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The Busy Mom's Guide to Party Planning

Throwing a great party can be a really overwhelming thought for an already overly busy mom, but with a little planning, you can knock it out of the park! The key is to keep it simple. I throw several all-ages parties every year, so I have a basic template that I use for all of them. The secrets to a successful party are great food, great music, fun decorations, games, and a dance floor. With eleven kids in my family, a little planning ahead keeps the stress level down and ensures success! Here's how I roll:

3 Weeks Out:

Send out the invitations. You can make a cool invitation on your computer and email or text it to all your friends (I farm this out to my daughter Dani, as she loves to do things like that on Photoshop or Illustrator). Make something fun and colorful with your name, address, date of the party, phone number for RSVPs, and a request to bring a dish to share (this is key to keeping it simple on your end). Also, be sure to invite whole families, not just the kids. Having other parents around not only gives you people to talk to, it also means you don't have to chase a bunch of kids around by yourself.

Plan your menu, and watch the sale ads to get the best prices on your party food and decorations. Because I know I have guests bringing food, I make one wonderful main dish that can simmer for hours (I bought an extra large pot to be used just for parties) and a few sides to get the party started. We recently had a Halloween party, and here is what I served:

- a large pot of chili that was served over tortilla chips with shredded cheese on top,

- chips and dip

- a veggie tray

- a skeleton made from veggies (my daughter Lauren put it together)

- Oreo spiders with black licorice for legs and edible googly eyes from the cake decorating aisle "glued" on with white frosting in a tube (put together by my daughter Amy)

- a bowl of snack mix with candy corn and popcorn mixed in,

- bowls of Halloween candy and cookies scattered around the house,

- drinks like ice tea, lemonade, 2 liter bottles of soda, and cases of small water bottles in a large cooler on ice

Veggie skeleton made by my daughter Lauren, pumpkin centerpiece painted by my daughter Lisa

Oreo spiders put together by my daughter Amy and snack mix with candy corn and popcorn

The guests brought things like pasta salad, pigs in blankets, desserts, chips and dip, a fruit tray, mac and cheese, and wine.

Another favorite main dish I have made for parties is a big pot of Italian sausage with peppers and onions simmering in a red spaghetti sauce, which is then served on fresh sandwich rolls. If the weather is nice for barbecuing, my husband Mike loves to barbecue tri-tip roasts that have been marinating all night, which we slice and serve in a warming dish, with a basket of rolls for the option of tri-tip sandwiches. If it's a smaller party, we might do burgers and dogs. For a big party, it's easiest to stick with a one pot dish that you can make early the day of the party and let simmer all day.

It's really helpful to know what kinds of foods people like to eat in your part of the country. For instance, when we lived in Malibu, CA, everyone was extremely health conscious and ate the green salads and the fruit salads, but potato and pasta salads would often go almost untouched. Now that we live in the South, it's the opposite; salads will sit mostly untouched, but if I put out 10 platters of mac and cheese, it will be gone in 2 seconds! I still serve some fresh veggies, just not as many as I did on the west coast. I only buy party snacks that my family likes so if there are leftovers, we're not stuck with a bunch of food that we wouldn't normally eat.

Regarding drinks, I have found that it works best to buy large bottles of soda, ice tea, lemonade, etc, and put out plastic or paper cups with sharpies nearby to personalize. I like to buy the small bottles of water, as I have cleaned up after too many parties and found half-drunk waters and sodas all over the place because people can't remember which one is their drink; the smaller size tends to get finished.

2 Weeks Out:

Start decluttering. If you have a lot of kids, you probably have a lot of clutter. I know I do, and it's way too stressful to try to clean it all up the day of the party, so I start early, and just do a little every day. Get the kids to help you; after all, it's their party, too!

Think about where you want the party to happen. You probably don't want people in every single room of your house, so it helps to map it out, contain it to a few rooms and then discuss the plan with the rest of the family. For our Halloween party, we made the main party areas the kitchen, the family room, and the garage (which turned into a dance party and a costume contest zone). I did a Christmas party once where I turned our daylight basement into a kid zone full of all kinds of games for kids of every age (coloring, puzzles, blocks, chess, checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Scrabble, card games, wooden train track, air hockey, etc), and then I had my older kids and their friends help with supervising the younger ones.

Inventory all the decorations you already own, and make a list of what you might need to add. I keep our decorations stored by holiday in large plastic tubs with tight-fitting lids in a storage area in our garage so they are clean and dust-free every year.

1 Week Out:

Start buying the food, drinks, decorations, tablecloths, paper plates, bowls, cups (both hot and cold cups), napkins, plasticware, sharpies, and trash bags. We have a second refrigerator in our garage, so we have plenty of extra space for the party food. Get out your serving dishes and wash them if they've been collecting dust. Think through your menu, and if you need any additional serving dishes, put them on your shopping list, too. I have found lots of inexpensive decorations and tableware at places like The Dollar Store.

