, or season, everyone wants to throw a fabulous party. But putting together a get-together can be a tad stressful. Have you invited more people than usual this year? Maybe you’re throwing a soiree for the first time? Or perhaps you’re looking for ways to impress those family and friends who are used to the same dishes each year?
Whatever the case, we cordially invite you to dip into our 35 tips, tricks, and tools of the trade to upgrade your holiday gathering for 2017. Our experts and party extraordinaires are a fount of information to leave your guests impressed and help you feel like the host with the most.
Meet the Experts
Owner and caterer with Moveable Feast
Rapp doesn’t shy away from new and interesting recipes in her business. After 18 years in the food industry — spending some of that time in top restaurants in Indianapolis — she has a passion for displaying beautiful and tasty meals. She also has an affinity for collecting eclectic dishes, which she says aids in her presentations of dinners.
Reitz Home Museum Executive Director
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Matt Rowe likes to throw parties. Having led programming and events at the Reitz Home since 2011, he’s no stranger to an upscale party scene. Rowe also has been known to throw a Sunday soiree or two for friends, where the music is jazzy, the chardonnay plentiful, and the conversation enticing.
Professional party assistant
Bush began her partying enterprise in the early 2000s. Since then, she has assisted with and coordinated hundreds of events in the area like private gatherings, corporate events, galas, and fundraisers for nonprofits. From keeping the drinks flowing to magically clearing away messes, her help and work has been described as “pure magic.”
Independent Psychotherapist/ Licensed Clinical Social Worker
With a big family and Italian heritage, Brougham was bred to love cooking good food for the people she loves. Whether it’s a graduation party with 75 guests or the Reitz Memorial High School soccer team boys — which she claims is like feeding 40 regular people — Brougham is a pro at feeding and entertaining big groups and making it look like a breeze.
Owner and event engineer at planning forever events
Fourteen years ago, Hadley bid the corporate world farewell in favor of a more adventurous avenue — event planning. She does not label herself a typical event planner, however. Whether it’s wedding, corporate, or social event planning, Hadley takes an approach of laughing openly and being direct with her clients. She also enjoys color, doesn’t believe in perfection, and is a self-professed techie.
Anthony Majors and Jeremy Huff
Dining Room Manager/Certified Sommelier and Bar Manager/Introductory Sommelier at Evansville Country Club
Majors joined Evansville Country Club this year to lend his wine expertise to the club’s dining experience. Huff has been behind the club’s bar for the past 10 years, pouring up everything from classics to drinks with a twist.
1. Keep it simple.
“Don’t get too pretentious,” says Majors. “A party is not about people feeling uncomfortable.”
2. Play to your strengths.
“I love to cook, but some people don’t,” says Brougham. “If you need to supplement with something store bought, do it.”
3. Light up.
An overlooked aspect of a good party is lighting. Be sure to have the lights low, says Rowe. Lighting should not be harsh or bright as your guests mingle.
4. Be prepared.
“My quote always is it’s better to have more than less,” says Bush.
5. Class Act.
At a party or gathering with his friends, Majors says he would mix up a seasonally appropriate twist on an Old Fashioned. His take includes using maple syrup as the sugar component to the classic cocktail.
“People will recognize the elements, but it has a unique twist,” he says. “It is relatively easy to make, and it embodies fall. The maple syrup gives it that nice weight and fall time flavor profile. It’s very holiday-esque without tasting like a liquefied gingerbread man.”
Majors’ Old Fashioned:
» 1 slice orange peel
» 2 ounces Evansville Country Club’s Woodford Reserve
» 2/3 ounce good quality maple syrup
» 1 splash Bigallet China-China
» 1 splash blood orange bitters
» 2 Luxardo Maraschino Cherries
Muddle the orange peel in the glass and add ice. Next, add the bourbon, syrup, liqueur, and bitters. Stir. Garnish with two Luxardo Maraschino Cherries.
6. Dish it out.
Brougham sets out her serving ware and designates each one with a Post-it note of what food will go in each dish. This not only helps you know if you have enough serving plates and bowls, but also will keep you from scrambling around the day of the party.
7. Cooking for a Crowd.
One of Brougham’s favorite things to serve at a party are tapas. “That is my favorite because it doesn’t involve a lot of cooking unless you want it to,” she says. “There’s something for everyone, and it’s casual.”
The key to making food for a large number of people is cooking dishes that can be prepared ahead of time, can sit out and still be delicious, have a lot of color, and are well rounded.
Even for sit down meals, Brougham stresses there are dishes that can be made ahead of time and reheated. Soups, lasagnas, and beef tenderloin all are some of her favorite options. Her go to, though, is an Italian-inspired chicken pasta casserole adapted from a recipe by Giada De Laurentiis.
