THE BLOG

The Perfect Party (Without the Stress)

02/24/2015 03:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

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I'm not a party planner by profession, but I love party planning. It wasn't always this way; somewhere along the line I started collecting mounds of ribbons, making table runners, hoarding decorative straws and storing cake stands -- organized by holiday and color coded, of course.

I've thrown my fair share of parties in the last few years, especially after having kids, and each party gets a little easier and a bit more organized. I've managed to edge out most of the stress and anxiety inherent in throwing a party and just go with it. At my last party, I found myself repeating the same tips to girlfriends who came up to me and uttered one of three statements, "You must have been sooo stressed putting this all together!" Tip: Start early. "You seem sooo relaxed putting this all together!" Tip: Plan for a start time 30 minutes before the party starts/organize focal activities. "How long did it take you to find all this ?" Tip: Hoard the pretty.

So, I've put together the party planning tips that I've found to be the most helpful over the years in planning the perfect party (without the stress) for any and every occasion.

1. Start Prepping Way Ahead.

I was at an event with Martha Stewart last November, and she said that her Thanksgiving tables-cape went up four weeks before Thanksgiving. Especially if you're having the party at home, start setting out place settings, silverware, table-scapes and platters weeks and weeks before the event, if possible. For my last party on Valentine's, I wanted to do miniature layer cakes with fresh cream and berries, but didn't want to spend the whole day before Valentine's cooking cakes.

So, we ended up cooking the cakes weeks before and freezing them, so that the day of the party, I simply took them out of the freezer and made the whipped cream. Planning far far ahead also gives you time to add details and order/buy anything you may need to fill in the gaps. I made these little heart banners that I hung over the kitchen lights with my son one night while we were all watching television (simply hole-punch mini-hearts and hot-glue them to a gold string for a fabulous effect). Planning many weeks in advance, at least for me, also increases the excitement, fun and anticipation regarding the party, making it even more special. My three-year-old son was talking about our Valentine's party to his friends at school weeks before it occurred.

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2. Take Loads of Photos. Really.

Beyond all other perks, blogging alone has transformed how I view photography, including the importance of photos and the absolute necessity of taking lots of them. Much of the joy we get out of life's moments has to do with the anticipation we experience before the event and remembering it afterward (often thru photography). Having the blog forces me to constantly go back to photos after a trip, event or party to edit them and sort out the best ones. From this process, I've come to realize that the vast majority of photos are unusable, either because they're blurry, unflattering, poor lighting or just not the best shot.

My proclivity toward takes tons of photos also stems from painful past experiences where I've thrown a beautiful party and had no pictures come out clear, or have forgotten to get the best shot or a shot of what I loved most. To make sure this never happens again, and as crazy as it sounds, I usually take three rounds of photos before the party even begins. I take one round of photos with my iPhone, one round with a zoom lens and one round with a 50 mm to make sure I get everything I love in, including both landscape and detail shots. This includes photos of the family, too.

I've found this strategy not only ensures that I get the photos I want, but it is also key for minimizing stress during the event, because all the photos at the party are just for fun and mostly taken of friends, and there's no worrying about getting or missing a shot. Another fun idea that I try to implement for parties (and, caveat, it doesn't always work) is to take a few photos of everyone there and send all the photos to everyone in a follow-up email (I usually use Snapfish, or equivalent) for guests and family to look through/keep/download/print.

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3. Give Pinterest Your Own Twist/Hoard the Pretty

The most important element of any party, in my opinion, is the theme. Having a theme directs the party and makes planning and decorating for the event significantly easier. There are so so many fun, cute and unique themes out there -- a theme doesn't have to be traditional either.

For my son's first birthday, for example, the theme was "balls." I filled up glass bottles and vases with kids' cereals and gumballs and set up a blow-up swimming pool in our living room filled with plastic balls and balloons. For my most recent Valentine's Day party, I used the characteristic red, pink and heart elements, but also intertwined elements of gold and pink/red fruit and berries.

Pinterest is a wonderful source of inspiration that I use all the time -- but try to give Pinterest your own twist. The result is more rewarding and ends up reflecting the one and only you. One way to do this is to incorporate your aesthetic and design style by integrating what you love/what you've made/what you have on hand into the party theme.

In other words, hoard the pretty and don't let other people pressure you into throwing your precious party decor away. One positive aspect of "food" these days is that it's perfect for decor (if you live in America): It pretty much lasts forever. I've had, for example, marshmallows, gumballs and licorice that I previously used as decor for various parties/tables-capes stored in my cupboards for years now -- with no mold in sight. This candy banner (Fruitloops I strung onto a ribbon) I made three years ago for a party, and, despite protests from my mother-in-law that I was enticing bugs into the house, I've held onto it ever since and have just reused it as decor for my latest soiree.

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4. Always, Always, Always Have Guests Bring Something and Take Something Home.

Last year after a neighbor dinner party at our home, my husband and I tried to pin down exactly why we had had such a great time. The reason? We only prepared a salad and set out a few bottles of wine; everyone who came brought a dish and/or a bottle a wine and then took it home.

I learned my lesson from our neighbor dinner party and now ask guests to bring "something" at all my events (other than birthday parties). I prepare the core food/treats/desserts and then whatever people bring is a bonus. I'm usually blown away by the thoughtful additions that guests bring over.

Along those lines, set out bags/cake boxes for guests to take food and leftovers home with them. Less food is thrown away this way, and the treat bag/box can also serve as a party favor.

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5. Plan a Focal Activity/Source of Entertainment

As much fun as making polite cocktail conversation can be, spending two to three hours at a party chatting with folks can be, at times, awkward and tiresome (depending on the crowd). I've attended one too many kids' birthday parties at bouncy houses with a dozen parents that I barely know, only to have the same conversation a dozen times and then resort to my Instagram feed for the last hour.

Having a focal point at a party eases social strain and provides guests with an entertaining distraction to partake in, instead of migrating from person to person all night long. This can be as simple as offering a clever cocktail, which can serve as a conversation starter, to having a cigar aficionado roll cigars. Other ideas include live music, a craft project, fortune teller, belly dancer, jewelry making, rum sampling, cookie decorating, a "swap" activity (e.g., white elephant), group game (e.g., words against humanity, charades), wine tasting, dancing, jumbo jenga, a caricature artist, lesson from an expert/teacher (knitting, yoga) or icebreaker, to name a few.

Here's my cookie decorating and craft table set-up from my latest Valentine's Kids Craft Party:

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6. A Half an Hour Before Your Party Starts, Relax!

I've thrown so many parties where guests arrive and I'm a frazzled mess, trying to finish up details, take photos, set out/warm up food and play hostess. My stressed-out-state put the guests on edge, and I was never able to wind down, instead of just having fun. To counteract this effect, I've learned to have everything done (decor, food, drinks, photos) a half an hour before the party starts. This gives me time to just... relax! So that when guests arrive I'm ready to have fun.

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Sending perfect party wishes to you and for all of your upcoming soirees!

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This post was previously published on www.jessicashaool.com.