Do some party-specific cleaning. Clean up your ice chest. Clean out your garage if that's one of your party zones. Think about where and how you are going to stage your food. I put the main food zone in my kitchen eating area and a second one in the garage near the dance zone. I put a folding table in the garage with drinks, a bowl of ice with a spoon, cups, markers for the cups, napkins, and some bowls and trays of snacks out there, too, along with the cooler full of water bottles.

3 Days Out:

Clean your house thoroughly. Finish decluttering, vacuum, sweep, mop, dust, and clean the bathroom(s). You will have to touch up on party day, but it's a lot easier on party day to touch up than to do a deep cleaning. Enlist your kids to help you.

2 Days Out:

Decorate. Our decorating is all done up high so that little ones and the dog can't tear it down and ruin it. My daughters love to decorate for parties, so I am happy to let them do most of it. Colorful and flashing mini-lights are great mood-setters, and they aren't expensive. For Halloween, we do orange mini-lights around the front door and some strands of either orange, purple, or white on the fireplace mantles, around doors and windows, and even draped on the wall to form a frame for taking festive pictures with the guests. The centerpiece for our table was a pumpkin that my daughter Lisa painted. Cost: $4 for the pumpkin (on sale!) plus a little paint. My daughter Dani likes to take the lead on the decorating; she wound mini-lights and pumpkin garlands around the bannisters on the stairs and hung up banshees, zombies, ghosts, and spider webs with spiders all over them.

For Christmas decorating, use red and green lights, evergreen garlands, mini Christmas trees, manger sets, bowls of Christmas ornaments, candles, snowmen, etc.

For the Fourth of July, it's all red, white and blue with flags. Valentine's Day parties would be filled with red, pink, hearts and cupids, a St Patrick's Day party would be everything Irish (green, clovers, leprechauns, corned beef and cabbage, etc), and so on. Keep the party template; just change the colors and the theme.

1 Day Out:

Set up the games and start cooking if you are doing anything you can make ahead. This could include potato salad, pasta salad, cookies, cakes, quick breads, etc. If you're doing a veggie tray, you can cut the veggies (or buy your veggie tray) the day before. I lay out all my trays and bowls and set up the plates, bowls, cups, and napkins so I can see if I have everything. If I'm missing anything, there's still plenty of time to go to the store without getting stressed out. If you are using fresh flowers in your decorating, this is a good day to get those.

The games we set up for our Halloween party were inexpensive ones that I found at Target. Because it was so close to Halloween, the prices were nicely discounted (woohoo!). I got a memory game (Concentration played with pumpkin shape cards with different Halloween pictures on the back side), a bowling game where the pins were orange with ghost eyes painted on them, a "pin the smile on the jack-o-lantern" game that hung on the wall, a Halloween bean bag toss game, and a spider racing game that I saw on Pinterest where you buy a bag of plastic spiders and then blow them across a smooth surface with straws.

Spider races with straws and memory game cards set up on the table (away from Jessie the dog and other little hands), along with a bowl of orange Halloween Oreos

"Spider darts" and pumpkin bean bag toss

Be sure to set up your sound system in the garage (or wherever your dancing is going to happen) and make sure it works. We also set up music in our kitchen for those who prefer to hang out by the food, and we have a piano and guitars in our family room. Inevitably at least two or three people will sit down and start playing, which adds such a nice atmosphere!

My daughter Katherine (dressed as a koala bear) setting up the music play list

If you are going to be barbecuing, double check your propane supply, and buy more if you need it. It's really stressful to start barbecuing for your party and suddenly run out of propane...

Party Day!

Buy the ice, and set up your cooler early so that your drinks have plenty of time to get cold. If you are doing a pot of chili or sausage and peppers, put it together early in the day so it can simmer on a low heat all day. Put some apple cider in the crock pot with cinnamon sticks and cloves and simmer all day on low. Your house will smell heavenly by the time the party starts, and you'll have plenty of time to clean up the dishes and counters well in advance.

The wine zone for the adults, decorated with lights and a plastic tablecloth

The garage "drinks and snacks area" with cups and sharpies, cooler full of water bottles on ice, and trash can nearby, decorated with lights, spider webs and zombies. Trays of snacks show up when the dancing starts

Haunted house candy tray with Halloween M&M's and pretty metal pumpkin

Do all touch up cleaning. Put a fresh, festive hand towel in the bathroom, and refill the hand soap if necessary. Put tablecloths on all the tables you're using, and lay everything out. Put together any side dishes that are not of the do-ahead variety. Set up trash cans in different areas.

Go outside your front door, pretend you are a guest, and do a walk-through to make sure everything is in place. Make it your target to have everything in place 2 hours before start time so that you have time to get yourself ready and relax a little before your guests arrive. Fifteen minutes before start time, open chips, crackers, candy, and cookies and put them in their bowls or on their trays. Pull your side dishes out of the fridge and lay them out on the table.

You are now ready to open the door and enjoy your guests!

We did an animal theme for our family costumes this year

My daughters Lauren and Dani getting their picture taken in the "photo booth" they set up

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