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10 Simple Ways to Elevate Your Next Party, from Tablescapes to Signature Drinks

How to throw a party

There is nothing I love more than throwing a party. I adore meticulously planning the little details and then having a group of people I love all in the one place. I love pouring drinks, sharing food and stories and creating happy memories with my favourite people for special occasions and no occasion at all. If I think about it, the only part of hosting parties I don’t enjoy is the cleaning up — and even that is strangely satisfying in a way.

I’m not entirely sure where this deep-rooted love of entertaining comes from, although I am sure there is a selfish element to it as everyone has to come to me and I don’t have to face a drunken commute home at the end of the night. Perhaps it stems from spending so many years abroad where holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, were spent with other friends who were away from family, therefore sparking a manic drive in me to ensure they had a day to remember.

When it comes to Thanksgiving (my absolute favourite holiday), I would host for around 10 friends each year and would begin the planning process about two months out. I’d create a mood board of how I wanted the table to look and send around a spreadsheet to my guests so everyone could see what dish everyone else was bringing, to avoid double-ups. I’d also write a schedule of how the day would run, but this was more due to living in New York and having a small NYC kitchen, making military precision when it comes to cooking a necessity.

With COVID restrictions now fading into the background and summer and the silly season approaching, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite tips for taking your next gathering up a notch.

Have a Signature Drink

This is such a fun and simple way to make your party a memorable one (or a blurry one). Coming up with a signature drink that you can offer your guests on arrival is a great way to get them excited about the afternoon or night ahead.

You can either take a classic recipe and give it a funny name that pertains to the reason you are celebrating, or make up your own concoction. For one particularly raucous Australia Day party I threw in NYC, I made a huge batch of vodka lemonade, with plenty of lemon and lime wedges for garnishes and also to represent the Aussie colours. I also made yellow and green jello shots which everyone loved at the time but hated me for the next day.

Try buying an inexpensive drinks dispenser and setting up a little drinks table with eco-friendly cups, paper straws and bowls of the appropriate garnishes to really kick the party off right. Remember to also make a non-alcoholic version for any friends who are abstaining.

Curate the Perfect Playlist

Apps like Spotify make it so easy to throw great tracks together to suit the mood of any event. Take the time to think about the vibe of your celebration and have some fun putting together a killer playlist. For me, I love to have an old school jazz playlist for dinner parties and I have a fun and cheesy Americana one that is great for my, now Aussie based, Thanksgiving barbecues.

If you run out of time to make one, Spotify has thousands already on the app for literally any occasion.

Consider the Flow

For many years, my home was a large alcove studio apartment in the West Village. It had stunning views and somehow fit 60 people in it for the aforementioned Australia Day party, but it was still essentially one room, making “flow” a bit of a moot point.

If you live in a house, as I do now, or an apartment with more than one room, think about how you want your guests to move within those spaces.

If you want to keep everyone in one area, print out signs to indicate which doors are not to be opened and clearly indicate where the bathroom is to avoid people wandering around too much.

If more of your home is open to your guests, think about how each space can be used a little differently to make the party feel more dynamic but make the area you want to utilise the most the place where the majority of the action is so people don’t feel the need to scatter.

If possible, it’s great to also have a dedicated kids space. When my partner and I host, we do this by throwing our obnoxiously large picnic blanket in the garden along with a bunch of scatter cushions. We ask our friends to bring books and toys for their kids and then they all share these on the blanket. For this Thanksgiving, we are also setting up a kid’s lounge area in our studio so they can watch a movie if it rains or when they start getting ratty.

This is a great way to ensure that parents feel comfortable bringing their kids, knowing they will be entertained, but also allowing them a bit of space to enjoy some adult conversation.

Plan the Menu

If you are having a dinner party, you will know exactly what you are making and have probably put a lot of thought into it. So why not print out little menus that can be rested on your guest’s dinner plates so they can get excited about the feast to come and also have a memento of the evening. Don’t forget to ask for dietary requirements so everyone is covered.

If it’s more of a casual “everyone brings a dish” situation, it’s wise to give some direction as to what you’d like people to show up with. While you don’t need to go as far as having a shared spreadsheet like I used to, discussing ahead of time what people will be making will help to avoid having 10 salads and no desserts. Imagine what a tragedy that would be!

Start With a Showstopping Cheeseboard

There is a reason cheeseboard content is so rife on Instagram — when done right, they are like little works of art that also taste like heaven.

When building out a cheeseboard, I always start with three different kinds of cheese (there is always a truffle one in there) and two-three types of charcuterie (always prosciutto). Then you want to add an assortment of colours and garnishes to make the board come to life. These should be both scattered around the board and contained in little bowls for variety and also practicality.

