Cubes are so last year! Instead, ice down your drinks with frozen balloons to add color to your cooler. Fill water balloons about two-thirds full (if the balloons are too taut the latex can crack when frozen), then stash them in the freezer. For your party, nestle them around drinks in a cooler or bucket. When the day is over and the ice has melted, you know what to do: water balloon fight!
That ladder tucked away in the back of your garage? Turns out it's the ultimate party space-saver! Transform yours into a tiered buffet or drink station by adding plywood planks -- available starting at $3 at Home Depot with free sizing -- across the steps of your ladder. (If your rungs aren't parallel across, use superglue to adhere blocks of spare wood to the lower step to make them level.) Go the extra mile and add decorative runners or placemats before laying out food and drinks. Now your party is really a step above the rest!
Start with clear incandescent bulbs. Upcycle your burned-out bulbs (do a Web search for instructions on how to remove the filaments) or do it the easy way: Buy empty ones at a crafts store. Wrap a length of thin wire in a loop around the metal screw cap of the bulb. Before tightening your loop, tie two longer pieces of wire on either side to use for hanging. Secure the loop into a groove of the screw cap and tie the bulb (or many, at different heights) to a hanging light fixture. Pour a little water into your bulbs, add blooms and -- voilà! -- you're having a lightbulb moment!
Our guests will love a pretty place card that doubles as a menu -- and triples as a party favor! Start with the menu and write in the names of the dishes you're serving. Fold the menu into an accordion so each course has its own panel, and tuck it into a cardboard jewelry box (available at crafts stores), taping the underside of the last panel to the bottom. To add an element of surprise, place a tiny treasure, like a wine charm or seashell, in each box. Wrap the packages in twine, decorate them with a few flowers and write your guests' names on the lids. They'll know where to sit, what they'll be eating and just how crafty you are!
Give your guests something to be extra thankful for by sending them home with a tasty favor box. Since those Thanksgiving dishes you spent all day preparing deserve better than plastic wrap, set out empty containers (find cute boxes at craft stores or papermart.com) and some ribbon as you're cleaning up and let folks load up with leftovers. Seal the deal with a cute sticker or tag and rest assured that everyone will enjoy a home-cooked lunch tomorrow!
Put a Ring On It
For your next backyard party, consider your pool a big, blank canvas just waiting for some decoration, and float this clever idea: Toss a few hula hoops in the water and fill them with wide stemless flowers, like Gerbera daisies or carnations. You'll need four or five hoops and about two big bunches of flowers for each. The hoops should have enough room to slowly drift around the pool (Don't forget to turn off your filter!) -- so they can end up in as many of your friends' photos as possible!
As the sun goes down, cast a flattering light on your party, as if by magic. Before guests arrive, place an electric lantern or clear jars full of battery-operated string lights under your patio tables, then cover each table with a thin cloth (or even a sheet) that reaches the ground. You won't see the glow in daylight, but come dusk, ta-da! -- your backyard turns into a light show.
Pump up your guest of honor with a new kind of photo collage. This airy centerpiece, designed by Brittany Egbert of the blog One Charming Party, captures memories without taking up valuable table space. Tape photos of the party guy or gal -- everything from baby pics to last weekend's Instagrams -- to the strings of helium-filled balloons and add a caption: "Sweet Sixteen" or "Just Married" ... you get the idea! Hover the balloons over the table and guests will enjoy the blasts from the past as they eat.
Game night, by definition, leaves a lot to chance. But this idea is a guaranteed winner: With a simple tray ($16, planet-zak.com), a bunch of dice ($14 for 100, amazon.com) and zero crafting skills, you can create this talk-of-the-table design by celebrity event designer David Stark, author of forthcoming book The Art of the Party. Make it by covering the tray's surface with dice -- and that's it! The dice can come out again when you need a plain tray for, say, book club!
Every awards-show fan knows that it's not the actual ceremony that makes the Academy Awards a must-watch event -- it's the glitzy red-carpet arrivals! So when you gather pals for your own Oscar party, make their entrances just as memorable as the stars', with a personalized walk of fame, suggests special-events producer Cheryl Cecchetto, the mastermind behind Hollywood's Governors Ball for the past 23 years. All you need: two colors of glittery poster board and adhesive metallic letters. After cutting and sticking stars to their square bases, spell a friend's name on each one and line them up on your walkway or in your hallway. Now your guests will feel like the real stars of the night!
