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Do-It-Yourself Theme Parties: Inexpensive But Elegant 
by Graham PZ September 19, 2005

Theme parties are great fun to attend and pulling one off with style is an indescribable thrill. With the right food and decorations, any house, hall, or outdoor location can be transformed on a small budget.

For example, on a buffet table, a fiesta mood is set with red, blue and regular corn tortilla chips tumbling out of a sombrero to touch on colorful bowls of sour cream, cheese dips and salsa. Alternatively, for a beach theme, fruits in clam shaped bowls can be displayed on faux sand made from white and light brown sugar.


If you like to host many themed parties throughout the year, buying some decorations may be penny-wise in the long run as opposed to renting them. Having the following supplies on hand is a good idea.

A couple of plain white twin-size sheets: Use these as buffet tablecloths. Scrunch sections of them over props like shoeboxes or baskets to give the table texture and interest. This allows the food trays and chafing dishes to be set at varying heights and lends room for decorative items.

A roll of white paper - 40x 300: This paper is an inexpensive tablecloth for banquet-style tables, a good start for homemade posters, banners, or even placemats, and with some artistic talent, can even be colored then cut up to resemble palm leaves for a tiki bar.

A roll of white plastic - 40 x 100: This is for an elegant looking skirt for gift tables, cake tables and buffet tables. Subtly pleat it as you wrap it around the edges of a table; tape in place as you go then top it off with a linen cloth or the scrunched sheets. It looks like real linen and is oh so much cheaper.

Tape: Masking tape is good; two-faced tape is better

Craft scissors, glue or staples, and a supply of sticky dough for hanging things where tape, glue and staples are out of the question.

Props: Baskets, bowls, and boxes in assorted sizes and colors are items that can easily be used to hold food, napkins, silverware, and most anything that could fall out of place if unwrapped.

Strands of miniature Christmas lights, colored and/or white, are always a help in setting a mood. Pushed under the buffet, or cake tablecloths gives a festive glow and wrapping them around garlands of flowers or boughs highlights the color scheme. Fastened along the ceiling in your house or a small rental hall, they provide a soft mood light. For an outdoor cruise party, string long lines of white lights to make the outline of a boat deck.

Food & Service & Extra Touches

Food and service are the biggest part of a party's budget. If you are a good cook and have the time, you are blessed. If you have friends that can help effectively, you are doubly blessed. If not, there is still hope to host a wonderful meal without having to eat a months pay.

Through my experiences as a food service expert (event and catering director for the last ten years), I've come to realize that while most party meals take up only one fifth to one third of the total party hours, the quality of the food and service is half of what the guests remember. They don't remember the expensive rented china or that they used real silverware, nor do they know the amount of work it takes to set up and tear down a fully catered party. But those elements make up the biggest part of a professionally catered meal. You can accomplish for less.

You can purchase wire chafing racks and heat at wholesale clubs or hotel and restaurant supply stores. These are to keep hot food hot. They are lightweight, easy to stack and don't take up much space to store until the next party. Have aluminum roasting pans on hand to use as the steamer element for the chafing racks. Then, through a reputable caterer or restaurant, have the food cooked and delivered in aluminum pans. When you buy only the food, you save nearly a third of the cost.

If it's a large party and you would rather participate than serve, go ahead and hire professional servers. That is money well spent; expect to pay ten to fifteen dollars per hour per each server.

Paper products work just as well as china, and come in an assortment of styles and quality; clean up is unblinkingly easy. Clear plastic silverware, white paper plates and linen-quality paper napkins add a formal touch, or choose bright or pastel colors according to the theme. Linen or heavy napkin-paper tablecloths bring sophistication to each dining table, on the other hand, the white paper or plastic roll is more casual, and most everything can be purchased or rented in a variety of colors.

Folded napkins at each place setting can also illustrate the theme. Large fan-folded linen-quality paper napkins, take on the look of shells for a beach party, or with a little ingenuity, the tails of doves. Add color and they become peacock tails or turkey tails. Or, wrap the silver set in a specially rolled napkin, stand it up on its end and it has the illusion of an unlit candle.

Coil white sparkly pipe cleaners around the Christmas lights to make hanging icicles or use red to depict chili peppers.

Seashells can be bought in bags at many craft stores. Spread them on flat surfaces that would otherwise be unused.

Use what you have on hand

You want to throw a New Year's Eve party for 12 or 20 people in your home but your dining arrangement only seats six? Simply push your table to a wall and make it an hors d'oeuvre buffet; your guests can nibble and mingle in the space you made, then retire to your living room for more intimate chat or other entertainment. Don't forget the simple accessories that set the mood. Use your only set of champagne flutes as candleholders, set them next to a black paper top hat and a plastic string of pearls as mood lighting, and use plastic champagne glasses for the midnight toast.

The buffet table isn't large enough? Take a solid door off the hinges, remove the hardware and doorknob and lay it across a small table, using towels or other cloth to protect the table. With the theme treatment covering it, no one will be the wiser.

Drape theme colored ribbons across dining tables.

Use margarita glasses or brandy snifters as votives.

Make a bar by placing a board across the tops of three chairs, brace it in place, skirt it with the plastic and use the seats of the chairs for liquor and ice storage.

Round Christmas tree ornaments are useful all year long as a touch of color displayed in a glass bowl or surrounding a centerpiece.

Look in your cupboards, basement or attic for different shapes and patterns to be used.

Any smooth clean cloth or remnant that appeals to your eyes and is at least a yard square, could be implemented into a theme.

Above all else, enjoy your company and yourself. Your pleasure will be contagious.


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