Tag Archives: party planning ideas

Party Hosting Tips From Abroad

Hello, friends. The crocuses are blooming in the Midwest which means that spring is finally here. In the weeks to come, I’ll be taking our parties into the garden. In anticipation of springtime gatherings, today I am sharing some of our favorite party hosting tips from France, Italy and beyond….

It was through my travels abroad that I developed my love of entertaining. In every European country I explored as a young adult, local families welcomed me into their homes and shared food with me. That generosity and kindness was life changing.

When I returned to the United States, I continued to study the food and traditions of foreign cultures with the goal of adding more intimacy and creativity to my own gatherings. I am happy to share some of my favorite tips with you.

France: Get out the table linens, even for ordinary dinners.

When visiting my friend Mildred in Paris, I am always amazed that every morning fresh linens are brought out to cover the dining table. It makes even the simplest meals seem chic. For example, one night we ordered takeout sushi which she served on ceramic trays over a vintage chinoiserie table silk. It was impeccable. So pillage your grandmothers chest of tablecloths and set a lovely meal for your guests.

Denmark: Light candles to create a comforting environment for loved ones.

Creating coziness is what the Danes refer to it as “hygge”. It can be accomplished by putting some logs on the fire, placing a throw on the sofa and cozy pillows on the floor, and filling your dining table with the soft glow candle light. My friend Astrid is a master at creating hygge. Upon entering her home, she offers guests a pair of slippers and always has warm blankets to snuggle in. When I sit down for a cup of coffee with her, I want to stay put for hours. That is hospitality.

Here is more inspiration on creating coziness at home.

Italy: Always have two bottles of wine on the table, and two in the kitchen ready to go.

Living in Italy was a feast for the senses. I learned so much from the families I visited and it was a true challenge to select my favorite entertaining tip from a culture built around the dinner table (I could write an entire book). However, one thing that has truly stayed with me was my host country’s reverence for wine – from growing and harvesting grapes, to the art of wine making, to sharing toasts with friends. Wine was a supporting character at dinner and it made every occasion a celebration.

Find more inspiration from Italy here.  

Spain: Have friends over for shared tapas, rather than a full meal.

Nothing can stress a host out like trying to execute a perfect dinner party. Tapas are the perfect way to avoid this trap. Traveling through Spain, some of my family’s favorite treats have been premiere packaged seafood served with vermouth or wine. Just open the can and serve! From tuna in olive oil, to white anchovies in vinegar (not the kind you find on pizza in the U.S.), to razor clams in brine – it is all delicious and can be found at specialty grocers throughout the States. Pair them with a loaf of bread and some olives and host a low-fuss cocktail party. For vegetarian and vegan friends, add a plate of grilled eggplant with olive oil and sea salt or a simple heirloom tomato gazpacho. Easy.

For more ideas on tapas, check out this post on my travels in Madrid.

This week I am off to New England. My travels will take me to Boston, Massachusetts, and Kennebunkport and Portand, Maine. I’ll be sharing photos on Instagram! Happy spring.




Planning A Little Girl’s Surprise Party

Hey friends! Today’s post is about planning a terrific surprise party…and honestly, I can’t think of anything more fun. Having planned many events in my day, pulling off big surprises have to be my favorite accomplishments. A few weeks ago, we hosted a fun 7th birthday bash for my daughter – and she had no idea it was coming! I delighted in the anticipation…and of course, the big reveal.

For those of you who may be taking on a similar event, here are some quick tips for a successful surprise party:

Involve other grown-ups in the secret. First of all, make sure you communicate the element of surprise to your guest list! All parents should know exactly what time their child needs to arrive so no one spoils the secret. Also, enlist a friend or family member to watch your little one while you set up the party. For our event, one of my best girl friends agreed to host our daughter for lunch and play time. That gave us two hours to decorate the house, manage final details, and welcome the guests into our house. Check out the look on her face as she opens the door to find all of her besties!

Choose an age appropriate theme. For years, my daughter has been obsessed with the Disney movie Frozen. This would have been an easy “go to” theme for her birthday party, but since she’s getting older – I mean seven seems SO MUCH more mature than six – I thought I’d move on to a new interest. Recently my little one has been hooked on a book series called Monster High. The characters are fun, flashy, and fashion-forward, so I used this inspiration to plan some fun activities for the party. And that sets me up for our next tip…..