Here's some festive decor. Cover your vessels with any strips of paper that didn't fit the items under your tree, then secure them with double-sided tape or rubber cement for easy removal come January. Till then, you'll have a pretty-as-a-present look to last the whole season!
"The most important thing hosts should remember is to enjoy themselves," Chef Curtis Stone, host of Top Chef Masters and author of What's for Dinner? Delicious Recipes for a Busy Life says. "Don't overcomplicate things by going too over the top or fancy. Just prepare ahead of time, then relax. The more fun you have, the more fun your guests will have."
This seafood supper is so simple. Just mix the vinaigrette the night before and keep it refrigerated. All you need to do later is whisk in the grapeseed oil and add the shrimp before grilling.
Watermelon & Mint Cooler
Make-ahead tip: Blend the watermelon mixture in the morning and stick it in the fridge till it's time to serve.
Grilled Curry Zucchini
Make and chill the dressing the night before; shake before using. As the party starts, grill the veggies -- they'll be cool by the time you're ready to toss the salad.
New York Steaks
It's all about the Chipotle-Cilantro Butter with this dish. Make and chill the butter up to 2 days ahead -- or, to really get ahead of the game, make and freeze it 1 month in advance. Thaw before using.
For a sweet start on dessert, toast the coconut and make the caramel sauce up to 2 days ahead. Store the coconut in an airtight container; refrigerate the sauce, then warm it over medium-low heat before using.
Set the Table
"Put out your linens and flatware early so you're not rushing around later," Curtis says. "My only decorating rule is to keep it simple: Go to the farmers' market for flowers or snip whatever's growing in your garden. I put one stem in a water bottle or a few in jam jars. Less is more."
Chill the Drinks
Save yourself time and space in the kitchen: It takes about three hours to chill bottles in the fridge, but only 30 minutes in a bucket filled with ice and water.
Light the Candles
"Do it before guests arrive, even if it's not dark yet," Curtis says. "That way, you won't be fumbling to find matches later on."
Crab Boil Ideas
Why is a crab boil Carla Hall's go-to party? "It's big on fun but low on stress," Carla says. The key to your success is prepping ahead of time, keeping things organized and encouraging your friends to pitch in. "They'll be so into the groove, they won't even realize they're doing work!" she says. And the easiest part comes at the end of the day, because with newspapers lining the table and food you eat with your hands, the cleanup is practically done for you.
Line the table with 3 to 4 layers of newspaper, "so when the table gets really messy, all you have to do is take off the top layer," Carla says. For a nice surprise, use a bright plastic tablecloth on the bottom for when you serve dessert.
At this party, it's cool to eat with your hands! For a little help, toss out some toothpicks or wooden skewers for picking up potatoes and sausage. "They're cheap, it still keeps things casual, and you don't have to deal with washing them later."
Place your baguettes in clean vases or buckets on the table. Guests can tear off chunks to sop up the cooking liquid. "It makes everything feel extra casual and approachable," Carla says.
Maryland Blue Crab Boil
Now that you've got the how-to taken care of, let's talk food! This authentic Maryland Blue Crab Boil with Beer & Old Bay is a one-stop shop. Put it on the table, spread out and let your guests feast!
Color Block Your Party
Code Orange! Turn a super popular style idea into your party theme! It's the freshest twist on the summer soiree.
Make a cheery first impression! Lay out a spread of tangerine-hued cocktails and nibbles and put on your cutest coral necklace, because this festive setting will kick off the night with a shot of energy.
Transform Your Table
Transform the patio table by turning a tall glass tumbler into an eye-catching vase: Glue the inside edges of several orange paint-chip strips together to make a hollow tube. Once dry, slide it onto the glass and drop a bunch of flowers or a candle inside.
Draw chalk arrows and messages on the driveway, like "Dinner," "Cheers!" or "Dessert This Way."
Stylish Swatch Place Settings
Make menus: Write the details of the course you're serving on six paint chips and put one at each place setting. Serving buffet-style? Turn them into menu ID cards and display them in front of the platters.
