A couple weeks ago I attended my first post-Covid party, a fundraiser for NImbash in St. Helena. I’d almost forgotten how I used to prep for a big party–the diet, the workouts, the spray tan, the manicure, the hair color and blow out, the make-up, the outfit, the shoe logistics. This time I simply put on a black dress, and some jewelry and called it good, but the party was so fun and festive that I’m going to make more of an effort for any upcoming holiday parties. Just to be sure that there are some, I may host a couple.

My hosting skills are super rusty. Where to start? I consulted a few books and queried some of my friends who are revered for their hosting prowess.

First, how big or small will the gathering be and how elaborate? Obviously, a bar-be-que or potluck for a few friends will require a lot less organizing than a themed costume party for 50 or a multi-course meal for ten. You may need to clean the grill, dust off the patio furniture and consider the weather—misters and patio umbrellas for heat or outdoor heaters and blankets for cold? For the bigger fêtes, you may need to rent dishes, linens and a tent.

Next, pick a date and stick to it. Before you share the date with your guest list, work backwards and make sure you have plenty of time to prepare in as stress-free a manner as possible.

Make your guest list and decide how you will contact people. Paper invitations sent through the mail are necessary only for the most formal occasions, but they certainly add something special to casual affairs too, since personal letters are so rare these days.

Plan the food and whatever will be necessary to serve it. This is the most agonizing part of party planning for me since I have very little experience cooking for more than two. Even if a recipe says it serves four to six people, in my house that still feeds just two. This is why I’m in love with my slow cooker. Even if I have to work the day of a dinner party, I can put something like pork ribs or chicken tikka masala into the slow cooker and have something really delicious warm and ready to serve whenever I like by the end of the day.

I also serve quinoa instead of rice because I can never count on my rice turning out well. Quinoa works every time. Toss a salad, buy something festive for dessert and it’s a party! Flavored sparkling water, like La Croix, is always fun (Pampelmousse, Pasteque or Passion Fruit anyone?), and good wine is ridiculously easy to find around here.

What to wear? I’ve always wished I was a hostess pajamas type, but when you’re petite and live in the country it just looks like you’re wearing pajama-pajamas and forgot you were hosting a party. If you have a vision for your party in mind, your guests will surely appreciate being given suggestions for what to wear. Even before P Diddy’s annual Hamptons White Party, all-white was a popular party dress code, and of course there are costume parties, either themed, like Roaring 20s, or random like Halloween. “Napa Valley Casual” has never been specific enough for anyone.

A clean powder room is important, of course.  Add a seasonally-inspired scented candle, guest towels and an obvious trash receptacle. Clear a rack or entry closet for your guests’ coats and hand bags. For food serving areas, consider table décor and add fresh flowers or cut herbs in vases. My favorite thing is lots of small arrangements of olive twigs, sage and rosemary or lavender since they are all right in my yard. The aromas are great and I love a party that appeals to all of the senses.

There are plenty of pre-made party and event check lists you can buy and books full of ideas. I suggest going to a bookstore and flipping through a few to see what appeals to you rather than ordering online because many party books are too aspirational for me and make me want to give up. Of course, there are lots of ideas and tips for planning online. I particularly like InStyle magazine’s website and Pinterest is a gold mine.

Whatever you end up doing, it’s nice to stretch but not over-stress yourself. Don’t plan a Euro-style dinner with guests arriving at 9 when your usual bedtime is 9:23. The host should have at least as much fun as the guests and if you don’t, make a note of where you could delegate tasks or what you would change to make entertaining less of a hassle the next time. Don’t underestimate the power of a post-party review: you can make it a mini-party with your co-hosts over coffee and croissants, maybe with white terry spa-robes like actors post Oscars and little vases of cut flowers…