We love to entertain. There is something innately gratifying about opening your doors to cherished guests to celebrate a variety of special occasions. The elation of planning an event is most often accompanied with some anxiety. The questions that keep people up at night include: 1) Is the date and time with the least conflicts with your guests’ schedules? 2) Will they show up? 3) Will your guests enjoy themselves? 4) What type and quantity of food should be served? 5) Will everything go smoothly?

Hosting an unforgettable event is a rewarding endeavor that requires time and energy. Sometimes focusing on the big things can leave the door open to unintentionally dropping the ball on the little, yet essential items. How can you ensure that your event will be the one that you envision and that your guests will love?

Here is my checklist for striking the right balance of food, beverages, space, activities and the timeline for an optimal experience.


Let’s start with the heart of the stomach. It is advantageous to streamline your menu for preparation efficiency, quality and quantity. Planning a larger quantity of fewer, complementary tasting items is ideal.

Hors d’oeuvres

Cheese platters are the top choice for a spectrum of casual to elegant gatherings. They can be simple or include an abundant display of exotic and unusual selections. An ideal platter combines hard, medium and soft cheeses with an assortment of crackers and bread, meat, fruit and nuts.

Preparation Tip: Arrange cheese platters the day before, cover with saran wrap and store them in the refrigerator. Add meat, fruit and nuts to the tray. In today’s age, I place nuts in a separate bowl to avoid anyone with a nut allergy from having a reaction. Place the crackers and bread in bowls or on a platter prior to the event.

Serving Size: A large cheese tray can typically feed up between 10 – 15 people. If your guests are hearty eaters, then make one extra tray to avoid running out of food, especially if that is important to you. Otherwise it is acceptable for hors d’oeuvres to be prepared and consumed as supplies last since more food will be available.

Supplies: Have a sign introducing each cheese. People love to learn plus some cheeses can be easily confused. Provide one cheese knife per brick/roll and at least one tong each per cracker/bread, fruit and meats. If you place nuts in a separate serving bowl, a teaspoon is acceptable as a serving utensil. My ideal rule-of-thumb is one tong per offering to discourage hands-only selections and provide smaller utensils for forks or spoons to manage inventory. Plates and napkins should be available as well. I place and utensils napkins at the end of a table or buffet for guest ease and to avoid waste from dropped or dirty items while guests are moving through a buffet.

Serving Time: Set up the hors d’oeuvres fifteen to twenty minutes prior to guest arrival. Consider the item you are serving and the temperature in which it will be served. For instance, dairy in the summer is not a good idea in the heat. If you do, place it on ice and keep that ice fresh and freezing at all times.


Meal preparation takes more time and thought in today’s age of nutritional plans, allergies and other consumption considerations. Therefore, clusters of two can keep you covered to accommodate a range of guest dietary needs. Here is a sampling of offerings for buffet-style service:

  • 2 salads with complementary dressings (dairy and non-dairy options)
  • 2 veggies
  • 2 meats (such as chicken and salmon or steak and chicken)
  • 2 breads or rolls
  • Butter and/or spreads (stick for small groups, packets for large groups)

Preparations: If you are cooking the food, especially meat, prepare and serve it in deep enough pans if sauce and vegetables are included. If you are transferring your items to a chafer, fancy or wire frame styles, be sure to have a bottom pan. This pan is filed (about pinkie fingertip deep) to heat up water to maintain heat. Select sternos that last for four hours and light those thirty minutes prior to service time. Pre-cut your meat for guest ease and to keep the buffet line flowing. Always start your meat cooking process at least 15 to 30 minutes prior to the end time it needs to be done in order to maintain your event timeline. Usually Murphy’s Law kicks in with an oven, stove or other type of delay when preparing meat for service. Just have a plan so that you or your staff can keep everything on track, stress-free.

