KEEP FOOD SIMPLE
Cook in advance.
Meals like Lamb Stew Foggia Style with Olives and Fennel Seeds can be made two days before and will just get more flavorful as they sit. Round out the meal with easy sides like roasted asparagus (try Beef and Asparagus Roll-Ups) and basmati rice (we like Bacon Rice Bowl).
You can also take it easy with a Southwestern Burrito Bar, make it comforting with a Biscuit-Topped Chicken Stew, or lighten up with Spicy Shrimp with Creamy Greens. For dessert, remember this: Everyone loves ice cream.
Cozy up the kitchen.
If your kitchen's lights have dimmers, use them. That way, the room can be as soothing and ambient as a party-ready living room would be. Add a bottle of wine, and guests won't be able to stay out of the kitchen.
Two words: sous chefs.
Once guests are in the kitchen, put them to use doing small tasks, like sticking veggies in the oven. Otherwise, you're in the kitchen alone, missing the party -- it might as well be Monday morning already!
Bring the outside in.
Bring in greenery from your yard, or if it's fall, mimic the changing leaves with plates and accents in burnt orange, red and yellow; lay a small rug on the table for texture. Decorate your table with Centerpieces from the Backyard.
Make yourself comfortable.
Warm up to a soup tasting, with candles and a toasty fire. Serve soups in mugs or mini ramekins. If you're in the warmer months, keep the candles, but swap out hot soup for summer soups.
Send guests home with party favors, like leftovers for lunch, or pack dry soup mix in burlap baggies. It's sweet and means less to clean up!
ADD POPS OF COLOR
Reach for funky items.
Think mismatched salt and pepper shakers, and placemats in vibrant shades like orange and red, just like the Rachael Ray show's kitchen.
Make guests feel at home.
Up the homeyness factor with comfy pillows and blankets, lots of candles and furniture pushed together so everyone can chat coffee-klatch style.
Don't fuss over flowers.
Scope the market for bright (and cheap) flowers, to make into Flowery Centerpieces.
DO TAKE SHORTCUTS
Embrace low-effort apps.
Go with a fresh Tomato and Feta Salad, some of our favorite store-bought dips and mixed olives. Keep it casual. The less time you spend getting ready, the more time you'll have to relax before the party. Besides, casual equals comfortable -- for hosts and guests!
Rest up the night before.
Nothing says "Sunday night blues" like falling asleep at your own party.
Scrub as little as possible.
Minimize the pile of dirty dishes by encouraging guests to use one plate throughout the night (instead of separate salad, dinner and dessert plates). You'll have to wash fewer dishes and will conserve water. Use disposable plates (eco-friendly, please!), and leave out a wastebasket for easy disposal.
Get a clean start.
Take some time to tidy up on Saturday, so you're not waking up early Sunday to scrub the place down before guests arrive.
DON'T ZAP YOUR ENERGY
Don't wait until Sunday to shop.
Not only will it stress you out, but you also don't want to waste time store-hopping if your market is out of a key ingredient.
Don't start the party too late.
An early start, even at 4 or 5 p.m., means an early finish -- and a good night's sleep.
Don't waste your time.
No one will notice that the top of the refrigerator is dusty or that your entryway rug could use a shampoo. Clean the visible rooms and shut the doors on the rest.
Don't overdo it.
Extravagant five-course dinners are great -- on Saturdays. Tonight, just make as much food as you'll need.
Don't turn down help.
Ever! If friends offer to bring extra plates or more ice cream, then by all means, let them. It's one less thing for you to do.