Entertaining drives some of us to do crazy things. We want our lives to have the glossy shine of life in a magazine. But when we look at all the stress and work, we can end up thinking, "Why bother?"
It doesn't have to be that way. There are people who entertain and enjoy themselves while they do it.
Party-givers share their favorite tips.
Less is more. Two or three substantial food items are better than five or six small things.
Look for fun touches, like giving lottery tickets for party favors or using markers to write messages on your wine glasses.
Have a signature drink you can hand out at the door, so people feel welcomed.
Make sure everything is ready so you have time to greet people. "If the hostess is there and calm and collected, that's nice. And I want to make sure I see everybody."
Instead of decorating with a lot of little touches, do one big thing. It can be as simple as grouping several pots of mums in one basket. Just do it big. "Taking the scale up a few notches has a big 'wow' effect."
Don't skimp on the wine. "Buy a good wine and the rest will fall into place, even if it's just a spaghetti dinner."
If it's a cocktail party, have something on trays you can pass around, in case people don't make it to the buffet.
"If people offer to bring a dish, I have a do-not-bring-a-thing policy. If they're messing up their kitchen, they're not getting the benefit of the night off. And they can reciprocate another time."
Consider the case of August Post. A former event director of Martha Stewart's organization, Post once spent hours creating a Christmas-party decoration by taking apart his entire chandelier, then putting it back together with a cranberry replacing every other piece of glass.
It took hours. It looked amazing.
"I'm not sure," he admits today, "if that was a decoration or a cry for help."
Fall and winter are the heart of the entertaining season. We're not scattered all over on vacations, and the calendar is full of opportunities to throw a party. Decorating our houses even helps to keep winter gloom away.
The trick to it is to skip the stress and go straight to the fun.
Shauna McFeeley of Charlotte chose her house to have a good flow for parties.
"I wanted to have the house where everyone goes," she says. "Most of my friends don't cook, and I love to cook. My gift to share is my cooking."
McFeeley told us about it just a week before hosting a cocktail party for 70 for a Juvenile Diabetes Foundation fundraiser. And she didn't even sound panicky. This time, she was using a caterer, but she's done all the cooking herself for up to 100 people.
It's just a matter of breaking the work down into steps and then putting it together a little at a time, she says.
"The whole point," she says, "is to have people over and enjoy them."
Kathy Rowan keeps her parties on ice: She makes things like rolled spanakopita that she can stash in the freezer so she can have friends and co-workers over at the last minute. A public-relations consultant with her own company, she's always inviting over co-workers and friends. She even invites people who own rival PR firms, for "wine and whine" gatherings.
"I'm one of those throw-it-together people," she says. "It's basically, 'come over.' It might be shrimp and spanakopita. If it's a crazy week, it might be a mix of Trader Joe's and now, thankfully, Whole Foods. It's really about the people."
Susan Triantafyllides of Charlotte married into an entertaining tradition: She's not Greek, but her husband is.
"My mother-in-law is a huge entertainer — I've learned a lot from her. She's not intimidated at all. Her cooking is much more elaborate, the first course and all that. I'm like, 'courses?'
"Typically, I like to choose recipes that can be made ahead of time, so when my friends arrive, I can visit with them. That makes me more relaxed. Try to be a guest at your own party."
Triantafyllides likes to look for a special touch for every party. For an Octoberfest party, she had a friend's father come over and play his accordion. "It was so great — it was different."
Post has people over several times a year or more, but it doesn't have to be complicated, he says. On a recent Thursday night, he was having friends over for chili. "For somebody who just wants to get into entertaining, it's so easy. It's just chili and toppings and big baskets of gorgeous breads."
The whole idea is to do something that makes the people who are special to you feel special, he says. People got away from entertaining at home for a while, so it makes it even more special when you do it.
"If you take the time to create a mood, people appreciate it. I think it's coming back. People are interested in entertaining again."