Have 2-3 structured activities planned. We scheduled the party to take place during a four-hour window between lunch and dinner (from 1:00 -5:00 p.m.). My husband looked at me with great concern, afraid I had bitten off one more hour than I could chew. Ha! He only thinks he knows me! Just kidding, sweetheart. I had two structured activities planned which helped the pacing of the event, and both built on the “Monster High fashionista” theme. First, we decorated t-shirts (I personalized a shirt for each of the girls and then let them go crazy with puff paints). Second, the girls were able to make beaded accessories – necklaces, bracelets, headbands. Both creative activities offered take-home gifts for the kids.

Give them time to roam free. I think it is important for kids to have plenty of free-play. This is unstructured time when kids let their imaginations rule. And I won’t lie, this is also an opportunity for grownups to take a much-needed “breather”. My daughter and her friends divided their play time between our backyard and her bedroom. They played house, baked pretend cakes, weeded the back yard…it was magical.

Give your guests a small token to take home. In addition to giving the girls custom t-shirts and some handmade jewelry, I also sent them home with a few school supplies (since the first day of school was just around the corner), including a journal and some Monster High pencils. These gifts do not have to be expensive or elaborate – just a way to remember the day.

Capture the memories for your little one. As my daughter grows, I want her to remember these times fondly. I made sure to take plenty of photos (can you tell?), but I also recorded the friends who attended, the gifts she received, and some of the special moments that were shared. For example, at one point my daughter exclaimed: “This is the best day of my life!” My heart almost melted. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Entertaining Family Surprise Party

For more fun ideas, check out my birthday inspiration board on Pinterest. You might also want to check out the birthday letter that I wrote for my little one this year. Finally, a special thanks to Classy Girl Cupcakes in Milwaukee for creating those adorable skull and bow Monster High cupcakes!

Happy party planning! – Mara

Our Favorite Things – A Christmas Tree Trimming Tradition

christmas 78_editedChristmas tree trimming night has always been an event in my family. When I was growing up my parents would buy an enormous tree that took up an entire corner (or sometimes half!) of the living room. Together we would lovingly unwrap all the ornaments and recall the stories behind them as we decorated the tree. We each had our favorites: ones we made, ones given to us by our grandparents, ones that made us laugh. Before I was born my Dad made a felt frog for my sisters – it’s just a head with legs and a big pair of red lips. It’s hilarious and only Dad can hang the frog in a designated “place of honor”.

My parents would tell us about the ones they made when they were first married, and the few from their own childhood Christmas trees – delicate wartime ornaments that were always put up high as protection against the inevitable bumps the tree would endure. Each one represented a part of our family’s story. And once it was completed, lit with many strings of colored lights, heavy with ornaments, glass icicles, and the angel sitting proudly on the top, it was a chronicle of our lives. It was a tree full of memories – pieces of each of us to see and cherish during our favorite time of year.

This looks like a picture of Christmas familial bliss and harmony. We did have a happy family but let me assure you that we were a “real” family and not every moment was bliss. Not even the magical wonder of Christmastime could stop my sisters from their sisterly bickering. They were notorious for arguments over what ornament to hang where, who got the ladder first, etc. I am 10 years their junior so I was usually found covering my ears and yelling at them to stop yelling.

My Dad (badly outnumbered by four females and smart enough to know when to retreat) would put on the lights, his frog, and then make his way to the kitchen. There he would whip up a batch of his and my Mother’s special Tree Trimming Night cocktail, Brandy Alexanders. My sisters and I enjoyed the NA version: deluxe ice cream Alexanders that were basically chocolate shakes with nutmeg.

Our recipe differs from a traditional Brandy Alexander in that it has ice cream instead of half and half and is made in a blender. You can make it strong or not so strong, depending on your taste. The one-to-one ratio of Brandy to Crème de Cacao is a generally good rule of thumb.

Whether it’s for tree trimming night or any festive gathering this holiday, this is a delicious cocktail and something a little different from the usual winter repertoire of eggnog, mulled wine and punch. But whatever your chosen libations may be, please always drink responsibly.

Brandy Alexanders

1/2 cup Ice cubes

2 cups Vanilla Ice Cream

2 oz Brandy

2 oz Crème de Cacao

1/2 tsp Grated Nutmeg

Add ice to blender and roughly chop. Then add ice cream, Brandy and Crème de Cacao. Blend until smooth. Add more ice if too thick. Serve in tall glasses with a generous sprinkle of nutmeg on top. Makes 2-3 servings

Ice Cream Alexanders

2 cups Vanilla Ice Cream

Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup, to taste

1/2 tsp. Grated Nutmeg

Blend ice cream and chocolate syrup until smooth. Sprinkle nutmeg on top. Makes 2 servings.

