Summer entertaining is both easier and harder than throwing a party at other times of the year.
On the one hand, it can be pretty simple to toss a few burgers and hot dogs on the grill and sit back with a pitcher of sangria. But the laid-back attitude can also mean the headcount is less certain, with guests possibly dropping out for a Little League game — or showing up and bringing the rest of the team with them on a lark.
Being a guest often isn’t any easier, since hosts can fail to specify that you should pack a swimsuit along with your covered dish, or that they’d just love for you to cook one of the main courses and bring it, if you don’t mind.
Either way, slipshod planning can lead to extra expenses and hurt feelings. We talked to event planners and etiquette experts about the best precautions for hosts and guests to have a great time without overspending or ruffling feathers. Here’s what they suggest:
Set start and end times. Yes, we’re in the midst of the lazy days of summer, but that doesn’t mean that guests should expect to arrive for brunch and stay through the fireworks display. “Specify when the party will start and end, so everyone can plan accordingly,” says Jodi R.R. Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting and author of The Etiquette Book.
Calculate food amounts. Make sure you have enough for everyone, including second helpings. “Hosts should prepare food based on their estimated number of guests, and then round up,” says Angela L. Montanez, the principal of event-planning firm Door 24 Agency in New York.
For a party of 30, she suggests preparing for 40. “Five or so will easily drop out with prior plans and if your edible creations are that wonderful, guests will have a second helping,” she says. “Make sure to get a firm headcount by requiring RSVPs.” Otherwise it’s easy to over- or under-prepare.
Prepare packing lists. ”It’s a smart idea to remind guests to bring seasonal items like swimsuits, towels and sunscreen, if needed,” Smith says.
Vary dishes. Factor in a few options that would work for a vegetarian, or someone with other food restrictions. “Do not serve a main ingredient twice,” says Montanez. “If you served crab during an appetizer as a standalone, then avoid making crab king during a main entree.” It provides a more interesting spread and limits the number of dishes someone with allergies or a restricted diet must avoid.
Factor in hot weather. “For food safety reasons, read up on how long your various party foods can remain out and unrefrigerated,” says Greg Jenkins, a partner at West Coast party-planning firm Bravo Productions. Employ smart food preparation tricks, and look to guidelines on FoodSafety.gov. From a comfort perspective, make sure there’s enough shade for guests, too.
Consider kids. “If you have guests bringing children, be sure to have child-friendly, finger friendly foods available, as well,” says life coach Dr. Julie Gurner. Keep in mind that kids may not want to eat the same fancy dishes as adults.
Carefully dictate potlucks. If guests ask about bringing something, it’s OK to request certain items, within reason. “If you need more of side dishes or desserts, let them know,” says Jaime Restrepo of Dulce Detalle Designs, an event-planning firm. “But please, refrain from specific requests, unless your guest has a famous dish!” That ensures you’re not asking for something beyond her expertise or budget.
Read into the invitation. Smith says, “A good host (see tips above) will tell you all the specifics — when to show up and what to bring, including say, swimsuits and a side dish. She adds, “Don’t assume kids are welcome if only adult names are on the invitation.”
Share special needs. Are you lactose intolerant? Or allergic to strawberries? Vegan? Let the host know ASAP. That gives them time to prepare. (It could help you, too, to bring a dish that fits the bill.)
Show up. “If you RSVP and say that you’re attending the party, it’s poor etiquette to back out at the last minute,” says Jenkins. “I’ve known some people who have sent a text message to the host when the party has already started, stating they can no longer attend.” That’s a waste of money to the person who factored in your RSVP when buying supplies and planning the party.
Contribute. The experts agree: it’s a nice gesture to bring some kind of host gift or, if asked, a food dish. Consider it a thank you for the party invitation.
Bring food ready to serve. “Arriving with a head of lettuce and a tomato when you were in charge of a garden salad is not right,” Smith says. Neither is assuming that the host will have an extra cookie platter or dip bowl that isn’t in use, or room in the fridge to chill that room-temperature six pack.
Consider food safety. Keep in mind that your food contribution will need to travel well and withstand the heat without exposing guests to a food-borne illness. Skip the mayo, and stick to foods that can easily fit in a chilled cooler for the ride over.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.