Who says you have to slave away in the kitchen all day to throw a great party? Take our shortcuts, and you get amazing appetizers, delicious entrees, and to-die-for desserts -- with almost no effort.
The big secret to saving time (and money)? Buy everything you need in one trip: one-stop-shopping discount stores and warehouse stores are full of top-quality prepared food, gourmet frozen appetizers and desserts, even wine and beer— and everything's discounted.
- Put away the good china. Opt for paper and plastic instead. Mix and match some brights and patterns for extra flair. You'll need dinner and dessert plates, plastic cutlery, and napkins. For the bar, use cute plastic wine and drink glasses, and get some plastic cups for the kids. Stock your freezer with extra ice early in the day so you don't have to worry about it at the last minute.
- Map out your table. In the morning, put on the tablecloth (don't be afraid to use paper), then figure out which platters and utensils you'll need. Put Post-it notes on platters to remind yourself where each food goes. Then be sure it all fits on the table.
The hors d'oeuvres selection at today's stores is amazing—sometimes several aisles are dedicated to nibbles and noshes.
- Cheese please. Skip over the boring block of cheddar and go for a wheel of creamy Brie. Warm it in the microwave oven for 1 to 2 minutes on medium-high right before guests arrive—it's delicious with grapes or on top of crackers.
- Simple shrimp. Frozen shrimp are quick and easy to defrost -- and taste fabulous. Buy a bag of medium-size shrimp. Or pick up an already cleaned and cooked ring of shrimp with sauce, take it out of the container, and put it on your own platter—no one will ever know you cheated!
- Frankly speaking. Kids love pigs-in-the-blanket, but buy extra, because let's face it—adults go crazy for these classic bites too.
- That's Italian. We bought the ingredients for a huge antipasto platter (dried meats like prosciutto and salami, olives, and fresh mozzarella), but we divided the ingredients among several smaller dishes. It looks prettier on the table that way.
- Warm bites. Assorted frozen hors d'oeuvres come in large boxes—ours contained 50, which was more than enough (this mix had mini quiches, cheese puffs, spinach bites, and empanadas). Heat and put them out early—they're just as good at room temperature.
- Take a dip. Buy three or four gourmet dips (we went with hummus, fresh salsa, goat-cheese spread, and olive tapenade) to serve with a big platter of cut-up vegetables. Round out the dish with whole-grain crackers and crisp breadsticks.
Delicious Dinner Buffet
How much is enough? Don't go overboard (remember all the appetizers your guests have just eaten!). Offer a few main-course options with some side dishes, and make sure you serve something kids will actually eat too. Plan on three ounces of meat per person, and about the same for sides. Count every three kids as one adult when you're figuring out how much you'll need.
- Chicken wings and fingers are crowd pleasers. We found the fingers and the spicy precooked wings in the frozen-foods department. Just heat and serve.
- A spiral sliced ham is the easiest meat to serve a crowd. (It takes about an hour, and don't forget to add that packet of glaze that comes with it.) You buy it precooked, so all you have to do is heat it up. Put out assorted mustards and a basket of small dinner rolls so guests can make mini sandwiches.
- Bags of steam-and-serve microwave vegetables are a snap to prepare and keep the stove and oven free.
- Ravioli is a good party pasta because it's easy to eat, even if you're balancing your plate on your knees: Go for a bowl of butternut squash ravioli with a sage sauce for grown-ups, and buy plain cheese with marinara for the kids. Both of these came frozen, and the sauce was included.
- Most stores today stock big bags of prewashed salad greens. We opted for a Caesar salad kit, which came with the croutons, cheese, and dressing too.
- Stock up on frozen roasted potato wedges, which you can buy plain or in some great flavors (rosemary, garlic, and sea salt). Serve them over a bed of bright green chives.
How to Make a Parchment Packet
Drinks for Everyone
You can buy all the drinks you need for adults and kids in one trip—since many stores today sell alcohol, there's no need to make a separate trip to the liquor store. And keep it simple. Everyone will find something they like from this lineup.
- Wine. There are lots of good party wines for about $10 a bottle. Buy both white and red, and pick a varietal that goes nicely with food: Sauvignon blanc is a good white choice; for red, you can't miss with merlot, shiraz, or pinot noir. How many bottles do you need? You get about five glasses of wine out of a bottle, so count up the wine drinkers and go from there.
- Beer. Bottles are much more elegant than cans; keep them on ice in a cooler or a tin washtub. If your warehouse club has a really good selection, go for the 1.5-liter bottles of imported beer with resealable swingtops. That way guests can pour a glass without feeling obligated to finish the whole thing.
- Sparkling water. For the nondrinkers, buy bottles of fancy sparkling mineral water or club soda, and make sure you put out a dish of lemon and lime wedges.
- Kiddie punch. Mix up a festive (and stain-free) punch for the children by stirring together white grape juice and club soda. Add in colorful fresh strawberries.
- Sangria. This Spanish wine punch is light, tasty, and easy to make. Mix together 1 bottle of red wine, 1 liter of club soda (this cuts the alcohol in half), and 1/2 cup sugar. Stir in slices of fruit, and refrigerate for several hours before serving.
Going mini means you give lots of options: Everyone will find at least one treat they'll love.
- Petite pastries. We bought a variety pack of amazing French pastries that included eclairs and napoleons. Just thaw and serve. Tres bon!
- Fruit bowl. Buy containers of precut fruit, toss it in a bowl, and serve with honey-drizzled yogurt. Easy and healthy.
- Brownies supreme. Top two-bite brownies with a star of frosting and plenty of sprinkles.