Traditional Brandy Alexander

According to DrinksMixer.com, a traditional Brandy Alexander is a fairly stiff cocktail made in a shaker.

2 oz Brandy
2 oz Dark Crème de Cacao
2 oz Half-and-Half
1/2 tsp Grated Nutmeg

In a shaker half-filled with ice cubes, combine the brandy, crème de cacao, and half and half. Shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with the nutmeg. Makes 2 servings.

10 Fun Thanksgiving Day Activities for Your Family

My favorite holiday is almost upon us! Thanksgiving is just around the corner – are you ready? This week many hosts and hostesses are busy ordering turkeys, planning menus, and designing table tops (for some interesting tablescape ideas, check out this Entertaining Family post). As you consider the final details of your Thanksgiving event, don’t forget to think beyond the dinner itself. Make sure you incorporate some fun family activities that will make your holiday truly memorable.

Here are some ideas to help you create a family friendly event that will build Thanksgiving traditions for years to come:

Set up a crafting table with fun activities for children and grownups alike. On Thanksgiving, we use our kitchen island to double as an art station. We wrap it in butcher paper and then set out tins and glass containers filled with colorful markers, glue sticks, glitter paint, yarn balls, and stamps! Some years I invite guests to make holiday cards that can be sent out in December, and other years I have guests decorate Christmas ornaments. Whatever the activity, the best part is watching kids, grandparents, aunts and uncles get involved in the fun.


Make pinecone bird feeders to set in the yard. In Milwaukee the winters are cold! For those birds that don’t migrate to warmer climates, we like to set out homemade feeders – it is fun and easy to do! Simply put peanut butter on the outside of a pinecone and then roll it in an assortment of bird seeds – the seeds will quickly stick to the peanut butter. Use strings to tie your little feeders to low hanging branches outside.

Invite your guest to participate in a lip-syncing talent show. Get little ones and grownups to mouth the words to their favorite iTunes hits. The more emotional and committed the performance, the better! In our house, kids love to lip sync to “Let It Go”, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “Doe a Deer”. The grownups prefer songs like “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sexy Back”. This can be a truly hysterical, belly-laughing activity.

Take an autumn hike. There is nothing more refreshing and invigorating after a big meal than a hike in the woods. Get the whole family to go along! Walk or drive to your favorite trail and as you hike, have family members search for “natural treasures” like maple leaves, oak leaves, birch bark, acorns and pinecones. The first person to find all five wins a prize!

Autumn hike

Hold a screening of your favorite holiday movie. Sweet, nostalgic, or funny….go with what you love. My brother and I started this Thanksgiving tradition when we were kids. Every year after dinner was over, we’d sit down to watch “Home Alone” (what can I say, we were kids of a certain time). There is something really sweet about watching the same film every year – it is definitely an activity to look forward to.

Light the fireplace and read a holiday classic. Our family loves to share heartwarming stories of love and generosity like “Little Women” and “A Christmas Carol”. Reading aloud gives everyone the opportunity to listen and participate. If you don’t have a fireplace, don’t worry! These days, anyone can download a fireplace apps that can run on your TV or computer screen.

Get family and friends to share their favorite memories. In a canister or bowl, place a series of questions that guests can ask one another. This is a great way to get people sharing and reflecting on the beauty of life. Questions like, what are you most thankful for this year, or what is your favorite holiday tradition, can get everyone focused on the theme of giving thanks.

Set up a hot chocolate bar. For me, nothing feels cozier than snuggling up with a delicious mug of cocoa. To create a holiday hot chocolate bar, set out bowls of marshmallows, whip cream, sprinkles, and crushed candy canes. For the grown ups, go ahead and add Bailey’s, Amaretto, and Kaluah.

Make It Luxe Blog idea

Have guests share old family stories around a fire. As the years pass on, we lose beloved family members along the way. Thanksgiving is a great time of year to ensure we’re remembering the people who have had an important impact on our lives and to make sure we are keeping their memories alive for the next generation. On Thanksgiving, I like to tell my daughter about my dad, grandma, and grandpa, who have all passed on. Through family stories I can share some of the important lessons they imparted on me. My daughter will never know them, but their spirits will live on through her.

Volunteer time as a family. Before enjoying your own Thanksgiving dinner, take time to serve those in need. In cities and towns throughout the United States, you can find free meal locations where you can donate your time and talents. My dad started this important tradition for our family when I was a kid. In my opinion, nothing feels better than helping others and asking for nothing in return.

