These expert tips promise to make your gathering stress-free.

Gold and silver balloons with confetti
Credit: Lauren Nicole/Getty Images

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Gold and silver balloons with confetti
Credit: Lauren Nicole/Getty Images

1 Plan Slowly

Don’t stuff a week’s worth of party planning into one stressful Saturday. “Separate the planning of each party component over a couple of days,” says Jessica McTaggart of Pink Champagne Events. Spend one evening focusing on the menu and another on your DIY centerpieces—and allow for plenty of relaxing downtime in between, if possible.

2 Perfect Your Guest List

It doesn’t matter if it’s an intimate dinner party or a big holiday; maintain a careful eye on your guest list—and not just to keep the headcount in check. “Make sure you have the right mix of visitors,” says Meg Stepanak of Gemini Event Planning. For an intimate gathering, she recommends inviting at least a few extroverts to “engage even the shyest guest, find common interests, and relax the crowd.”

3 Send Invites Early

Unless you’re secretly hoping some of your guests won’t show up, make sure to send out invitations at least six weeks early—six months if they’ll be attending from out of town, says Heidi Hiller of Innovative Party Planning. Emailed invitations, like Paperless Post, are acceptable for most events, but “the level of respect you give your guest when inviting is the level of respect you get in your attendance. Casually done, it can be ignored,” she says. Need a firm headcount? Hiller recommends formal invitations.

4 Stick With the Tried and Tested

“We all flock to Pinterest for the latest trends, but I don’t recommend trying something for the first time when preparing to host,” says McTaggart. When planning your menu or decorations, make sure to pick recipes and DIY projects you’ve successfully completed before—otherwise you might find yourself up to your elbows in glitter and stress three hours before your party.

5 Consider a Buffet

Even for professionals, menu planning can be a struggle—so why not consider a buffet? “A buffet menu allows guests to build their own plate,” says Stepanak, meaning they can pick their favorite mains and skip their least-favorite greens. And don’t force yourself to work in the kitchen all day before the party: prepare appetizers and salads ahead of time.

6 Pair Your Playlist to Your Guests

Somber music doesn’t complement a festive party and picking the wrong tunes for the dance floor can be a total mood-killer. “Make a playlist that reflects the demographic,” says Stepanak. “How can a group of 40-somethings not start singing when a Madonna or Prince song comes on? This will make buddies out of former strangers.”

7 Be Prepared for Anything

Long before the party, save yourself an awful surprise by planning for anything and everything that could go wrong—from not enough parking spaces to too much trash. Walk through the party in your mind: Is your oven big enough? Do you have enough room for mingling? That way on the day of the event, “everything goes smoothly because you already thought it all out,” says Hiller.

8 Don’t Worry About the Dishes

Spotting the towering pile of dirty plates in the kitchen, you might be tempted to hide in the kitchen until everything is spotless. Resist the urge. Stepanak recommends storing dinnerware and cookware in the dishwasher until everyone clears out. “Do not wash or rinse. Worry about them later. Your guests won’t feel obligated to assist with dishes and drying, and you will all enjoy the after-dinner party,” she says.

9 Bring in Help If Needed

If this is your first big event, don’t be scared to ask for help in the form of a professional party or event planner. “Messes can be expensive,” says Hiller. “Making a mistake can cost you a lot of money, or cause the event to go off poorly.” On a tight budget? Consider just hiring them for a consultation, where they can review your plans and venue for any snags you may not have considered.