Preparing food for a party can be a daunting task, but with a little organization and creativity you can enjoy both the planning process and the party. From the most casual get-together to the most elegant formal dinner, thinking ahead is the key. In today's world, finding menus and recipes is only a click away on popular websites. Kitchen equipment like food processors and serving dishes that go oven to table make preparing food for a party fast and easy.
Set the stage for your party. Will guests arrive in jeans on a Sunday afternoon for a casual get-together? Buffalo wings and a colorful crudite with plenty of chips, dips and salsa can be just the fare they are looking for to go along with soft drinks, punch and beer. Saturday night dinner party guests will expect more formality. Cold hors d'oeuvres are fine for this crowd, but you will want to add some hot hors d'oeuvres such as spinach and feta cheese in puff pastry (spanakopita), tiny crab cakes, chicken satay or shrimp tempura. Serve dinner guests wine, champagne cocktails or the very sophisticated apple martini-in stylish martini glasses, of course.
Keep It simple for your casual Sunday afternoon get-together. Serve spicy chili right out of the crock pot. Add crusty bread and a salad, along with corn chips and condiments like sour cream, grated cheese and chopped onion. Think of dishes that can be prepared ahead of time and heated last minute for the formal dinner party. Buy a platter that goes oven to table if you don't own one. That way you can pop dinner in the oven to heat while you enjoy hors d'oeuvres with your guests. Serve a lovely salad vinaigrette as a first course. Chicken cutlets are an excellent menu choice for a main course, prepared Marsala, Francais or Tuscan style. Serve the chicken over a bed of flavored rice or risotto, and garnish with olives, lemon or parsley. Glaze side dishes with baby carrots, green beans almandine or zucchini frittata.
Put together a spectacular layered trifle in a sparkling glass dish, prepare a warm flourless chocolate cake, or serve a cinnamon flavored homemade apple pie with ice cream for dessert. Your guests will appreciate your efforts. Make chocolate dipped strawberries (the bigger the strawberry, the better) if you have the time. On the other hand, if you are pressed for time, a beautiful do-ahead fruit platter is always a crowd pleaser. Remember, supermarkets and bakeries have wonderful pies and cakes.
Planning down to the last detail is the key to being a relaxed and gracious host on the day of the party. Set the table ahead of time, turn plates and glasses upside down, and know what platters, glasses and serving spoons you will use. Label them with a small note as a reminder. Keep a list of all food on the menu posted on the outside of the refrigerator. Consider serving buffet, even for formal dinners. Guests can be seated for the salad or appetizer course, and then help themselves at the buffet table laden with main course and side dishes. If you have the space, you may want to have guests seated at several smaller (round) tables, rather than one long table. This encourages a more social atmosphere, since it is often difficult to converse at a long table. Keep flower arrangements low for easy conversation, and use candlelight from votive candles to impress your guests. These days, plastic plates and flatware closely resemble the real thing, and make for a quick cleanup when the party is over.