The ultimate timeline to follow before the party starts.

Dinner Table
Maskot/Getty Images

You’ve sent the invitations, done all the shopping for essentials, ordered or prepared the food and drinks, set up decorations and tables, planned the entertainment… now your guests are due to arrive soon. Chances are if you’re already at this point, you’re probably running around, making sure everything looks exactly perfect. Or you’re probably putting out some proverbial fires (hopefully not real kitchen ones) and trying to prevent any hiccups. And overall, you might feel a mix of nerves, anxiety, stress, and perhaps there’s a thought running through your mind along the lines of, “Why did I decide to throw a party?!”

If that doesn’t apply to you, then congratulations, you’re an expert party planner and we could probably use your expertise, too. If you read the above and identified wholeheartedly, you’re probably wondering how you can keep your cool before guests arrive. I know personally when I’m hosting a gathering I never get my timeline just right. I either started too early and food is getting a bit cold and the candles are already dripping major wax, or I find myself still setting things up or cooking a dish when the first guests arrive.

Getting the timing right is so important, so I asked two professional event planners to help sketch out an ideal timeline an hour before guests arrive. Read their tips below and just remember, it pays to keep calm and carry on. “Almost every host forgets to relax! The difference between an average party and an epic one isn’t what you’d imagine,” says Liz Curtis, founder of San Francisco-based Table + Teaspoon. “You can have the finest china, vintage bubbles, and hand-shucked oysters—but if your guests didn’t have fun because you were frantically trying to make everything perfect, it won’t matter. The feeling you give your guests is what they’ll remember. Entertaining is about the thought far more than the execution. Don’t get lost in the hostessing weeds, and forget to be present for your own party. There’s always delivery and more wine…”

Holiday cocktails on a drink tray

Thomas J. Story

1 Hour Before the Party Starts

More Videos From Sunset

“Pop food in the oven, change into your outfit, and freshen your look,” suggests Natalie Good, creative director of Orange County, California-based A Good Affair. Curtis recommends making sure everything is in place except for food and drink—like hand towels in the restroom, waste bins around the venue, floral arrangements on display, extra seating added if needed, and the table set if you’re hosting a seated meal.

30 Minutes Before the Party Starts

It’s ambience time! “Light candles, turn the music on, adjust lighting to set the tone for the party, and open the red wine to let it breathe,” Good says.

15 Minutes Before the Party Starts

“Now it’s time for snacks and libations,” Curtis explains. “Make sure that your bar is stocked, ice is located in a bucket near the glassware, and place cold appetizers out for your guests.”

5 Minutes Before the Party Starts

Curtis recommends putting out any hot foods out at this point. And then it’s time to take a deep breath. “Sip that yummy cocktail you prepared and relax before that first guest arrives!” Good says.

Read the Current Issue Here!

Get one year of Sunset—and all kinds of bonuses—for just $24.95. Subscribe now!