What you have and what you need.
Take stock of your stuff- and by that we mean dishes, glasses, cutlery, serving dishes, linen, vases, the works. Determine exactly what you need for the party, and then buy, borrow, or rent to fill the holes. If you're hosting a dinner party, do you have enough place settings? If you're having a cocktail party with hors d'oeuvres, do you have plenty of serving dishes, glassware, and small plates? If you're on a budget, this is a good time to get creative with the stuff you have.
It's a good idea to invest in at least one tablecloth or set of place mats along with a set of eight to twelve cloth napkins What is very formal; colors or patterns may be more versatile; a colorful tablecloth can work overtime as both a table covering and instant decor. Over time, you can add runners and additional sets of napkins in colors that complement your other dining accessories. Think of it as building a wardrobe for your table.
If you plan on doing a lot of entertaining, consider investing in inexpensive glassware, extra flatware, and dinner and dessert plates- even platters and serving bowls. Enamelware and melamine are attractive and well-price alternatives to china. You can buy stylish and quite inexpensive wine and beverage glasses at national home-goods chains like Bed, Bath, & Beyond and Target. If you have the room to store them, it could save not only on rentals but on your everyday or formal dinnerware as well. Our parents purchased four dozen Champagne glasses just so they'll have enough for their annual New Year's Eve party. The forty-dollar investment has more than paid off over the years- and they don't worry if a glass gets broken.
Finally, think about any kitchen equipment you might need to prepare your party food: pots and pans or specialized equipment such as mixers or food processors. Appliances are a convenience and a time-saver, but before you shell out the big bucks for one, think about how often you're really going to use it. Think, too, about your available space- is there room in your kitchen for a big appliance? And of course, consider your budget: Is this something you simply can't live without, or can you improvise what you have? For instance, instead of investing in a big, bulky, expensive stand mixer, you can get a small hand blender or use a whisk to beat egg whites into stiff, frothy meringues- and get a great arm workout at the same time! Instead of a large food processor, consider going with a mini version.
One good thing we don't recommend skimping on is a good knife. Trust us, a sharp, well-made knife will cut your prep time in half. Lizzie particularly favors her Wusthof 10-Inch chef's knife, and Anna can't live without her L'econome paring knives. Also, a nice-size, good-quality skillet will go a long way in any kitchen. Beyond the basics, we think the following items make party prep much easier:
- An instant-read thermometer: Critical for grilling or roasting meat.
- A juicer: The old-fashioned manual kind is handy.
- A microplane or multipurpose grater: For fruit zest and cheese.
- Tongs: We can't cook without them.
- A salad spinner: It really does save time.
- A blender: If you're really into margaritas.
- A thermal carafe: Make coffee before the party and keep it hot without burning it.
- A hot tray: For warming plates or keeping food hot; whoever invented this was a genius.