Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Party By Numbers

Whether it’s a simple dinner party, a grand wedding or rustic farm to table dinner, there are so many wonderful details that go into planning the menu, ambiance and décor for a party.  Who doesn’t love to choose flowers, ponder color themes, and decide on menus?  What doesn’t always get discussed is the cost of the event, and how resources get allocated.

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I don’t budget for weekly meals, but I do budget roughly for entertaining. What I find interesting, and what I calculate for each event (though I don’t usually share the number) is the “per head” cost and how that gets divided up: Decorations: flowers, accents, linens, seasonal items, party favors, etc…Food: what to serve, and whether you will prepare it yourself, buy it ready to serve or have it prepared on site for you….Drinks: Alcoholic or non or both, hot or cold, BYO, depending on the event…Service: Will you serve the food yourself, or have someone do that for you?  Valets to park your guests, for a big event? I am ignoring location-events for the moment; assume you are having an event at home.

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The bottom line is, where do you spend your money, for a dinner or party? What counts to you as the hostess? What kind of an event do you want to have? This is a very personal question for each hostess and each party. One thing for sure, the more you entertain, the more fluent you will be in how to entertain. If you have a dinner party once a year I guarantee you will be more stressed than if you entertain once a month, though I know that is not always possible.  You can use your family dinners for practice and use what you have on hand, and greens can be cut from the garden in season.  With a few exceptions, I feel that simple is usually better; why feel like you need to buy flowers if you can use a candlestick and a few green cuttings from your garden, a neighbor’s garden (with permission) or something else on hand nearby~


So let’s get down to brass tacks. The recent dinner for Rick cost me $15 per head, for dinner for ten. Not bad; it was a small event, I cooked all the food myself, and my family served themselves.  We had California wine, not French. For a smaller event (20 or less, in my book, without servers) I have three basic options: set a buffet table for guests to fill their own plates, let guests pass trays around the table (trays should be smaller, in multiples for each dish, and the underlying trays must be light weight; think hotel silver not ironstone; or pass dishes between guests from two ends or the center of the table (e.g. for meats or soups) and put one or two diners in charge of, for example, ladling soup into bowls, as we did for Rick’s dinner serving the pumpkin soup. Lately I have favored one long table, but round tables are great for small groups as the trays are smaller and can be passed easily.


My Sis’ recent party cost $20 per head for the catering of the short ribs, curry & noodles, salads, and dessert; this was considered “heavy appetizers” and dessert, and that number is before the cost of the servers, table, linen & glass rentals, the bartender, wine and other beverages, and the 18% gratuity. It is amazing how rentals and the “small stuff” that most people don’t think of adds to the cost of the party.   That’s ok for a lot of people, including my Sister. I have come to terms with the idea that my Sister feels like it’s not a real party unless it’s catered, and that feeding 150 people is a daunting task. I think that she likes the idea of someone serving food; no matter what the food is…..she likes having a bartender and having tray pass party foods; in the last few years she has liked the “food station” idea. However, the cost adds up. I figure it cost about $50 per person for that party, for food and servers. So the cost of the servers and the rentals added up to be more than the food itself!  Factor in the wine, perhaps the rentals and servers equaled the food and wine.   Since it was a corporate event, I suggested a party favor like a key chain (the theme was “closing the loop”) but alas the budget was all consumed by the food and the like. The treat for the guests was the meal itself and the chance to socialize out of the office together. By everyone’s account, it was a success…the guests all had a great time, and that counts more than my critique of the food~

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My problem is that I value quality, and I love good food. Why spend $50 per person for rubber chicken ?  I spent $16 per person for the farm to table for 40 that I had in Laguna recently; though there was no bartender, I asked guests to bring their own wine to share, and my friends/guests helped me serve.  That worked perfectly for the evening; maybe that’s the trick, knowing what works for each event. But $16 per head for an extensive meal vs $20 per head for appetizer food only, before servers? Sorry to interject my own preferences, I don’t see the value.  It’s hard to have an intimate event for 150 versus 40, but I still feel there are ways to feed 150 and make it feel like an intimate dinner….

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Next up, several alternatives to feed 150 and make it look & taste good….as well as a few ghost stories pre-Halloweeen…..stay tuned and have a wonderful week~


  1. Your table settings are gorgeous. I am with you...simpler is better.

  2. I hope all is going well for you and your Mom and Dad. My Mom is now healing at home.

    Thank your for sharing the beautiful images and tips on entertaining. It's been a little over a year since I first started following you, Andrea. You have inspired me so.

  3. What a beautiful setting!

  4. Absolutely gorgeous, I love how the gold and white detail play off the chartreuse green foliage, so attractive!

  5. Love this post--great information for party planning, especially as the busy season approaches.
    Please, where did you get the lovely amber-stemmed glasses in photos 3 & 4? I have been looking for something similar for ages!

  6. Excellent Andrea. You always do your dinner parties magnificently! Your guest appreciate all of the extra efforts you put in!
    I will call later!

    Art by Karena

  7. people serving while wearing disposable gloves is a totao turn-off to me. is there any getting around this or is a state/county/city law? I know the reason for wearing such gloves is for health concerns, but in the back of my mind i'm wondering, "is the server wearing gloves to protect herself from the germs in the food?" i would opt out of a catered event in my home if the gloves were mandatory...it just negates every bit of chic that has been put into the party.