Your ticket to a stress-free party for everyone.
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black and white vintage photo of couple entertaining friends / southern hostess
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If you ask the James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and consummate hostess Nathalie Dupree, the secret to successful entertaining isn't perfectly polished silver or an expertly set table. It's also not an eclectic guest list or even an extravagant multi-course meal.

Of course, those things don't hurt, but the secret to a truly good party, she says, is a much simpler one. Plan ahead. Whether it's a backyard barbecue or a formal seated dinner, the host or hostess sets a party's tone, so if you're frazzled or stressed, your guests will be too.

"Think ahead about what would make life more difficult for you, in clean up as well as prep, and then work around it," Dupree says.  

To that end and to help ensure you're relaxed and ready by the time your guests arrive, Dupree offers the following tips and tricks. 

Remember a List is Your Friend

A frenzied last-minute run to the grocery store to pick up some critical but absent ingredient isn't fun for anyone. Neither is a dinner served two hours late because you didn't budget enough time to thaw the 15-pound turkey. To avoid common missteps like these, write everything down: general party prep to-dos, grocery needs, a full meal plan, cook times—all of it. Getting organized in advance is critical to success.

"And if you're planning an extensive meal for something like Thanksgiving or Easter, make a list of everything you can make ahead," Dupree says. A time schedule will also keep you on task and ensure every dish arrives at the table hot.     

Select Serving Pieces in Advance

Instead of combing through the china cabinet at the final hour in search of your grandmother's silver tray only to realize it needs a good polish, pull out each of the serving pieces you intend to use beforehand. But don't stop there. Dupree suggests using a stack of sticky notes to label each bowl or platter with its corresponding menu item. This trick also prevents well-intentioned guests from serving the rice in the bowl you intended for the butter beans, she says.

Don't Outsource the Main Course

Unless you've hired a professional caterer, don't ask anyone else to take responsibility for the meal's main course.

"Anything could happen," Dupree says. "They could be delayed by a sick child, for example, and then you are left without anything to serve."

You can always wing a last-second side dish, but a main course is hard to pull off on the fly.

Save Dirty Dishes for Later

"I always recommend that people have their dishwasher and their sink empty when the first person walks through the door," Dupree says.

To keep the kitchen clean and counter space free as the evening progresses, Dupree likes to stash a cooler with hot soapy water in the pantry or on the porch—somewhere out of the way—where you can hide dirty dishes but also let them soak, which will save you cleaning time later. And if you're particular about your fine china and good silver—we get it—but know friends and family will insist on helping clean up, Dupree offers this advice.

"Get yourself a couple of plastic dishwashing tubs and mark them 'silver,' 'dishes,' 'garbage,' and so forth. This way, nobody clogs up the disposal or throws away your silver." 

Set a Clear Dinner Time

If you're hosting a seated dinner rather than a cocktail party or backyard barbecue-style buffet, make it clear exactly what time you're going to start serving, Dupree advises. By setting a firm time to sit, you're not obligated to wait on stragglers. "If you're going to have drinks or appetizers beforehand, be specific about the time, not laissez-faire about it," Dupree says. "And if you've got a friend that's known to be late, just tell them you're going to start eating without them."  

A Word About Hostess Gifts…

"I try not to arrive empty handed," Dupree says. "Little cocktail napkins or a box of chocolates for later are fine, but don't show up with food that hasn't been requested for the meal. And if you bring wine, don't expect your host to serve your wine at the meal. Make it clear that it's for them to enjoy later."

Flowers are wonderful, too. But don't forget a vase. Remember, your gift shouldn't create extra work for your host.