Ever since she was a little girl giving tea parties, party-planning has come naturally to Gretchen Poston. Later, her entertaining career graduated to state dinners when Mrs. Poston was appointed White House social secretary in the Carter administration.
In her White House post Mrs. Poston planned a coordinated all types of gatherings, from a pumpkin-carving birthday party for Amy Carter to the events celebrating the signing of the Middle East peace accords between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt.
Before her White House experience, Mrs. Poston taught grade school for 10 years and founded a wedding business with two other partners which expanded into a Washington convention and special-event organizing operation, which expects to gross $2 million this year. Today, in addition to her conference-planning work, she is special consultant to the Kentucky Fried Chicken consumer information service.As the mother of four children and wife of a Washington attorney, Mrs. Poston makes use of her expertise for home entertaining as well.
When planning a party, Mrs. Poston checks to see what is around her that will help make preparations as easy as possible. Parties of the '80s, she says, are different than they were 20 or 30 years ago. With so many women working, few, including busy mothers with children, have time to spend days in the kitchen preparing food for a party.
A logical answer is to turn to specialty stores. With shops for everything from pastry to pate, she says, "Today you can have a party and have the best of everything."
Yet Mrs. Poston finds many people still clinging to the "puritanical" notion that if you don't prepare all the food yourself it is an insult to your guests.
In planning a dinner party, for example, Mrs. Poston may make the main dish herself and bring in the first course and dessert. This allows her more time to concentrate on other aspects of the party. "The ingenuity comes in putting it together and making it work," she says.
Food, she emphasizes, is only one aspect of the event and should be kept in balance with the total design of the party. The point is not "to have extravagant food you cannot handle," she says, "but to have good food you canm handle."
No single aspect of a party, including the table setting, the decorations, or the music, should stand out above the others. The party-giver should be careful not to detract from his or her guests by focusing attention on himself or herself.
Specific, careful planning is needed to ensure that every phase of the party progresses smoothly from one stage to the next, says Mrs. Poston.
She advises walking through the events and order of serving ahead of time. When planning a buffet, for example, she suggests actually placing the serving dishes out to make sure they all fit comfortably.
The seating plan should be established before the party so the host or hostess can clearly direct guests to their places. All the logistics shold be taken care of so once the party is set in motion the host and hostess can forget the details and devote all their attention to caring for their guests.
The first way to show consideration for your guests, says Mrs. Poston, is to use the invitation to tell them exactly what to expect. It is important to be specific so guests will know what to wear and whether or not they should plan for a full meal. Avoid simply using the word "informal" to describe an occasion , she says, since today that term can mean anything from a backyard barbecue to a patio buffet around a pool to a black tie affair as opposed to white tie.
One "grave mistake" many people make, Mrs. Poston finds, is in not hiring help for their parties. To keep costs down, she suggests hiring a high school or college student, or enlisting the help of your children or a willing neighbor. Mrs. Poston recommends scheduling extra helpers to arrive 30 minutes to an hour early to explain the party plan and to walk them through the arrangements.
Children's parties require special planning, says Mrs. Poston. Don't wait until the children arrive to start thinking about what they will do or they may be "down the block before you know it."
"Children do not like confusion," she continues. "They have more fun in a controlled atmosphere." To accommodate the child's attention span, Mrs. Poston advises changing activities every 20 minutes or so.
Summer entertaining also takes some special thought. Since people often move their parties outdoors during the warmer months, Mrs. Poston says the party-giver should be realistic about the number of guests that can be comfortably accommodated if the party has to be moved indoors. If it does rain, she says, have the alternative plan worked out in advance so the party can be moved inside with a minimum of fuss.
Summertime, she notes, is a prime time for entertaining families, since outdoor picnic-type parties generally cost less and active games can be planned. Mrs. Poston suggests serving one-dish meals buffet style, taking advantage of fresh fruits and vegetables, and perhaps having guests take turns churning homemade ice cream for dessert. For decorations, bright touches of color such as paper napkins in pink, purple, or red can go a long way.
Above all, says Mrs. Poston, whatever type of party you give, "you should work very hard to please your guests."