Think Like a Caterer: Expert Advice for Hosting a Stress-Free, Stylish Party

updated May 2, 2019
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(Image credit: Bridget Pizzo)

My friend Lydia Ellison Howerton is one of those hostesses who always makes it look easy. And no wonder — as a private chef and caterer, she plans and executes big events for her clients on a monthly basis, so she uses the lessons she picks up on the job to host stylish, generous parties at home. Asking her to co-host and style the fall pumpkin-carving party was a no-brainer, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to sit down with her and finally answer the question her friends are always asking themselves: How does she do it?

Walk us through the process of planning a party. What’s your approach?

The first thing that I do is get the menu and the guest requirements. What time of day? How many people? Is it a sit-down dinner or just casual drinks and appetizers? Cocktail party? What is the event?

Then I always think in themes, kind of like making your outfit match. If I have one element of the event that’s going to be really strong — let’s say it’s the menu or a signature drink or the music or it’s a couple who just got engaged — then I start with that, and let it infuse everything else that I organize.

From there I just start nailing down all the details: set the menu, figure out drinks, decorations and flowers. I’ll use Pinterest or magazines and once I have something that I’m marinating on, a specific theme or concept for a party, then everything I’m looking at is centered on that. So I’ll organize those ideas in a Pinterest board. A lot of times I’ll get an idea — and this is how I got the color palette of my wedding — just from a room I see in a design magazine, like a living room. So it doesn’t have to be a direct correlation.

From there I do a proper breakdown a couple weeks before the party, day by day, how I am going to fit it into my life, getting each element done. I try to start as early as humanly possible, organizing and doing a little bit every day or every few days, so it’s not so overwhelming on the day before.

(Image credit: Bridget Pizzo)

How do you decide to edit down your plans or menu?

I’m actually good at editing. I hate, hate to not have fun at a party that I’m hosting, so once I have all the ideas together and start putting things in action, if there is something that feels like it’s just going to be too much work or going to take me away from the guests for too long, I’ll cut that idea.

What are the most common mistakes you see other people making when they host parties?

Taking on too much work! I think part of the problem is when you’re an inexperienced host, you might not realize how much prep there’s going to be and you might not give yourself enough time. Once you start to entertain regularly, you start to realize how much goes into it. There are things you don’t even think about, like making sure all your glassware is washed and dried, or making sure you have enough clean soup spoons — things like that take a lot of time. So when you think, “Oh, I’m going to serve a soup course” or “I’m going to do a signature drink and serve wine.” Just that one extra step could end up being half of an afternoon.

And I think people don’t give themselves enough help, like buying store-bought things, having friends bring courses, outsourcing the flowers or decorations to a friend. I think you have more fun if you don’t bite off more than you can chew.

If an inexperienced host wanted to throw a super-easy, really fun party, what would you suggest?

Since I love champagne and Prosecco so much, I think a really fun idea is just to have a bubbly party. Have everyone bring a different bottle of sparkling wine — you can buy a good bottle of Prosecco for $6, so it doesn’t have to be expensive — and put out some fun mixers to go in it, like peach puree, strawberry puree, sugar cubes and bitters to make a champagne cocktail. Buy some nibbly, savory things at the store, or if you want to get crazy, make gougeres. And just the fact that you’re drinking champagne is so festive and fun.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Thanks, Lydia!

More from Lydia Ellison Howerton

Check out her blog: Apples & Onions
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(Images: Bridget Pizzo)