Tips for a Last-Minute New Year's Eve party

New Year's Eve, a holiday notorious for producing high expectations, is fast approaching, and as usual, much of the world is pondering how to make it special. Rather than leaving the evening to chance, joining the masses of horn-blowers, or falling asleep in front of the TV before the traditional ball-drop, the best way to guarantee you'll ring in the new year in grand style is to throw your own fête. If that sounds like too much work amid the holiday hullabaloo, think again.

It's not how much money or time you spend that makes the evening memorable. The secrets to success are a straightforward organizational strategy, simple yet glamorous food and cocktail recipes, and a few clever decor tricks. Add a dash of lightheartedness, some creativity, and a group of good friends, and you'll design an affair to remember and still have enough time and energy to be the life of your own party.

There's no sense in throwing a party if you're too exhausted to enjoy it. Make party prep easy on yourself without sacrificing style by heeding the following stress-shirking tips.

Planning tips:

Set a late start time

The great thing about a New Year's cocktail party is that it should start after dinner. Guests won't arrive starving, so you don't have to prepare a full meal. Ask your company to arrive after 9 p.m.

Send out an Evite

Forget formal invitations. Use and ask for RSVPs. It's the easiest way to get an idea of how many people you should expect so that you can plan accordingly.

Build your prep around your time and budget

Evaluate your resources and make a plan that doesn't include overextending yourself. Even if you're prepared to do some cooking, don't make everything from scratch. Check out our food recommendations for a fabulous homemade and store-bought spread.

Get help

Even if you do the prep work, for larger parties it's worth hiring someone to serve and clean. Contact a local caterer or your favorite restaurant. They can often set you up with a waiter for around $20 per hour. Or cohost the party; you'll instantly have double the help and funds. At the very least, enlist a sous chef (i.e., a friend) to help you prep. It cuts your efforts in half and makes the process more fun.

Cue the tunes

Music is such a powerful mood-maker that you can instantly turn a romantic rendezvous into a roof-raising rager with a quick switch of the CD selection. (Think a range that encompasses Diana Krall all the way to Earth, Wind & Fire.) Select music in advance according to the type of ambience you want to create. If you want people to dance, pick familiar favorites. Don't forget to dim the lights and turn off the music for the big countdown.

The Food

Nothing kills the fun of hosting a party like creating a menu that requires you to slave in the kitchen all day and then clear and restock plates throughout the night. The easiest way to an elegant affair is to offer an array of attractive, delicious, and, most importantly, simple homemade treats supplemented by store-bought finger foods. For an extra-special touch, make sure to include at least one over-the-top dish with a completely unexpected presentation. It adds a sense of drama that carries over to the entire menu.

To make the evening effortless and encourage mingling, scatter a few of the following hors d'oeuvres around the house. Reserve ready-made backups in the kitchen for when it's time to replenish, and include place cards that identify each treat, or you'll be repeating the information all night.

The Easiest Appetizers

For flavorful flair that requires no cooking, turn to Parmesan-Stuffed Dates, a bite-size and delicious salty-sweet combination of Parmesan cheese tucked into a Medjool date sprinkled with parsley. Elegant Endives also fit the bill: Belgian endive leaves decoratively fanned on a platter become edible spoons for a filling of crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnut pieces, and drizzled honey.

Simply Sumptuous Salmon Spread

During a party where it's likely that a lot of libations will be consumed, it's important to give guests something to help soak up the alcohol. An easy and popular solution is a varied selection of outstanding cheeses accompanied by crackers and baguette slices and augmented by velvety Salmon Rillettes.

Haute Hot Bites

With minimal cooking you can also offer hot bites. Beef Skewers are easy to prepare in advance (simply broil for three minutes and serve warm), while guests can help themselves to Jerusalem Artichoke Soup that's kept warm on the stove and accompanied by small mugs or teacups.

Glamorous Bites

Showcase your culinary panache with Caviar on Potato with Creamy Champagne Dressing, served in shot glasses with mini plastic spoons (from an ice cream parlor). Finish up with Fast Fruit Tarts.

A Classy New Year's Eve Menu

The Drinks

Setting up the bar is integral to a successful stress-free fete, and is easy to do with the following info.

