While I am known for pulling a party together in record time, don’t make the mistake of “winging it” like I sometimes do. Advance planning really is the key to a successful party.  In order to keep from rushing around frantically at the last minute, follow my 80-20 party rule. Spend 80% of your effort planning the party and you’ll only need 20% of your effort implementing your plan.

party planning advice Martie Duncan

Know exactly what you’re going to need and keep a list. From decorations to serving pieces to bathroom tissue, make sure you cross off every item as you go. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself placing a panic-stricken call to a friend to pick up ice or grab the candles you forgot. With a good plan, all you need is one or two strong backs and a really comfortable pair of heels and you’re set!  

Getting started

  • Determine your budget—what do you plan to spend?
  • Decide on the date, place, time, and type of party you’re going to host.
  • Plan your guest list. The number of guests greatly influences your overall cost.
  • Your invitation should give guests details of the party with insight into what to expect and how to dress. For very casual parties, a phone call or email invitation is okay instead of a printed invitation. Personally, I love getting a printed invitation. A printed invitation helps build excitement and sets the tone for the event before the guests ever walk in the door. A printed invitation is also a great reminder because people typically post them in a prominent location. 
  • If you plan on using professional help, hire your planner, caterer, florist, and other vendors. If not, ask your most reliable friends to help with serving and clearing duties. I absolutely recommend hiring help if you can afford it, especially if your guest list totals more than twelve. If nothing else, hire a responsible neighborhood teen you know to clear and wash dishes. This will allow you to spend more time with your guests and make the party more fun for you.
  • Think about the menu and where you will prep, stage, and serve the food and beverages. Try to keep serving and bar areas separate to prevent congestion.
  • Consider place settings, serving pieces, linens, decorations, or favors. Inventory what you have and source supplies you have to buy, rent, or borrow.
  • Begin a to-do list and a shopping list.
  • Decide on entertainment or music. Make sure you can accommodate space, electricity, and other needs a band may require. Test capacity for electricity before party day. You may need to rent a generator or hire an electrician.
  • Think about parking. Consider a valet or shuttle if parking is remote or if there is a chance of bad weather.
  • Have a game plan for over-served guests.  

Next Steps (3-4 weeks ‘til party)

  • Mail, email, or call in your invitation. Give guests at least four weeks notice, if possible.
  • Finalize your menu. Make arrangements with your caterer or special order items you may need from your grocer, deli, or seafood counter, etc.
  • Schedule pick-up or delivery for items you are renting or borrowing.
  • If your party is at home, start those de-cluttering projects you’ve been putting off. 

 One-Week Countdown

  • Call guests who have not responded so you have an accurate headcount.
  • If you're grilling, add charcoal to your shopping list (or fill the gas canister) and get your grill tools ready to go. Do a trial with the grill to make sure it works property several days prior.
  • You’ll need at least two ice chests; one for clean ice to use in beverages and another to keep beer, wine, and other beverages cold. 
  • Complete your shopping list. Check supplies like matches, candles, Ziploc bags, foil, plastic wrap, toilet paper, paper towels, and garbage bags.
  • Confirm all vendors and orders you’ve placed and discuss pick-up, set-up, or delivery times.
  • If you are making your own decorations, organize supplies and pre-assemble as much as you can. Add fresh flowers or greenery on party day.
  • Clean and polish any silver you plan to use.
  • Make all of the “make-ahead” foods you can.

 The Big Push (2-3 days out)

  • Press linens. Put them directly on table(s). If that isn’t possible, go ahead and check them to make sure they fit properly, fold them carefully, layering white tissue paper between the folds to keep creases to a minimum.  
  • Check your recipes to make sure you have the required items in your pantry or on your shopping list.
  • Start shopping for everything but last minute items.
  • Thoroughly clean your house.   

The Day Before

  • Shop for last-minute perishable items.
  • Clear out all prep and staging areas. A garage or laundry room works well if it is close to the kitchen.
  • Set up tables and bars.
  • Begin to decorate and place serving pieces to judge the overall table design. Place sticky note markers to indicate where dishes will go as you remove them up to assemble the food or decorations. This will make it easy for any friends or help to know where to put them back.    
  • Prep your recipes. Wash, cut, and chop ingredients so you only have to assemble and cook on party day.
  • Clear a closet for coats if the weather dictates.
  • Make sure all garbage cans are empty with plenty of extra garbage bags close by.

 Party Day

  • Run last minute errands and get final items on your list except ice unless you have a large freezer.
  • Do a final cleaning. Check supplies of tissue, toilet paper, and hand towels in all bathrooms. Run the dishwasher so it will be empty for the party dishes.
  • Start on your menu and get everything ready to go.
  • Have a friend pick up ice 2-3 hours before guests arrive. Get lots of extra ice. Ice down beverages at least one hour before guests arrive. Put towels under ice chests to help keep the surrounding floor dry.
  • Insure all food served cold will be well chilled by party time.
  • Finalize decorations; add flowers, etc.
  • Adjust air-conditioning, fans, or heat. If you are expecting a large crowd, you will need to lower the thermostat to keep it comfortable.
  • Run a sound check with the entertainment as soon as they set up. Make sure you know where the fuse box is! Testing… one-two-three—oh no!
  • Grab a shower and dress for the party. .

 Last-Minute Details

  • Light candles.
  • Turn off glaring overhead lights.
  • Place food on serving pieces.
  • Open wine.
  • Place ice in a container or ice bucket to use for drinks on the bar.
  • Start the music.
  • Relax and enjoy your party.