Creating family traditions is part of the fun of holiday entertaining. Sometimes we think of Thanksgiving exclusively as the dinner itself, but it is so much more! We hope this Entertaining Family post gives you some new ideas for creating rich family memories.

My Daughter Plans a Tea Party + A Recipe for Strawberry-Basil “Quick Jam”

My daughter was rifling through our china cabinet, looking for a small plate that could be used to feed one of her dolls, when she came across a collection of my grandmother’s tea cups. She was enchanted! Her favorites were covered with tiny pink roses, and she asked me why she hadn’t seen them before.

As a little girl, I remember thinking how pretty the cups were as I watched the adults in my family sip from their delicate rims during special occasions…and now my little one was taken with their feminine appeal. They certainly possess an enduring beauty.

My grandmother passed away over twenty years ago, and all of her treasures had remained with my uncle until his death in 2010. After that, many heirlooms and collectibles made their way to my home – including my grandmother’s lovely china cups and saucers. Though I still appreciate the beauty of these pieces, and of course their sentimental value, they just haven’t seemed incredibly practical, and so they have remained tucked away in our cabinet.

“See,” I said to her…probably in a patronizing parent voice now that I think about it. “When I drink coffee or tea, I love to hold a big, sturdy mug that I can wrap my hands around. These dainty dishes are a little difficult to maneuver.” She looked at me with big eyes, not caring at all about how I like to enjoy coffee and tea, and replied, “Mom! We should have a tea party and use these pretty cups. They can’t just sit in the cabinet forever.”

What six-year-old girl doesn’t love a tea party? Well, I’m sure there are a lot of them…but that’s not what this story is about… And so it was decided. We would be hosting an intimate tea – and coffee – party to showcase my grandmothers dishes.

The Party

Theme: A Little Girl’s Real Life Tea Party

Number of Guests: 4

Advanced Notice: 24 Hours

Invitation: Informal Phone Calls

The night before our event, we set the table with my grandmother’s cups and saucers, and some beautiful antique dessert plates that I inherited from another relative. The patterns really popped against the dark wood of our dining room table. For the centerpiece, my daughter grabbed a bunch of white tulips from Whole Foods as we shopped for food for the intimate gathering.

At the party, which was held in the late afternoon, we kept things easy (this is a recurring theme of mine, if you haven’t noticed…). We offered a French roast coffee and an assortment of Rishi herbal teas. To flavor the drinks, we set out coconut milk creamer, agave nectar, raw sugar and lemon wedges. For a small but flavorful snack, we offered warm crumpets and homemade strawberry-basil “quick jam” (the recipe can be found below – along with the explanation of why we call it “quick jam”) which everyone loved.

My daughter was delighted to host a “ladies tea” and helped me with all of the planning and execution – she’s been practicing on her dolls for years, so she was kind of an expert… It was a fun event. I was proud to use my grandmother’s dishes, and even more proud to sit alongside my creative, thoughtful child.

The Hostess

Strawberry-Basil “Quick Jam”

So in our house, we call it “quick jam” because it takes no time to make (15-20 minutes + a little bit of waiting) and it doesn’t require any fancy materials or techniques. We eat this jam the day we make it, and store any left overs in the fridge to enjoy over the next few days.

We served our quick-jam over bread, but you could also serve it warm over sorbet or ice cream. The basil offers savory notes that pair well with desserts. This recipe is for roughly 8 servings of jam, or 4 servings of dessert topping.

What you need to get started:

  • 2 Cups of Frozen Strawberries
  • Basil Leaves
  • Ground Cinnamon
  • Agave Nectar
  • 1 Packet of Kuzu Root Starch

In a sauce pan over medium heat add:

2 Cups of Frozen Strawberries

1/4 Cup of Water

1/4 Teaspoon of Ground Cinnamon

10 Medium Basil Leaves, Thinly Sliced

1 1/2 Tablespoons of Agave Nectar

Stir every few minutes and mash the strawberries as you go. When the liquid begins to bubble, turn the heat down and simmer for 10 minutes as you continue to stir occasionally.

After 10 minutes, dissolve 2 tablespoons of Kuzu Root Starch in 4 tablespoons of cold water. Slowly add the Kuzu Root mixture into the sauce pan as you stir – keep cooking until the sauce thickens. Then, remove it from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.

Pour the “quick jam” into a serving bowl or jar and throw it in the fridge to cool to room temperature. Then enjoy!

Strawberry Basil