Create a Specialty Cocktail

The secret to creating glamorous cocktails is all in the packaging. Give it a fun name (and announce it with a sign at the bar), a pretty glass, and chic garnish, and everyone will want to partake. Making one specialty libation is also a great way to save money on wine, which costs much more drink-for-drink when serving a crowd.

Gild for Garnish

For a fancy affair like New Year's, go all out by adding flecks of edible gold or silver leaf ( to your specialty cocktail, such as these Minted Cranberry-Lime Sparkletinis. Add the upcoming year to the beginning of your cocktail's name to celebrate the impending year, and drape the bar with streamers in silver, gold, or both.

Stock a Self-Serve Bar

Unless you have a bartender or intend to play one, it's important to properly stock the bar for self-service. For a three-hour party, buy two pounds of ice per person and plan on serving three drinks for each guest. Glassware is another important consideration. You'll need two glasses per person, so consider renting. It is surprisingly affordable, it's guiltless if there's breakage, and it leaves washing detail to the rental company.

Customize Glass Charms

Identifying drink charms cut down on the possibility of guests constantly losing their glasses and reaching for new ones, and having guests personalize their own glass charms makes for a fun activity. For a childhood flashback, have your friends decorate black Shrinky Dinks (plastic paper available at craft stores). Precut and hole-punch some two-inch shapes. Have guests write their names on them in gold or silver permanent pen, and shrink in a 325°F oven for one to three minutes until they turn into thick, hard charms. Let cool and hang on gold or silver hoops ( Other playful alternatives include jewelry hoops and beads (let guests design their own), and i-Zone mini photos taken on the spot, hole-punched, and hung on hoops or ribbon. You can even provide an array of permanent markers. Guests can draw anything they like on their glasses, and their artwork will stay until it is easily removed with the scrubby side of a sponge.

Celebrate the Designated Drivers

Treat them as the VIPs they are and give them a virgin cocktail that is just as festive as the boozy stuff. Check out our festive non-alcoholic drink recipes.


Stock up on Champagne or sparkling wine for a New Year's toast. Somehow it doesn't feel like New Year's if you don't pop the bubbly for the midnight countdown.

The Look

When it comes to New Year's, style may not be a substitute for substance, but it goes a long way. Still, that doesn't mean you have to blow the bank to make your place look like the premier spot for midnight toasts. To decadently deck the halls at the last minute, consider the following:

Trick Out the Table

If you don't have time or the desire to iron your tablecloth for a bar or appetizer buffet area, give it a lush, layered look. Place boxes under the tablecloth to give various heights to tabletop food presentations and then scrunch the cloth around them, creating layers and ripples across the fabric.

Deliver a Taste of Drama

Create a spectacular presentation for at least one dish you serve. For instance, you can pile doughnuts, cookies, or chocolate truffles into a clear hurricane glass for a fancier presentation. If you're serving crudités, place cut vegetables upright into the dip to add height (you can lean the veggies on the sides of the bowl to help them stay). Or find a tabletop ornament tree to place in the middle of your table and hang shot glasses full of Caviar on Potato with Creamy Vinaigrette from the ornament hooks. (Wrap wire around the shot glasses to create handles.)

Repurpose Holiday Ornaments

Dig into your holiday box and decorate the table with icicles, stars, or other silver, gold, or glittery decorations that don't scream Christmas. A tinsel garland makes for a fantastic New Year's boa.

Fill Up at the Party Store

Buy a few cheap classic New Year's party items like gold or silver throw streamers, horns, and hats. Place a few large clear vases filled with horns and a bucket or two of hats strategically around the house. They're cheap and cheesy, but they bring out the playful side of people-and that's always a good thing.

Light Up Your Night

Forget matching candleholders. Gather all of your glass jars, vases, hurricane lamps, even juice glasses, and add various shapes and sizes of candles. Cluster them in out-of-the-way places around the house, and dim overhead lights. Everyone and everything looks better by candlelight.

Bejewel Basic Flowers

To make the most of your flower budget, buy a large mass of flowers, ideally all the same color, with a firm flat, center-such as white gerbera daisies. Make low, tight arrangements, and use a pin to fasten a colored or gilded bead in the center of each flower.

Erika Lenkert is the author of The Last-Minute Party Girl: Fashionable, Fearless, and Foolishly Simple Entertaining. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including In Style, Food & Wine, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. To learn more about Lenkert, go to

Photos by Steven Torres, food and prop styling by Jolène Bouchon


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