Make a checklist of what you need to do. This way, you won’t be caught scrambling for cocktail napkins or party music ten minutes before your guests arrive.
Have a couple of guests bring a bag of ice or favorite playlist. It might not seem like much to them, but they’ll be invaluable contributions—these are often the things the party’s host forgets or runs out of.
Avoid last-minute recipe disasters by choosing mostly tried-and-true, favorite dishes that you can make confidently with simple ingredients. Keep the menu fresh by including one or two new small recipes, like a cocktail or a salad.
Have one guest arrive a little early to help with the cooking. You’ll have an assistant and a friend with you in the kitchen, and will have much more fun than you would were you to make the whole meal by yourself. Bonus: the tension of the first guest’s arrival will be gone!
If you plan on serving a summery drink, make a punch or a pitcher-version of a favorite cocktail so that you’re not stuck with the cocktail shaker all evening. Set out bottles of wine and a corkscrew so that guests can pour their own drinks.
Serve appetizers that require little or no prep, like bowls of nuts, sliced crusty bread with a bowl of olive oil, or bright carrots with their elegant, fringy greens left on. Don’t bother with appetizer plates; set out the snacks on a big platter right on your counter or kitchen table next to a stack of napkins. They’ll take hardly any time to set up or clean up—fewer dishes!—and they’ll be easy for guests to eat with their fingers.
No need for that 6-layer cake—dessert can be light! Buy plenty of vanilla ice cream and serve it with fresh berries, or set out any nuts leftover from your appetizer spread with fresh fruit and a selection of good-quality chocolate bars.