Feel at Ease when Hosting a Cocktail Party

October 4, 2011,  Thomas Wenger
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At times it seems easier, more informal and, certainly for the host, a better opportunity to mingle, meet, great and enjoy the company, if the party you are hosting is held standing and in your own home. At other times, our dining rooms are just too small to fit all the people sitting and so we have to serve a standing buffet. Or, it is a really casual affair, where guests and friends will drop by at their own time and drinks and food need served over a prolonged period of time.

Cocktail party

When planning your menu, the key words that need to be on your mind are; finger food, easy-to-eat and bite size.

In order to ensure a stress free party and maximum enjoyment for you and your guests there are a few ideas and considerations for you to look at the when planning the event. The trick of trick of the trade here is very simple; the better you prepare yourself and your dining area and the more organized the service area is, the less stress you will have during the function and the more quality time you can spent with your guests. In short, “Mise-en-place” is the key for a smooth flow throughout your event. “Mise-en-place” is a French term describing the “putting in place” or preparation of the beverage, food, utensils, cutlery, glasses and the room or area it is all served in. A well prepared party with fully stocked supplies and properly set up dining and party areas will put your mind at ease and let you enjoy the party as the gracious, worry free host you want to be.

Dining Room

Protect your furniture and living room.  In general our homes are not made for hosting parties; they are made for comfortable living. We like to surround ourselves with artifacts and decorative pieces such as pictures on ledges and small tables and other smaller pieces of furniture. Keep in mind that these are also the same places where guests like to set down their glasses, empty plates and anything else that may not be needed anymore. It is wise to prepare or empty out these spaces in advance and protect your furniture with a decorative runner or anything else that will look good and save your furniture from ugly water marks that will look even worse the following day in the sunlight.

Avoid buffet lines. This is perhaps easier said than done, but if your house, garden, service area or function room is large enough, provide the food in various corners broken up in smaller easy accessible buffet tables rather than one big large buffet. Divide it up into sections, such as hot cocktail items and cold food and canapés, cheese, the bar, action stations, dessert. Set up pocket sittings away from the buffets, a couple of chairs here and there will help people to move away from the buffet. This help with the refill if needed and ensure that all the people can enjoy the food being served.


Whether you serve an open bar, wines or a pre-prepared punch, sangria or similar, you need to ensure proper serving in adherence to the service techniques for each individual beverage. White wines should be just before the guest arrive and be well chilled, red wines should be decanted if needed or opened and let breath at least 1 hour ahead of serving, punches and similar drinks need to be brought out just ahead of guest arrival and be well chilled.

Drinks, garnishes and mixers

If you are asking the guests to mix their own drinks and serve themselves, provide all the garnishes needed; green olives for martinis, sliced oranges, wedged limes and simple syrup and bitters. Soft drinks are best left in cans, while juices always look good in carafes.
Other items that need be ready ahead of time are stirrers, straws, bottle opener and most of all ice and lots of it. It is a good idea to place the ice on one side of the service station and all the garnishes at the other end, so people can garnish their drink before leaving the station.


You will need more glasses that you think. At cocktail parties people generally like to change their glass one or twice during the event. Ensure you serve the drinks in the correct classes. It sounds like a lot to ask but your guests will appreciate for example, a martini in a high ball glass. If you are expecting 30 people for the party you will need to have approximately 12-15 glasses of each kind depending on what beverage you are providing.

Food and Menu

When planning your menu, the key words that need to be on your mind are; finger food, easy-to-eat and bite size. Think of the guests, holding a plate in one hand and a fork in the other. Anything on a toothpick or skewer is great. Canapés, items baked in parcels, crepe rolls, spiced tenderloin tips, fruits, cubed or skewered, are just some of the proven items that work well.

Action stations

Themed action stations where guests can do their own food are great and help relax the atmosphere. Before you know it people who have never met each other before will actually, grill, cook, toss or just simply serve each other.

Sauces and dips

Anything with sauces and or dips just tend to end up on a guest's tie, lapel, silk blouse or even worse on your furniture. Although you will not be able to eliminate all the dips and sauces, try to have as few as possible.


Although you are perhaps just passing around some canapés and the rest might be from the buffet, there are still some things to think of and to prepare for:

  1. Cutlery. Ensure that you provide all the appropriate cutlery, such as oyster forks, chopsticks for sushi and Asian dishes and desert forks.
  2. Plates. Ensure that small plates are used and that they are stocked on every part of the buffet or on every action station. Large plates are difficult to handle when standing and people can go to the buffet for seconds and thirds or to various stations.
  3. Glass clip on holders. These are great. They are clipped at the side of the plates and can easily hold a wine glass. If you have them, use them, if you do not have them, they are worth the investment.
  4. Toothpicks. It is a good idea to pass them around with either the drinks or the canapés.
  5. Napkins. Napkins are some of the most sought after commodities on any cocktail party. Place napkins conveniently located on any food station, and strategically throughout the area. They can be in napkin holders, cocktail glasses, stacked on a small plate or in wooden bowls. If canapés of beverage is passed around on trays, it is a good idea to stock the tray with napkins as well.
  6. Clearing of glasses / plates. Unfortunately this is where the fun stops and work begins. Your guests will leave glasses, plates and anything else in the closest flat spot and these include your buffet, bar counter, accent tables or window ledges. You can minimize that from happening by limiting the spaces on the buffet for example, but somebody will need to be assigned to go around and collect the empty glasses and dirty dishes.

All these points above are not supposed to overwhelm or even scare one out of hosting parties at home, but they are just some thoughts and ideas, many out of hard learned experiences, which may ease the planning and preparation of your own event.  If you follow these hints and tips you may confidently be the greatest host you can be and run an event that will be spoken about for time to come.