String Up Lights
Cover simple white string lights with mini lampshades: Curl purple paint-chip strips into cylinders (with the color sides facing out) and secure with clear tape. Slip one sleeve over each bulb and attach it to the wire with tape. Hang the garland over doorways or from low-hanging branches.
Grilled Cheese Potluck
Meet the party that's so easy and fun to throw, you'll barely notice you're hosting! The ingredients are B-Y-O, the menu is D-I-Y and the food is Y-U-M.
Line the table with cutting boards, plates and bowls to hold the ingredients your guests bring. Organize the ingredients assembly-line style: breads and butter at one end, then cheeses, fillings and condiments at the other. Write a bunch of different grilled cheese combos on a chalkboard or poster near the buffet table. Your friends can choose their favorites to griddle up -- or create their own.
You Name It!
Leave out a pile of blank tags. As guests arrive, ask them to write a label for each of their signature ingredients.
Make sure your guests can try all the delicious creations: Place a few sharp knives and cutting boards by the griddle so everyone can divvy up the completed sammies into bite-size slices. Try as many as you can humanly eat -- and then maybe just one more!
Celebrity Catering Secrets
Prep before: Hot food can chain a host to the kitchen. Plan a few cold and room-temp dishes you can prep and set out ahead of time.
Shrink a beloved food, like grilled cheese, into a mini version that doesn't require cutlery. "Dress it up with a drizzle of honey or truffle oil," Giuliani says.
Reinvent the Classics
"Instead of a typical cheese board, I like to give guests an entire table set up with various cheeses, toppings and more," Giuliani says. "It's easy to put together, but it's something most guests haven't seen before."
Be Your Own Bartender
Make the cocktails self-serve, like the Bellini bar below. This will free you up to mingle -- and your guests can mix their drinks to their own tastes.
Christmas Eve Eve Party
When Katie Lee began hosting Christmas at her home in Water Mill, New York, nearly 10 years ago, she was faced with a dilemma: What to feed out-of-towners who show up before the holiday? "I love lasagna and I'll take any excuse to eat it," Lee says. Thus, Christmas Eve Eve dinner was born.
Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli is a fierce competitor, a steely judge on Chopped and a top restaurateur in NYC. But her favorite holiday tradition -- tree-trimming with her folks in the Manhattan apartment where she grew up -- is decidedly laid back.
Feast of the Seven Fishes
When Michael Lomonaco was growing up in Brooklyn, his family kicked off Christmas Eve as many Italian-Americans do, with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the last meatless meal before Christmas. While the seafood spread has religious symbolism, ultimately it's about the food. "My mom was a great cook," Lomonaco recalls. "She'd serve linguine with clams, followed by shrimp scampi -- we never repeated a fish."
Sometimes you need a little party after the big parties are over, just so you get to actually talk to your friends. That's the idea behind Lauren Purcell's Boxing Day bash, which she, her mother, Michele, and her sister, Anne, host at their mom's home in Florida the day after Christmas. "Every year, we invite the same close family friends," Purcell says. "It gives us a chance to trade the gossip we all gathered!"
Three Kings Day
In Puerto Rico, Christmas festivities last well beyond December 25. Evette Ríos remembers flying from her home in New York City to her grandparents' in Mayaguez for Three Kings Day on January 6, a holiday that marks the three wise men's visit to the baby Jesus. But as her parents become more Americanized, the custom fell by the wayside. That is, until recently, when Ríos revived it.
Holiday Carol-oke Party
Christmas carols aren't just for singing around grandma's piano. This year, gather your gang around a microphone and a holiday playlist for a holly jolly carol-oke night!
Slide napkins and silverware into woolly mittens and pile them on your buffet table. When guests leave, hand them out (in pairs) as cozy parting gifts.
Drinks in a Drum
Give an ordinary punch bowl the look of a toy drum: Attach colorful ribbon around the top and bottom rims with double sided tape. Glue rope onto the ribbon in a zigzag design.
Let your creativity loose with this assorted meat and veggie tray. The antipasta-bilities are endless!
Build Your Own Bloody Mary Bar
Whether they like them spicy, tangy or mild, your brunch guests will have a blast mixing up their own Bloody Marys -- and you'll be freed from bartender duty!
Make Over Your Dinner Party
Throwing a dinner party for low-carb lovers, gluten-free eaters or any other special dieters? These recipes and entertaining tips will keep everyone happy -- host included!