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Party Central


Making your house the place to be doesn't have to be expensive.


By Amanda Litvinov

When George Neville became Archbishop of York in 1465, he celebrated with a three-day foodfest that is said to have included 4,000 pigeons, 2,000 pigs, 1,000 sheep, 400 peacocks—and for dessert? Two thousand hot custards. Most 21st-century Americans don't have a taste for peacock, but too many of us resist entertaining at home ("I'm too busy! It's too much work!"), as if the goal is to pull off a spectacle like Neville's legendary feast.

How I…Make Time for My Favorite Hobby
She's a full-time teacher and head track coach at Camas High School in Camas, Washington. She's also a wife and mother to—count 'em, one, two, three, four boys! So how on Earth does Alisa Wise have time to go race motorcycles? It all boils down to deciding "what has to get done, and what can wait," she says. "Even when the laundry pile is rising and the paint is chipping, we pack up the motorcycles and head up to the mountains," she says. Since her family joins her on the trails, motocross is a chance to create family memories. To ensure that day-to-day responsibilities don't eat up all their fun time, team Wise plots each week's activities in detail. Wise says one of her best strategies for getting revved up for the weekend, is staying after school on Fridays to plan the following week. Then, vroom vroom, she's off for the weekend, guilt-free.

Keeping it simple, you see, is the key.

"Anyone can entertain without overspending if they leave enough time to figure everything out beforehand," says Lori Perkins, author of The Cheapskate's Guide to Entertaining: How to Throw Fabulous Parties on a Modest Budget, and a literary agent who entertains often. With some planning and realistic expectations, you can open your home and break bread—not the bank—with the people you care about.

When it comes to a dinner party, the more time you spend planning, the more money you can save. "People remember good food," Perkins says, "which doesn't need to be expensive, it just needs to be good." Her suggestions? Start with simple bruschetta or stuffed mushrooms, which do take prep time, but not much money.

If you're feeding a large group, think pasta or salad. "Spaghetti and meatballs or chicken pesto is really easy," Perkins says. "With just two pounds of shrimp you can feed at least 20 people with a pasta or salad."

But hey, who says you have to do all the work? Potlucks will never go out of style, says Perkins, and they're great for busy people. Donna Pilato, who for the past eight years has been About.com's entertaining guide, offers another good informal option: the "Make Your Own (fill in the blank) Party." "Hosting a make your own tacos or pizza party gets people interacting. The host does the prep, but everyone shares in the production." It's also perfect for including youngsters, who love customizing their food.

Then again, you know what they say about early birds. (Should we talk about worms in a story about food?) "Brunch is definitely a less expensive, family friendly way to have a party," says Pilato, "and you can set up the night before, with overnight casseroles and purchased pastries."

Of course, many of the best soirees don't revolve around a sit-down meal. Fondue parties, wine tastings, and dessert receptions are all popular options, and guests tend to be more than happy to supply whatever breads, cheeses, wines, or sweets you ask for.

Other gatherings focus on an event as much as the food. Movie viewings require enough comfy seating, snacks, sodas, and perhaps a choice of beer or wine (remember, keeping the spirits capped is one of the best ways to keep dollars in your wallet). "There's always an excuse for a party," says Pilato—March Madness, anyone?—it's just a matter of making it feel like an occasion.

"Go with your strengths," she suggests. "If you're a great cook or baker, make that the focal point of your party. Otherwise, buy the food or host a potluck, and let your style come through by setting the party atmosphere."

But remember, "it only takes a few special touches to make a get-together memorable," says Pilato. Getting too wrapped up in a theme overwhelms the hosts and discourages them from entertaining again anytime soon.

Keep telling yourself you're too busy to entertain—or that your guests expect peacock! and pigeon! and pig!—and you end up depriving yourself of face time with your nearest and dearest. Says Perkins: "When you look back, you'll always wish you had spent more time with friends and family."

 

No More Licking Envelopes

Evite isn't the only electronic invitation service out there. Pick the one that's right for you and get the party started.