“I love it because you can make it ahead and reheat it,” she says. “You can freeze it and reheat it. You can double, triple, or quadruple it. It’s truly become one of our staples.”
Brougham’s Italian-inspired Chicken Pasta Casserole:
» 1 pound of rotini pasta (or other small pasta)
» 4 tablespoons olive oil
» 1 pound cubed chicken breasts
» 1 cup diced onion
» 2 cloves garlic, minced
» 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice
» 3/4 of a jar of good quality spaghetti sauce (organic if that is important to you)
» 1 to 2 cups shredded Provel cheese
(or shredded mozzarella if you are morally opposed to processed cheese)
» 1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan (not from the green can — never from the green can)
» 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
» 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
» Kosher salt to taste
» Black pepper to taste
Cook and drain the pasta. Put back into the pot with a little butter or olive oil to keep it from sticking.
Heat olive oil in pan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté for about two minutes. Add chicken and sauté for about 3 minutes. Salt and pepper chicken to taste. Add garlic and continue to cook over medium heat until chicken is cooked through and onions are soft. Add the diced tomatoes and turn off heat.
Pour the chicken mixture into the pot of cooked pasta and stir to combine. Add spaghetti sauce to taste — enough to keep the pasta moist but not so much the whole thing becomes excessively saucy. Add cheeses and combine. Stir in parsley and basil. Salt and pepper the entire mixture to taste and place in a lightly buttered 9-by-12-inch baking dish. Cover with aluminum foil.
Bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted. After removing from oven, additional chopped parsley can be sprinkled on top if desired.
8. Invite only.
With social media and text messaging, navigating formal invitations can be tricky. If you’d like to do a unique party invite and stay paperless, Hadley recommends a video invite. “Take a video of yourself inviting guests. Be sure to include date, time, and location, then email or text it,” she says.
9. A healthy serving.
A safe estimate for wine at a party is half a bottle for each guest. With liquor, keep in mind that, unlike wine, liquor doesn’t go bad. It’s better to have too much than not enough. “A well-stocked bar makes a party great,” says Huff.
10. Picky eaters.
Planning a meal for a holiday party may seem overwhelming, but Rapp says it is doable for everyone — even if you aren’t a gourmet chef. Start your party meal planning by thinking of your guests — with family and friends, think about their taste buds and what they like to eat. Incorporate different vegetables, meats, and cheeses into dishes to satisfy all.
11. Set the mood.
“Music is an important element in a party,” says Rowe. Put together a playlist on a music app such as Pandora or Spotify, set up Bluetooth speakers, and control your party music through your phone.
12. Make history.
Look to history and cultural traditions for inspiration. The eggnog Rowe serves is a modernized version of a recipe from the 1920s.
13. Set a Theme.
Not all parties need themes, but they can add an element of fun to a gathering. Hadley says just be sure not to go overboard and become kitschy.
If you’d like to incorporate something different in your parties, Rowe suggests a fog machine — yes, a fog machine. "It’s just a black box and I always like to sit it behind a plant,” he says. “It has a remote control and just fills the room up with fog. Everyone thinks it is the funniest thing.”
15. Get out of control.
Allow the help you’ve hired to actually help. “When someone says they can help alongside me, I feel like that’s not fair to them because it’s their party,” says Bush.
16. Oldies but goodies.
When having a lot of people over for dinner or appetizers, don’t use the opportunity to try something new. Stick to something you’ve successfully made before and know will be a hit.
17. Get fresh.
Use fresh flowers and fruits to create a display of food that will have your guests’ mouths watering before they dig in. “People eat with their eyes,” says Rapp. “As soon as they see the food, if it is beautiful, they already know they are going to have a good time.”
18. Snazzy Accessories.
Dress up time-honored party snacks with decorative bowls. Rowe loves to serve chips, fruit, and popcorn in polished silver bowls at his get-togethers.
19. The Party Magician.
Titles elude Bush. Ask her what her role at a party is, and she won’t have an exact answer. She does a little bit of everything.
“Karen is without a question in Evansville the ultimate party coordinator,” says Scott Wylie. “When she comes to your house, you don’t have to worry. You don’t have to worry about are the chips full, drinks refreshed. That’s what Karen facilitates. You’re making sure everyone is having a good time. She does magic.”
Bush has been assisting with parties, events, and functions since the early 2000s. In that time and with her experience, she has become an expert in entertaining and party throwing. One of the keys to her success is her go-with-the-flow approach to any possible challenges.
“All parties are different,” she says. “I have to be flexible. I have to be able to work out of laundry rooms and backyards.”
The advantage of hiring someone with Bush’s experience is it allows you to focus on your guests and enjoy the party while they take care of the behind-the-scenes details many forget.
