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Living at Home: Cocktail Party Perfection

Have you ever been to a cocktail party that was so fabulous you thought perhaps you might have turned into the wrong driveway?

It's not by happenstance that some soirees are simply amazing.By breaking down your party strategy into the three key areas -- preparation, food and ambiance -- you are sure to host a party that will leave your guests feeling like royalty.

From the minute your guests open their invitation, you set the stage for your soiree. Detailed lists of everything -- and I do mean everything -- will save you precious time and alleviate unnecessary stress. Get yourself a three-ring binder to keep all plans in one place.

By purchasing as much of your menu as you possibly can at the beginning of the week you will save yourself a lot of last minute stress. I can say with certainty that running to the store with your pumps and party dress the day of your party is not on anyone's list.

Whether you are using a caterer or choosing to make your favorite dishes, preparation is the key to making your gathering feel relaxed. Just remember when creating your menu to include a wide variety of food choices to accommodate all dietary needs.

Because no one wants to be remembered for running out of food, a good rule of thumb for heavy appetizers is always 8 to 10 bites per person. Passing out bite-sized hors d'oeuvres is always an elegant touch. If you prefer that your canapés remain tableside, your abundant selection is sure to wow the crowd.

Some great gastronomic choices would be grilled sausages with assorted mustards, smoked salmon or gravlax, a platter of crudités, which, by the way, doesn't mean baby carrots and ranch dip. Don't forget purchase a few varieties of fine artisan cheeses and sliced meats. One simple request: Please no cheese cubes.

When trying to throw a memorable party, one should always strive to set that bar a little higher in the style department. A great way to save money if you don't want to have a full bar is to serve a signature cocktail. Classic concoctions like the Old Fashioned, Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule and martinis are back in vogue with the cocktail set. Make sure to have plenty of ice on hand. One pound per person (and, of course, more for chilling white wine, champagne and beer) should suffice. Don't forget

something for designated drivers, too. Non-alcoholic cocktails,

soda and bottled water will be much appreciated.

Music and lighting are paramount for setting the necessary ambience of your party. Have your children create an iPod play list of great party standards to keep your guests moving and shaking.

Lighting, too often overlooked, is another key component to creating that ideal mood. Dim the lights wherever possible and use lots of votives and candles throughout your party. Remember that everyone looks 10 years younger by candlelight! I highly recommend using only the unscented variety as candles with fragrance can interfere with your culinary experience.

Another nice touch, especially in our cold climate, is an empty coat closet. Your guests will appreciate plenty of elbowroom when hanging their minks. Another option is to rent a coat rack and place it in an unused room. I assure you it is a win-win when your party goers are not forced to search through the seemingly endless mountain of black wool coats heaped atop your bed.

Other rental items that might be necessary to consider are dishes,

glassware, flatware and serving pieces. The rental company will help you

figure out the counts appropriate for a gathering of any size. I have but one parting request. Please do not serve a fine wine, champagne or cocktails in a plastic tumbler. If your goal is to make this the party of the decade, I can assure you a college kegger is not the vision you want to instill in your guest's minds.

Although the thought of throwing your own fabulous cocktail party may seem like a daunting task, once the party is in full swing you will quickly see the value of your efforts. All it takes is preparation and organization... and don't forget the three-ring binder.