Gather 'round the punch bowl
Get the gang organized without an endless exchange of e-mails. Using http://www.mypunchbowl.com/, the host can poll guests about potential event dates, giving extra weight to responses from guests designated VIPs. The party discussion board means everyone can chat without the host's oversight. After the big day, share stories, photos, and video on the After Party section. The site also offers a never-ending list of reasons to celebrate (as if you need it!).

I dunno. What do you want to do?
"Fuzzy planning" is the premise behind http://www.skobee.com/. Name the date and see if your buddies have some ideas, or throw out something you'd like to do and find out when others can join in. If you start an event planning conversation over e-mail, just include simple tags like "when:" and "who:" and cc Skobee. It'll track all discussion threads so you don't have to.

The democratic party planner
Let invitees vote on every aspect of the plans. Planypus is essentially a party wiki, meaning anyone can change its content until an organizer designates it finalized. This is the invite site for those on the go: it'll send updates however you and those on your list care to receive them, including e-mail, SMS, or RSS, and you can export the event to your blog or Web page

 

Can a snack that calls itself healthier still be tasty?
Our tasting panel at Neabsco Elementary School in Woodbridge, Virginia, set out to help us answer that question:
 

Robert's American Gourmet Veggie Booty

Price - $2.29/4 oz.

Description - Puffed rice and corn flavored with spinach and kale.

Healthier? - Other ingredients include cabbage, carrots, and broccoli. Eat a quarter of the bag and you've only consumed 130 calories.

Our tasting panel says - "Tastes like a mouthful of seawater."
—Yvette West, fifth-grade teacher

Company fun fact - Robert's healthy snack line includes Frooty Booty, Pirate's Swag (trail mix), and Chaos (chips and pretzel mix).

Sahale Snacks Valdosta Pecans

Price - $4.69/5 oz.

Description - Black-peppered pecans and cranberries seasoned with orange zest.

Healthier? - Can the other snacks in your pantry boast all natural ingredients, no cholesterol, no trans fats, and low sodium?

Our tasting panel says - "I wasn't expecting the pepper, but the cranberries balanced out the snack."
—Tammy Delene, preschool teacher

Company fun fact - Sahale makes six different nut blends. They offer recipes that incorporate the nuts on their Web site.

Trader Joe's Reduced guilt Kettle Cooked Potato Chips

Price - $1.79/7 oz.

Description - Slow kettle-cooked in sunflower oil for maximum crunch.

Healthier? - Snack traditionalists will cheer: 33 percent less fat and 20 percent fewer calories than regular chips.

Our tasting panel says - "Pleasant taste, but too hard to chew."
—Elaine Crane, special education assistant

Company fun fact - All of the signs inside Trader Joe's stores are painted by local artists.

Stacy's Garlic & Herb Pita Chips

Price - $2.49/6 oz.

Description - Baked pita chips flavored with real parmesan, garlic, and parsley.

Healthier? - Low sodium, too! Baked and all-natural ingredients mean fats are kept in check. Remember, dipping means more calories.

Our tasting panel says - "Good snack to satisfy those salty cravings."
—Derra Banks, librarian

Company fun fact - Owner Stacy Madison began selling pita chips when she operated a sandwich cart in Boston.

Newman's Own Organic Microwave Pop's Corn

Price - $2.79/9 oz.

Description - Bags of organic popcorn that cook in organic oils.

Healthier? - No hydrogenated shortening or trans fatty acids in this "light butter" variety—which is more than can be said for theater popcorn.

Our tasting panel says - "I'm not inspired to give up my movie theater butter."
—Celia Stone, P.E. assistant

Company fun fact - Newman's Own Foundation has given more than $200 million to charity since 1982—all profits after taxes are donated.

 

 
Photos: Meiko Arquillos; C Squared Studios; TV photo: Ivan Stevanovic; food items: Groff Creative, inc.

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16-Mar-08