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10 Tips for Entertaining in Small Spaces

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Photo by wEnDaLicious

When I moved to Japan, I knew entertaining might be difficult. Living in Minnesota, hosting parties was easy because we had plenty of room for friends and food. Moving from our 1,000 square foot apartment in St. Paul to a 450 square footer in Tokyo was a shocker. I thought our entertaining days were over. However, entertaining became simpler and more efficient with a little creativity. These tips may seem obvious, but they make a huge difference in how successful your next gathering can be.

1. Prepare in Advance

Choose two dishes to prepare in advance. I find that if I am busy making food and putting together drinks as guests are arriving, stress is sure to be close behind for my friends (and me.) I use a lot of recipes that can be prepared a day or two ahead, then kept in the refrigerator or freezer until I am ready to assemble and serve.

2. Talk Garbage to Your Guests

One of the most confusing things at parties (and the least addressed) is where on earth to toss all that garbage. Guests end up wandering around searching for the correct receptacle or putting garbage on just any open surface and subsequently taking up space. Not cool. Use more than one garbage location, make sure you label garbage and recycling, and tell guests about the system. Make sure the garbage is empty at the start of the party so it doesn’t get stinky.

3. Pillows vs. Chairs

In our tiny apartment in Japan, it is difficult to fit more than a few pieces of furniture in any room. A more space-savvy choice for us happens to be using floor pillows and coffee tables. Not only is it easy to store the pillows, but they help to create a fun, whimsical environment that guests enjoy. Keep in mind that sitting on the floor may not be comfortable for everyone. It’s helpful to provide a wall to lean against and of course, mix in any chairs you do have available. It may sound like “roughing it” but our circle of friends does it all the time with much success.

4. Stackable Plastic Serving Trays

Small spaces are tricky for hosting, but also for storing the materials I need to put on a fabulous party. Bowls and large numbers of place settings are not easily stowed away in a small apartment. To better utilize our limited space, I started using stackable plastic trays. I decorate them using thin sheets of cork or rubber and a hot glue gun. The decorations are cute and help keep items from sliding around. And of course, the lightweight trays are easy to stack and stow without taking up much space.

5. Bite-Sized Instead of Super-Sized

The plastic tray idea brings me to my next tip: bite-sized food is the way to go when you have limited dishes and/or space to serve. With bite-sized food there is no need for a formal dining table, leading to fewer dishes and less table space. Trays of food can be scattered around the entertaining space, allowing people to circulate the room(s) rather than creating a traffic jam around only one table. Trays are also easy to replenish throughout the night (with all that food you prepared in advance).

6. Take it Outside!

For those who do have outdoor space, use it! Whether it’s coolers for drinks, or a couple chairs, outdoor space is like hitting jackpot for home entertaining. I use lanterns, candles, and strings of lights to help add a little romantic flare and provide a haven for guests who need a breather. When the weather is cold, it’s a built in cooler for beverages. Score!

7. Set the Mood

I find that the mood of a space makes or breaks an event. Fluorescent lighting has to go. Set up candles and other soft light instead. It’s more flattering to guests’ faces (which they will thank you for) and creates a more relaxing atmosphere for everyone, including you. Make sure the music is at a volume that facilitates conversation. Here are some artists that I put on shuffle at our gatherings:

  • Blossom Dearie
  • Carla Bruni
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • She & Him, Volumes 1 & 2
  • Josh Rouse
  • The Puppini Sisters
  • John Legend
  • Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  • Niel Young, Best Hits

8. Have a “Drink Desk”

Our first year in Tokyo, my husband and I hosted Thanksgiving. No oven, limited counter space, 450 square feet and no real table to speak of made this a challenging venture. One thing that made the entire event run smoothly was simply using a desk for a drink area. Make a bowl of punch, set out wine bottles and plastic party cups (see tip #9). When guests need a refill, they can help themselves to the punch or wine selection. I often put out drink recipe cards to provide some cocktail ideas for guests using the available mixers.