Some of my favourite additions are: cornichons, mini roma tomatoes with fresh basil and crumbled feta, marinated mixed olives, colourful hommus (I like to make a little well and add olive oil and a dill or parsley garnish to make it pop), dried apricots, thinly sliced pear, dried cranberries or goji berries, bunches of grapes, a good quality fruit paste, chilli honey, almonds and strawberries. Have fun with it and mix and match colours, textures, sweet and savoury.

To finish, scatter at least two types of crackers around the board (I like a gluten-free option on there) and adorn with sprigs of fresh rosemary or even edible flowers. If you don’t have a large cheese board, you can go to Bunnings and buy a long piece of wood that will make a jaw-dropping display.

Two of my favourite cheeseboards I’ve made

Provide or Create Games

If you’re throwing a BBQ, think about what activities you can provide to make the day even more fun. I, personally, love cornhole, but there are so many options on the market and that suit all kinds of interests, age ranges and budgets.

If it’s a dinner party then think about games like Pictionary, Code Names (a favourite in my family) Cards Against Humanity or We’re Not Really Strangers for some post-dinner fun.

And if it’s a special event, think about how you can create something specifically for it, like personalised trivia if it’s someone’s birthday. Think outside the box too — I once created a custom Cards Against Humanity game for my friend’s baby shower full of inappropriate parenting choices and it was so much more fun to play than “guess the weight of the baby when it’s born.”

Make it Personal

There are so many ways to make a gathering feel super personal to those attending, but these are my favourite.

Name cards for a dinner party are an easy way to make it a bit more formal. You can either buy blank ones from most party supply places and handwrite them yourself (unless you have the scrawl of a serial killer like me) or get creative with other ways to make your guests feel welcome.

One Thanksgiving, I bought little ink bottles and filled them with sprigs of rosemary and then found little clip-on blackboards to write my guests’ names on. These were so handy as they then doubled as tags for the stems of everyone’s wine glasses, so we made sure we were drinking from the right ones all night.

Having place cards also helps with the flow of conversation as you can choose to seat like-minded people together (or combative people apart) or even play matchmaker. One tip I love is to separate couples at the table. It not only gives them a chance to chat with other people but makes your single friends feel more included.

Thanksgiving 2018

For another party (an epic, three-day event in the Hamptons for my 35th, which I swear I am still hungover from), I bought a little Fuji Instax Polaroid camera and set up a prop table so that my friends could take silly pictures to either keep or hang up on our photo line. These can then also be sent out to guests after the party with a thank-you note so they have a memento of the occasion.

Polaroid station at my 35th

Design a Stunning Tablescape

One of my weirdest passions is designing tables, I have no idea why.

Again, you can find endless inspo for this on Instagram and Pinterest, but I have found I, personally, really favour rustic settings that hero natural elements.

Think about what colours you want to use and research if there are flowers in season that fit the bill. Or, better yet, go foraging for natural elements such as branches, driftwood, leaves, flowers and herbs that you can use to create a magical centrepiece or running display.

Thanksgiving 2020

I love to collect little vases and jars from thrift stores that can then be scattered across the table with flowers or candles to give the table that vintage, Alice in Wonderland tea party vibe. I’ve also found that I gravitate towards having one big feature in the centre of the table and then getting a bit sparser as it moves out — but that is just my personal preference.

Even it’s a party for two, you can still make it special with a few simple touches. When my partner and I were in lockdown, I made a little backyard picnic for us with bouquets of flowers picked from our yard and tea light candles in jars. It made such a difference and really took us out of our COVID gloom for an afternoon.

Backyard picnic during lockdown

And, because sustainability should always be top of mind, I try to find pieces that I can use again and that work for different occasions.

If you throw quite a few parties, I would recommend having a table decor box that you can draw on to reduce waste. In mine are a bunch of tea light candles, mason jars, jute pouches and runners, a few different boxes for the centrepieces, twine and different ribbons. I find it super helpful to start with an earthy palette and then build on that with pops of colour, but there are literally no rules.

Thanksgiving 2018

And, of course, sometimes less is more, so even just a gorgeous bouquet of greenery and some simple white candles scattered along the table can make a huge impact.

Share Photos

Create a shared digital album so that everyone can add the photos they took of the event. It’s so easy to do and should hopefully provide some lovely candids of a happy day or night.

Say Thank You

Whether it’s via email, post, phone call or text, thank your guests for coming to your party. Doing all of the above is great, but at the end of the day, it is all about the people you share these experiences with that really matter.

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