You’ve gotten through the June wedding season and you’ve even sailed through the requisite July 4th barbeques, when you suddenly realize that a summer full of social interactions still looms large.
The thing about heading to other people’s homes for pool parties and cookouts is that at some point, you’ll probably have to reciprocate. It also means that you’ll have to figure out how to create a delicious, unique and affordable experience for friends and family.
I recently attended a low-key dinner party at my friend Alex’s apartment. Mostly, I remember the laid-back vibe, great conversation and laughter. When I asked Alex his secret, he confessed that his primary mission was for everyone to enjoy themselves. Next, came his quest to have great food and cocktails. Finally, if he wasn’t too stressed, he’d think about decorations or small details, like place settings.
Alex said most people spend so much time obsessing over every tiny detail that they end up being too nervous or exhausted to really enjoy their own party. Not to mention the tremendous expense of trying to get everything just right.
He had some more great advice: create one memorable theme or dish, have a conversation starter on hand and finally, if you’re up for it, send your guests home with a small gift or keepsake. His reason being that none of us can compare to Martha Stewart, so spending days shopping for expensive ingredients and then hours preparing intricate dishes will not only leave you broke and frazzled, but also ensure that you don’t have any time to enjoy yourself.
I asked Alex to help me come up with some easy tips for stress-free summer entertaining that won’t break the bank.
Make sure your house looks as clean and neat as possible. If you can afford it, hire someone to come in and tidy up before your event. If you really feel like splurging, consider having someone come in to help you with the serving and cleanup, too. Make sure to stock up on trash bags and pre-treated cloths to make clean up a breeze. Have a small hand vacuum handy to ensure that a big spill won’t ruin your night, either.
You don’t have to have a fully stocked bar to have a festive party. Serve a single signature cocktail or make pitchers of sangria. Instead of endless bottles of soft drinks, you can have a drink station and let your friends create their own concoctions.
Soda Stream is a carbonated beverage-making unit that allows you to create your own carbonated drinks out of tap water. They have dozens of flavoring options, so your guests can enjoy basics, like cola, or create fun mixes of their own (note: the regular flavors contain both sugar and sucralose, which makes them off limits for people like me, who are allergic to artificial sweeteners).
If you want to keep your guests out of the kitchen, consider setting up a Haier Ice Maker Dispenser (a bit pricey, at $199.00) on the beverage table. It has a fairly small footprint, holds up to 2 pounds of ready ice and can be placed on top of a table, which means there will be plenty of ice to go around all night. Guests can even choose the size of the ice cubes.
Enlist a friend or two to make sure that everyone has a drink in their hand and that empty cups end up in the trash as soon as possible.
Make it Interactive
Alex says that sometimes the “ooh and aah” factor can be created by something as unexpected as on-demand fruit smoothies (I know, I started to ooh and aah just thinking about it).
He suggests putting out bowls of pre-cut produce, frozen fruit, and even vegetables. You can also include extras like chocolate syrup or almond and vanilla extracts for additional flavorings. Your guests can pick their own ingredients, pop them in the blender, and voila – an instant conversation starter.
The Ninja Kitchen System 1100 decimates ice cubes and fruits and creates perfectly blended drinks. If you are feeling inspired, you can even make ice cream or cold soups. Download the Ninja Kitchen App for free before your event for access to over 240 recipes.
And then there’s fondue. If you’re still having withdrawal symptoms from Mad Men, you can get your fix by throwing a ‘60s-themed party, complete with fondue. I was a bit skeptical about the idea of having lots of melted and gooey things at a party, but the Velata Fun Fondue system is fairly dummy-proof and really cute looking.
Basically, you pour one of the pre-packaged chocolate mixes ($7.00) into the adorable fondue heaters, which cost about $40.00 and run on a 25 watt bulb, set up the fruit and wooden sticks, and you’re all set.
Want to get creative? Set up a desert station. Line up a few warmers in coordinating colors, have cubes of cake or brownies in addition to the fruit, and drizzle white and dark chocolate on the treats.
Get a Gadget/Have a Theme
While most kitchens tend to be stocked with fancy gadgets that were only used once and then forgotten, Alex believes that a really fun food prep tool or gadget can also act as a conversation starter and focal point of your party food.
Though I’m known in my circle for making preserves the old fashioned way, I will admit to being more than a bit enamored with the Ball FreshTech Automatic Jam and Jelly Maker, which allows you to make fresh jam or jelly in under half an hour.
Stock up on your favorite summer fruit at the Farmer’s Market, cut it up, add pectin, wait four minutes, add sugar and then let the machine do the rest. You can create endless varieties of fruity spreads that guests can drizzle over desserts or omelets. You can also buy small jars, create cute customized labels using free online templates, and send your friends home with edible party favors.
Feeling even more industrious? Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones (Ten Speed Press $24.99) is a new book that contains 90 ice cream recipes from San Francisco’s legendary Bi-Rite Creamery. You can have a summer tea party featuring Green Tea Ice and Earl Grey Ice Cream (pages 108-109).
Don’t work yourself into a lather trying to figure out the perfect way to entertain friends and family this summer. As long as you remember that the main purpose is to actually enjoy yourself and your company, your party is certain to be a success!
Rachel Weingarten loves entertaining but hates the summer heat. She’s a style expert, marketing strategist & personal branding consultant for CEOs, politicians and celebrities and the creator of MintStyle. She is the award-winning author of Career and Corporate Cool and Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America ‘40s-‘60s. Rachel writes for top media outlets including CNN, Fortune, Forbes Life, MSN, USA Today, Yahoo Finance and many others. She is a regularly featured expert on TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show. Visit her online at http://racheletc.com or on Twitter @rachelcw Write to her with your burning style questions at firstname.lastname@example.org