“The one thing I just love about it is all the different people I meet,” says Bush. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, you could write a book.’ When people tell me I could write a book, I say I would probably get more money from people wanting to keep them out of the book than I would get from the sales of the book.”
20. Organizational Skills a Must.
Food and drink are staples of any great seasonal soiree, but just as important is your guests’ access to these items. Be sure there is enough room for guests to enter and exit the area where food and drinks are located, says Hadley.
21. Pace yourself.
a party should be fun, reminds Rapp, so be sure to take your time. “Enjoy baking your dishes, cutting your vegetables and serving your food,” she says. “Don’t tell yourself you hate to cook, think about your friends who are coming. And if you need a glass of wine to help you accomplish your tasks, then do it,” she laughs.
22. Less stress, no mess.
Worried about enjoying your own soiree? Hire in a bit of help. “Karen Bush certainly is the go-to person in Evansville,” raves Rowe. “She’ll greet people at the door, take their coats. She’ll make them drinks — and she makes perfect drinks.”
Having larger parties and serving dinner can be cumbersome. Consider catering your event or a party helper who can help by fetching drinks, replenishing food, and keeping trash manageable.
23. Have options.
Be sure to offer a wide variety of liquor and wine. “When you buy for a lot of people, you want to run the gamut of styles,” says Majors. “Dry white, dry red, sweet white, sweet red, something effervescent.”
24. GO BIG.
If you’re expanding your guest list for your annual holiday gathering, Hadley says to think about your space. Some rearranging of a room can create more space for your guests. If your seating options are limited, consider rental tables and chairs.
25. Don’t cry over spilled champagne.
“I learn every time I do something,” says Bush. “I’m still learning.” As a host, your primary responsibility is to ensure your guests are having a good time and enjoying the party. Focus on your guests, and everything else will fall into place.
26. Don’t leave ’til tomorrow that which you can do today.
Take Benjamin Franklin’s and Chicca Brougham’s advice and prepare as much ahead of time as you possibly can.
“If I can do stuff the day before, I’ll do it,” she says.
27. Back to nature.
If you’re looking for a way to spruce up napkin holders or garnishes, Rapp suggests getting back to nature. “Use natural elements to bring uniqueness to your table,” she says. “Fresh sage and rosemary are great garnishes or you can wrap them around your napkins. You can even make a name tag out of a bay leaf.”
28. Flare for the Dramatic.
Huff’s cocktail pick for a party also is an old classic — the Derby. “A Derby is not served in a lot of bars anymore,” says Huff. “It’s a little showy, it’s fun, and it’s tasty. It’s classic.”
Huff’s Derby Drink:
» 1 slice flared orange peel
» 2 ounces bourbon
» 4 shakes Angostura bitters
» 1 ounce Benedictine
» Splash of house-made allspice dram
Flare an orange peel into the glass with a match. In a shaker filled with ice, combine the bourbon, bitters, Benedictine, and house-made allspice dram. Strain into the glass.
29. Full circle.
If your dinner party consists of more than eight guests, consider finding a round table to dine on. This allows conversation to flow more easily around
30. Timed Perfectly.
Many elements come together to make a holiday get-together successful. One important tip to remember is duration. “A good party, whether dinner or just cocktails, typically lasts three to four hours,” says Hadley. “Any longer than that, you may need to get out the pillows and blankets for your guests to stay the night.”
31. Serve responsibly.
It’s a host’s responsibility to make sure guests are having a good time, but it’s also their responsibility to make sure guests get home safely at the end of the night. With Uber or services like Select Sedans, there is no excuse for driving under the influence.
32. Relax & Enjoy!
Remember, it’s your party, so take time to enjoy it. Once dinner is served, says Rapp, do not feel the need to rush through it. Allow yourself a chance to talk and mingle as well as enjoy the feast you’ve created.
33. Don’t forget the after party.
“You can tell when someone entertains, because they have lots of containers for leftovers and Ziploc bags,” says Bush.
34. Ice Ice Baby.
“Have plenty of ice” says Bush. “People will buy enough liquor but will forget the ice,” says Huff.
35. More is more.
Don’t be afraid of having a little food left over after your dinner meal, says Rapp. Keeping adequate portions in mind for your guests is good, but if you have a little food left over, it’s nothing to worry about. “Allow at least five bites for hors d’oeuvres and four to six ounces of meat per person,” says Rapp. The most important thing to remember is you don’t want to overstuff your diners too soon. A satisfying appetizer and fulfilling meal leaves room for the star of the show — dessert.
“They should be able to enjoy the dessert without feeling miserable,” says Rapp. “So always keep in mind, it doesn’t take a lot for people to get full.”