If you had told me back in April, as a needle injected a second Pfizer dose into my arm, that I’d be planning a full-ass party not even three months later, I absolutely would have scoffed and been like, Easy there, buddy, I think you’ve mistaken me for someone much more fun and cool.
And yet here I sit, 11 weeks to the day later, thinking about possible dates and themes and outfits and swearing I won’t get carried away and then immediately breaking that rule. It’s funny what a brush with death, a vax card, and seeing your friends IRL after a year without them will do!
I think we’ve all realized some things in the past year—about life in general, but also about the importance of friendships, and hanging out, and the people who matter most to us—and a lot of us are heading into this summer with a renewed sense of joy, excitement, and desire to just really show up. That makes it a great time to think about being intentional about bringing a fun and generous spirit to all of your summer parties, doing small things that have a big payoff to ensure these get-togethers are even more sublime than we could have dreamed of when we were stuck inside. So as you start planning your first post-vax barbecues and pool parties and birthday gatherings, here are some tips to keep in mind.
Create a great pre-party mood
- Pregame your guests. This is one of my favorite tips from The Art of Gathering, a book I love and highly recommend. The idea behind pregaming your guests is that the party starts the moment you invite someone, and you should treat that as an opportunity to get everyone excited and in the mood. Pregaming could look like mentioning other friends who will be there (“I can’t wait to introduce you to my friend J, who I think you will really like”) or it could look like giving the party a specific name, which makes it feel like an Event (and makes it easier to turn into an annual thing).
- If it makes sense for your hangout/friend group, pregaming could also mean offering a very gentle suggested dress code, or color palette, or theme. As my pal Amy Rose Spiegel recently wrote: “My friends’ll specify, ‘Dress for a picnic!’ and, even though I already thought I understood that I was going to a picnic? It changes how I want to see myself there. It’s interpretative. Whatever the little label—if we’re doing ‘slutty chateau,’ or ‘tropical avant-garde’ (as Laia and Jack invited us to conceptualize, for their summer wedding)—I find that people have a slightly better time if they put thought into personifying the occasion at hand with their clothes, however they do.” (If tropical avant-garde isn’t your thing, my co-worker Katie Way says monochrome is her favorite party dress code because it’s so easy and looks great.)
- Be thoughtful about who you invite. That doesn’t necessarily mean being super exclusive (and, in fact, could mean the opposite). It’s more about strictly inviting people who will bring good energy—who you don’t dread seeing, or feel like you have to warn others about, or keep an eye on because they might drink too much or say something racist. And be generous with invitations to newer pals or more acquiantancey people who are kind, and warm, and who seem to genuinely like you and want to get to know you better. The friend group lines are blurred right now, but after a year when so many friendships died on the vine, it’s a great time to bring new folks in.
- Let your friends know, roughly, some of the other folks on the guest list, so they’ll know who they can expect to see and who it’s cool to make plans to arrive together with. Especially let them know if you’ve invited one of their enemies (and don’t throw a fit if they tell you they aren’t going to come because they don’t want to run into that person).
- In terms of the actual invitations, I swear by Paperless Post flyers—they are free and unfussy, the aesthetic is nice, and you can send them via email or just text people the link.
Deal with logistics early on
- Pregaming your guests can also look like mentioning any logistics that people might be a little stressed about, particularly if you’re doing something new to them/unknown. Don’t wait until the last minute to firm up an actual start time, or to say “FYI there’s usually a lot of street parking available,” or to let people know that this beach has a bunch of great food and drink stands so they don’t need to pack a cooler.
- On that note, decide what you’re comfortable with, safety-wise, and communicate that in advance. This pandemic is very much not over yet, and it’s totally reasonable to limit gatherings to people you know have been vaccinated. If you want to go that route, you could just say something like “Just a head’s up, everyone we’re inviting has been fully vaccinated! With that in mind, I’m asking folks to not invite any friends along, just to ensure I know everyone personally/know their vaccine status. But let me know if you have any questions about this or other safety-related things!” On the other hand, if you know that, say, your anti-vax siblings and their partners are going to be there, it’s probably worth mentioning it to your more cautious friends.
- Let new friends know in advance if you have any pets in case they are allergic to or afraid of animals.
Get your home ready
- Set aside some time the evening before or the day of your party to make sure your place is looking its best. It doesn’t have to be perfectly spotless, especially if you’re just hosting close friends or family members, but do make a point to clean your kitchen, fridge, and bathroom, sweep and/or vacuum, make the bed, tidy up common areas, and hide/stash clutter as best you can. And take the garbage out and put a fresh bag in the bin right before your friends are set to arrive.
- Put an appropriately-sized trash receptacle near where eating/drinking is taking place, and have extra trash bags handy, plus a designated spot for collecting cans/recycling.
- Be sure your bathroom is well-stocked with extra toilet paper (that is out/visible), soap, paper towels, a small trash can, and a plunger.
- More for you than your guests: If you care about your rug, pillows, etc., have a couple of good stain removers on hand.
- Write down your wifi network and password and post it up in a hard-to-miss spot so people can easily connect. (Bonus: rename your guest network something cute/on-theme/easy to type.) And plug in an extra phone charger or two in high-traffic spots.
- If your home has any annoying quirks, make use of little instructional notes—e.g., “the doorbell doesn’t work, so knock hard.” People feel bad when they can’t figure things like this out and are embarrassed about asking for help; try not to let it come to that.
