How to throw a killer party:
1. Throw parties often - I really believe that practice makes perfect in this case. The more comfortable you are entertaining, the more comfortable your guests will be.
2. The real cornerstone is keeping a "party book" - It can be as simple as a spiral notebook and it's a place to write down every detail of your party for future reference. I use my party book to keep track of each party I throw, no exceptions. Each party is usually divided into 4-5 pages...
page 1 is the guest list and important contacts (caterer, band, deli, etc...)
page 2 is the menu, including beverages
page 3 is for the recipes or page #'s in my cookbooks
page 4 is my shopping list
page 5 my to-do list (split up into days so things can be done ahead)
and the last page is always notes on how all my plans worked out, did I run out of toilet paper, did I blow a fuse, were there too many buns, did people dance, did we run out of beer?
3. Organize it to death!!! You can never over-organize before an event, make sure you've thought of everything. Sometimes ideas will come to you at strange times, that is what your party book is for, write it all down! I started my first foray into throwing large parties on my wedding day and I planned it down to the minute and not one thing went wrong that day.
Stock extra toilet paper, fill the bottoms of garbage cans with extra bags, use paper towels in the bathrooms to avoid having the change the towel often, you get the picture.
4. Always choose a make-ahead menu. This reduces the stress level by 50% when throwing a party. Never be scrambling to make food right before guests arrive, it isn't worth it unless cooking is the point of the party. I collect all kinds of recipes that can be made the day before and reheated or served room temp, I store them in my party book. Don't be afraid to use some prepared foods - for my last party I ordered 20 lbs of pulled pork for a local market, but prepared my own BBQ sauce to give it a personal touch, the coleslaw recipe was to be made 3 days ahead and allowed to pickle, and the baked beans were made in the crock pot the day before. Purchased buns and a sliced tomato salad and we're done!
5. Remember the music is sometimes more important than the food. I am a playlist making fool. I create a playlist for nearly every party I throw that conveys the feeling I desire for the occasion. Cocktail parties require chill, cool music and this latest bash began with some beach and reggae, cool 60's and 70's rock in the middle building to 80's dance, and ended with some low key songs. For the most part, your song choices should build then taper off. You can really direct the party this way and end on a relaxed note.
Live music is always the best when you want to go all out, but a well organized mp3 player can go a long way in making a good party great. Take time to really sit down and invest in downloading some great songs and organizing them. Really mix it up, make it unexpected, country, pop, oldies, rock...
6. Behave the way you want your guests to behave. Do you want people to relax and settle in? Then don't jump up all the time to check the oven or pick up plates. Have drinks self serve and close by, stack up dishes to be cleaned up AFTER company leaves, sit down and chat. Do you want people to dance and have fun? Then you 're going to have to get out there and DANCE! Your guests will follow suit.
7. When thinking decorations - less is more. Often, some nice flowers and great lighting is perfect. I have dimmers on every switch in my home,(even the powder room) and the ambiance is priceless. I love nice string lights, paper lanterns, candles...anything that casts a glow makes it a party. Don't junk it up and make it all theme-y unless it's a kid's party. Set all your dimmers, light your candles, and plug in your lights before the party, and as the sun sets a glow will set in and you won't be running around flipping switches.
8. Finger foods and more drinks than you think you'll need will never steer you wrong.
9. I try not to be doing anything party related two hours before, the last thing I do is sweep and mop, wipe the bathroom one last time then jump in the shower. The hour before, we are usually having a drink and waiting for friends so we're in the party state when they arrive.
10. Accept help! Unless it's a small intimate dinner party, I always allow friends to bring something. For the bigger parties (like the "Summer Bash" with a guest list of 150) I invite everyone to bring a dish to pass. I never ask for a specific thing, just make what you love to make. People love to be involved and take some credit for the great party and great food. They take pride in bringing a dish everyone will rave about, and I almost never get the standard potato salad from the supermarket trick. This year, we had John's famous ribs, Mike's gramma's secret wing recipe, apple pie, oriental salad...the list goes on and on. I provided the main dishes, including the meat and all the beverages and my friends filled in the rest.