Say you want to have some people over for Memorial Day. You'd like to class things up a bit beyond ordering pizza and setting out donuts, but you don't want to slave away or spend a fortune prepping an elaborate spread, either. Fear not; with a little planning, a happy medium can be achieved.
Memorial Day has some traditions associated with it, namely beer and grilled meats. It's not so much that you have to serve beer and grilled meats on Memorial Day, but that the day's vibe is decidedly casual, serving as something of a gatekeeper for the summer season of chill, back-patio gatherings. So approach your menu accordingly.
First things first -- logistics. Get your guest list together, keeping in mind that about 60 to 75 percent of the people you invite will actually show, regardless of whether they RSVP or not. And a handful of people are bound to bring along friends, dates and kids. Best bet? Plan enough food to feed the number of people you invited, and err on the side of caution. Extra food can be sent home with guests and/or stored for your own lunches and dinners later in the week. Not enough food makes for a stressed host and cranky guests.
Of course, the type and amount of food you serve depends on the time of day you're serving. An evening gathering is often the easiest for the host, because it gives you all day to prep. And if you plan to have people sit outside, evening is the best bet. Keep in mind, though, that if you have people over at dinnertime, they're going to eat. A lot. And they're bound to linger, which may or may not be a problem, depending on how much you like your guests and how early you have to get up the next morning.
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If you want to throw a big party but don't have the means to feed that many people a full dinner, consider a happy-hour party (four to seven). Call it what it is and folks will know to expect drinks & snacks, not a meal, and most will get that they should plan to head elsewhere around dinnertime.
Keep in mind, guests will inevitably ask "what can I bring?" Even if you tell them "nothing," they'll bring something anyway. Best to use this to your advantage -- ask them to bring something you'll use at the party. Guests feel useful and you can check something off of your list and budget. BYOB is, of course, a classic way to cut your party budget -- drinks ain't cheap. Plus, folks get to drink exactly what they want and you don't have to worry about providing an array of choices to suit everyone.
If you have a backyard grill and don't mind buying beer for your friends, try asking folks to BYOM/MA. That's "bring your own meat/meat alternative," and yes, I made it up just now. The idea is a good one, though -- you provide the drinks, sides and dessert, guests bring their own proteins to throw on the grill. This will work especially well if you're inviting a smaller group of good friends who won't mind a little chaos. What I don't recommend is relegating side dishes or desserts to BYO-territory. Either you have to become party Nazi and tell everyone exactly what to bring or you end up with three identical hummus platters.
So, send out your Evites, gear up your friends, and next week we'll talk menu planning, supply acquisition and food prep.