(1 month ahead for a formal party; 2 weeks ahead for a casual gathering)
__Decide on the date, place, and style of party.
__Make up the guest list.
__Plan the menu.
__For formal parties, mail invitations. For casual parties, mail invitations or telephone your guests to invite them.
__Decide what table settings, decorations, centerpieces, and music you'll use.
__Make arrangements for any items you'll need to rent or borrow.
(1 to 2 weeks ahead)
__Telephone any guests who have not responded to your invitations so you can get a definite guest count.
__Do preliminary housecleaning, especially any time-consuming tasks. Make sure all appliances that you'll be using work. If you're grilling, don't forget to buy charcoal or fill the gas canister.
__Compile your grocery-shopping list. Check on items such as matches, candles, and liquor, and add the things you'll need to your shopping list. Don't forget ice.
__Check that table linens are clean and ready to go. Decide on tableware and serving pieces. Wash infrequently used pieces. If you're using disposable paper or plastic items, inventory what you have on hand and add the items you need to your shopping list.
__Order any special flowers, meats, seafood, or other ingredients you'll need.
__If you're making decorations or centerpieces yourself, now's the time to get started.
__If possible, make some foods ahead and freeze them.
(2 to 3 days ahead)
__Shop for everything but the most perishable items.
__After you return from shopping, recheck your recipes to make sure you have everything you need.
__Plan your timetable for cooking the foods.
__If possible, make nonperishable items, such as snack mixes, ahead.
Down to the Nitty Gritty
(1 day ahead)
__Shop for perishable and last-minute items.
__Reclean the house as necessary.
__Decorate for the party. Prepare an area for coats and umbrellas.
__If possible, arrange and set your table(s) and serving areas.
__Prepare as many recipes and ingredients as possible. For example, chop vegetables you'll cook as part of a recipe. Some chores, however, such as cleaning salad greens, should wait until party day.
__Thaw frozen items. If the items are perishable, thaw them in the refrigerator.
__Go over the house again for a final cleaning check. If necessary, move furniture.
__Prepare the foods according to your timetable so everything will finish when needed. (Wash dishes as you go along to save cleanup time later. Don't forget to run the dishwasher, so it'll be empty and ready for party dishes.)
__Make sure all foods and beverages to be served cold will be well chilled by party time.
(1 hour ahead)
__Put all the finishing touches on the meal and tables.
__Clear a spot for placing used dishes as guests finish with them, and provide an easily accessible place for garbage.
__Set out cheese and nonperishable appetizers or snacks, if using.
As the Doorbell Rings
(5 to 15 minutes ahead)
__Open wine, if serving. Set out remaining appetizers and snacks, if using.
__Light candles and turn on music, if using.