Set up Tips: You can have a menu sign with plates at the beginning of a buffet. Set out all items at once, with salad and bread at the beginning and make sure you announce to all guests that the meal is ready to be served. I have seen guests start serving themselves before all of the food was ready and set out. Have a server in the area to courteously inform guests of the progress and plan. If you have between 50 to 100 guests, make your buffet line double-sided to allow for faster service.

Serving Size: Anticipate that each guest has a second helping and plan accordingly. If you are providing lots of alcohol or have a long event, plan about 20% more food on top of the two helpings per person guideline.

Supplies: Have a sign with the menu at the front of the line or signs for each dish. If you have guests with nutritional stipulations, it is courtesy to add a few ingredient details on the sign or have a side conversation with that guest. Tongs for salads and bread, spoons for veggies, ladles for dressings and sauces and a knife and fork for meat, butter knife for butter. I usually place a small plate in front of bowls and platters to rest utensils. This avoids people putting utensils on the table and hopefully using the same utensil for multiple dishes.

My ideal rule-of-thumb is one tong per offering to discourage hands-only selections and provide smaller utensils for forks or spoons to manage inventory. I place the napkins and condiments at the end of a buffet line to avoid waste and line flow delays.

Serving Time: Offer dinner within 60 minutes of guests arriving and consuming hors d’oeuvres.

NOTE: If you are having your event catered, a truly professional caterer will provide all of these items. Be sure to have them outline what they are bringing and the quantities. However, I have seen many caterers that provide drop-off service not provide the above items. Have a back-up plan.

If you are preparing all of the food yourself and are hiring staff to help you, please provide them with an outline of the night’s activities which includes a food menu, instructions and timelines.


Three selections hit the spot. These days it makes sense to have a full fat/sugar option (let’s refer to it as a traditional offering), one gluten-free and one decadent taste in small bites.

Preparation: Refrigerate respective desserts until 10 minutes prior to serving. Have tiered platters or stands to make the desserts accessible and presentation beautiful. Plates, napkins and utensils should be available. If you are serving ice cream, have some way to keep it as cold and firm as possible.

Serving Size: Anticipate that each guest has seconds and plan accordingly. If you are providing lots of alcohol or have a long event, plan about 20% more food on top of the two helpings per person guideline.

Supplies: Have a sign with the menu at the front of the line or signs for each dish. As a guest courtesy, include signs with a few key ingredient details (namely dairy, wheat and nuts). Tongs, spatulas, knifes and a scooper usually cover the spectrum of desserts available.

Serving Time: Offer desserts within 20 to 30 minutes after 75% of guests have finished their meal.


If you plan to have guests greeted with a beverage, set up a beverage area in your welcome area. A chilling bucket for champagne or wines along with glasses and cocktail napkins. If you are displaying a build-your-own Bloody Mary, coffee or chocolate bar, make sure the glasses or cupware are first in line with everything else accessible through layers of height accompanied by serving utensils. Have different types of condiments available. Think of your guests. You might not take sugar in your coffee but someone will want regular, raw or a sweetener. Place napkins at the end of the bar.

Preparation: Remember to polish glassware prior to set up, have a towel and wine/bottle opener on hand with cocktail napkins available.

Supplies: A small receptacle for trash and an area for dirty glassware is appropriate. You can rent oval trays for dirty glasses. A nice touch is to add a clean, decorative napkin across the top. It is customary to not mix clean and dirty in the same area or on the same tray.

A few other tips:

  • Double check that all dishware and flatware are clean and polished prior to setting out.
  • Serving bowls and platters need to accommodate the food.
  • Risers for serving dishware make the food more easily accessible to guests and allow you to maximize table space. See my original designs here.
  • Keep food service in two areas and keep platters full. The more you spread out, the less it looks like you have. These tips do not apply to progressive dinners.
  • Have plenty of ice on hand.
  • If you serve mixed drinks, remember the lemons and limes.

You can confidently follow-up tips proudly wear your host/hostess crown! That or just contact me.

Photo by Rhianon Lassila

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