You can select guests with a common interest or bring together a group of folks with wide-ranging pursuits. Try to invite a good blend of talkers and listeners. A variety of ages and backgrounds will also spark lively conversation.
Inexperienced hosts should keep the guest list down to about six people. Larger groups are more manageable if you host a simple cocktail party or a potluck dinner, where every guest brings one dish.
For a casual party, a cheery telephone call can suffice as an invitation. Try to call everyone on the same day, so no one will feel he or she is an afterthought.
A written invitation always provides a special touch. Guests will have a record of when and where the party is, and any extra details -- a map, theme, or special requests -- are down on paper.
Match the invitation to the party's spirit, and it'll give everyone a preview of what's to come.
When figuring out how to make guests feel welcome, use your nose and ears as well as your eyes. Set out potpourri, fresh greens, and other fragrances to give the whole house a special scent. Soft background music will also add to guests' comfort. If your guests will be arriving with coats, boots, or umbrellas, be ready to store their gear. If friends will arrive with gifts, clear a table near the door or ask someone to take the packages.
When it comes to party centerpieces, fresh flowers are always appropriate, but they needn't always be expensively and intricately arranged. For an autumn party, try arranging brightly colored leaves and ornamental corn into a table decoration. You could create a fragrant Christmastime centerpiece by wrapping a few bunches of cinnamon sticks with holiday ribbon, then arranging them in a wicker basket with fresh, aromatic pine branches. A bowl of fresh fruits can make a charming centerpiece, as well as a refreshing finale to the meal.
Be similarly resourceful with dinnerware. When artfully mixed, china and stemware of various styles will create more intrigue than perfectly matched sets.
Four to six weeks ahead: Send written or e-mail invitations.
Two weeks ahead: Telephone guests who haven't responded to written invitations. For casual parties, phone your invitation at this time. Order any special flowers or decorations.
One week ahead: Order any special or unusual cuts of meat. Inventory items such as candles, napkins, and liquor, and make a list of party supplies you need. Do your most time-consuming housecleaning tasks.
Two or three days before: Shop for everything but highly perishable foods. Thoroughly clean the house.
The day before: Arrange and set your tables. Recheck to ensure you have all ingredients. Buy highly perishable items. Plan a timetable for cooking, and prepare as many dishes as possible.
The day of the party: Reclean the house one last time. Prepare food according to your timetable so that everything hot finishes at the same time and cold dishes are well chilled. Wash dishes as you go to save cleanup time later.
Finally, reserve an hour for yourself to relax and listen to a little music before guests arrive.