9. Speaking of Drinks…

When I set up my drink table, the last thing I need is a lot of glassware taking up valuable real estate. Instead of using fancy wine and cocktail glasses, I often use disposable glasses that can be stacked. Use biodegradable cups, plates and silverware if possible, like these from The Branch Home. There, isn’t that better? Environmentally friendly and much more room for extra beverages!

10. BYO…

Assign guests to “bring your own” (BYO) food to share. Anything that saves room in the refrigerator or on countertops is helpful. I’m kind of a control freak when it comes to entertaining and prefer to do everything myself. But letting go of that control allows me to relax and enjoy the party along with everyone else. Fewer dishes, less responsibility, more food. Perfect. I use for help organizing who brings which item. They have a sign up for guests where you can list what is needed from food to party supplies.

  • Pellis

    I love the idea of floor pillows to be used with a coffee table. Since turning my dining room into a bedroom we are very limited on space for entertaining; this is an excellent solution for me.

    • Anonymous

      I’m so glad the floor pillows idea is helpful for you! We always have our handy- even when 2 or 3 people come over- just because its fun and adds something different to the space.

  • Suesellshouses

    Thank you for your tips, we have a small home and had one sushi party with 10 people over the summer and it was a blast. We’re having another one in November for a birthday party and your tips will definitely help us survive the 30+ guests we’ve invited this time!! Thanks again, Sue

    • Anonymous

      I’m so glad these tips are helpful to you, especially since you’ll be having so many people over in November! Good luck!

  • Nikki J

    #5 is definitely a great tip! I think it will help cut down on the messy factor that happens when people start digging in…

    • Anonymous

      It is certainly helpful to have smaller portion sizes. I never go without finger food at my parties!

  • Heather

    Definitely can agree with #2. I always see used cups and plates sitting everywhere just because the guests don’t know where the garbage is! Also, bite-sized foods are essential. I’ve seen the “traffic jams” associated with have a “buffet” style meal. Bite-sized foods make it easier for everyone, and it lets people have more to choose from.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Heather! Isn’t it amazing how messy things can get? This tip is such a great way to prevent any more problems. And you’re right about the traffic issues- finger food helps to solve that too. Thanks for your comment!

  • Katharine Relth

    I totally love all of these ideas, mostly because I had to employ #6 any time more than one person came to my tiny living room-less apartment in Manhattan. We always entertained on our roof with blankets, pillows and iPod speakers, which made our apartment the perfect place for congregating – that is, when the weather was cooperating!

    I wish I had read some of these suggestions before I moved out of that place, especially your tips on how to deal with garbage. It really would have made our last hurrah that much more memorable and easy-going. Little space also meant for tiny little trash receptacles, and we would inevitably end up filling paper bags from Trader Joe’s to brim with beer bottles only to have them soak through and tear as we tried to take them out to the trash the next morning. Wonderful tips, thanks!

    • Anonymous

      I love the idea of your blankets and pillows on the roof idea. What a beautiful solution to small space entertaining!

  • Allyson

    These are all fantastic ideas that could be great for any sized party. I especially liked the idea of using stackable plastic serving trays and decorating them yourself! That is a great idea to save space and easy to match the decor to the theme of the party! All these ideas will save a great amount of time and money…they made me look forward to my next gathering, can’t wait! :)

    • Anonymous

      I love making the trays. There is something so fun about using something you designed at a party. Doesn’t hurt that it helps save space and money! Thanks for your comment!

  • Stinky the Garbage Truck

    Them sandwiches look very very tasty!

  • Lavern Owie

    nice sandwiches! really great!

  • KennQ

    im really not fan of sandwiches, but as soon as i read and see this post.. hmm, it makes me crave for it. the sandwich really looks so yummy..

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Rachael White is the author of the blogs Set the Table and Tokyo Terrace. After four years of living, eating, and entertaining in Tokyo, Japan, she and her family have relocated to Denver, Colorado. Rachael is constantly searching for new ways to make entertaining easier and more interesting for guests in a variety of environments and situations. In addition to food blogging, her recipes have been published in cookbooks including Foodista Best of Food Blogs and Peko Peko: A Charity Cookbook for Japan and in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri newspaper. Originally from Minnesota, Rachael strives to recreate recipes and settings that reflect Midwestern comfort with a modern twist.