- I think the best parties have natural “zones”—basically, a few distinct spaces everyone can easily move between and congregate in. (An event designer quoted in The Art of Gathering says that people instinctively seek out smaller spaces when there aren’t a ton of people present to maintain a comfortable level of density. This is why, in a home of really any size, 30 people will all try to cram into the kitchen at once.) One zone basically always occurs in the kitchen, but it can be worth creating a couple of others by dragging some chairs together, or setting up a drinks table somewhere that is not the kitchen, which will gently coax people out a bit.
- If there’s something you don’t have but could really use—like extra chairs or a cooler or a bluetooth speaker—ask one of the friends you’ve invited if they’d be able to bring theirs. People like to feel helpful! Having a little job to do is not a bad thing!
- A couple of strategically placed strands of Christmas lights—say, on the food table, or wrapped around a potted plant—are worth their weight in gold.
Put some thought into your food and drink situation
- An inexpensive way to level up your house party: go to Party City (or any similar party establishment), where you can find Solo-style cups in a bunch of nice, not-red colors. I’m partial to the lavender and yellow, personally. A pack of 50 costs $6 and the cups really create a vibe without being full-on decorations. They also look great in photos, which is not the most important thing, but isn’t the worst thing in the world either?
- Always have an EANAB—equally attractive non-alcoholic beverage—for people who aren’t drinking, or who want a break between boozy drinks. Ice-cold Topo Chico is a welcome choice for a casual gathering, and Casamara Club sodas feel extra special. Beyond that, there are a ton of non-alcoholic-but-still exciting beverages on the market right now that are worth trying. Or just make a nice punch!
- Related: It’s your job, as host, to intervene if you see anyone being weirdly aggro to the sober people present.
- If you plan to serve food, don’t attempt to make a ton of recipes you’ve never made before, and absolutely do not try to use your grill for basically the first time ever. Play your greatest hits or order food from a beloved local restaurant (might I suggest the post-pandemic 6-foot hero?) and move on with your life! One thing worth making a greatest hit: Lipton’s French onion dip, which you make by combining the packet of powdered mix with sour cream; served with potato chips, it’s an absolutely foolproof crowd-pleaser.
A few other food ideas in this realm:
- Jars of pickles. Not even necessarily fancy ones, but also, maybe some fancy ones? In my experience, pickles are an underrated snack that tends to go over very well when people are drinking.
- Hot sauces. My friend Terri recently mentioned that she attended a birthday party with an impressive array of hot sauces set up so you could try a bunch. Beyond just being a good idea in terms of condiment options, she said it was also a great conversation starter.
- Classic ice cream sandwiches. Pull them out of the freezer and start passing the boxes around a few hours into the party and everyone will love you. Frozen tater tots dumped on a baking sheet and cooked in the oven are also an excellent mid-party/midnight snack kind of a deal.
- Speaking of feeding people… when I was in college and doing sorority recruitment, the last night included an event where we served desserts to the potential new members. My house had a rule that those of us who were already in the house had to start eating our dessert as soon as we sat down at the table—even if we weren’t hungry, or had already eaten a few of these mini cheesecakes over the course of the evening. The idea was that you at least had to finish half, because the potential new members wouldn’t feel like they could eat if you weren’t eating. I was thinking about this rule recently, during a new friend hangout, when I realized they weren’t availing themselves of the many snacks I had sitting out—even though I had said “feel free to start eating.” Lo and behold, as soon as I started eating, they did too. All this to say: If you do spring for the 6-foot party sub (or whatever), serve yourself some at the start of the party in front of your guests so the food isn’t sitting there, pristine and untouched, waiting for someone to feel brave enough to be the first.
- If people are asking, “Can I bring anything?” please, for the love of god, let them bring something that’ll make your life easier! A few great options to outsource: ice, disposable plates/utensils, extra napkins, and a case or two of LaCroix—basically, anything that’s fairly inexpensive and widely available.
Make a few little changes to ensure a great vibe
- Don’t be afraid to throw a daytime party. And if you’re doing a daytime party or backyard barbecue situation, lazily set out some games that people can make use of, if they are so inclined, e.g., a paddle ball set, a wooden throwing game, or a beloved board game from childhood.
- Get a couple of disposable cameras floating around while you’re at it, and some bug spray if you’re going to be hanging out outdoors at night.
- Instead of trying to make the perfect playlist—something that is important, yes, but that you could easily sink way too much time into when you should be, like, cleaning your toilet—you could instead simply utilize a playlist created by someone who is specifically great at this sort of thing. I recommend asking your coolest friend for some of their favorite party playlists, as I did here, to get us started: Summer Soundwave, Brazil Part One and Two, ODD POP 142 :: ₭⌀₡ḧⅈƀ¡Ȓủ ℵǟŋⱯƌǘ; wRap Caveat. (Thank you, Amy Rose!)
- Be generous with compliments. This is something worth making a habit of in non-party situations, but it’s especially worthwhile if you’re the host. Right now, a lot of people are feeling socially awkward/out of practice, weird about their bodies, and worried they have no friends. If you see an opportunity for a genuine compliment, don’t keep it to yourself.
- Take lots of candid and posed photos of people hanging out, even if you feel a little self-conscious about doing so at first. No one will think it’s weird and will actually probably feel quite flattered! Some of the most fun and warm people I know take this a step further and will insist, on days when they like your outfit, of taking your picture. Not to post, but just to simply capture and celebrate. This is nice! Let’s do more things like this!
- Remember that your mood sets the tone for the party more than anything else. Don’t fuss and fret and apologize for every little thing that you’re self-conscious about, or beat yourself up for not having the bandwidth to do everything on this list. Instead, keep reminding yourself that you’re a great host and everyone is excited to be there. The more relaxed, generous, and fun you are, the more relaxed, generous, and fun your guests will be. It really is that simple.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.