Want to turn an average party into something really special this season? With the recipes pictured at right, you can impress company and offer them a variety of choices, so everyone gets just what they want.

For starters, lay out the effortless Stuffed Shrimp, and your party takes on an air of sophistication. Since this outstanding appetizer can be made the night before, the only thing you have to do is pull it from the refrigerator.

For the rest of the meal, set up a crowd-pleasing mashed potato bar. Instead of plates or bowls, add instant elegance to your gathering by serving the delicious Mashed Red Potatoes in martini or daiquiri glasses.

Let guests help themselves to several basic stir-ins, such as shredded cheese, sour cream and crumbled bacon. But also offer heartier options, like Florets with Cheese Sauce and Dressed-Up Beef Tips, for a satisfying meal that's easy on the cook.

On that note, try to do as much as you can before you turn on the stove, and everything will come together in a snap. By chopping the vegetables and herbs ahead of time, you can trim last-minute prep and spend more time socializing instead.

Appetizer and Buffet Tips

An appetizer and beverage buffet is a fun twist on entertaining and lends itself to a less formal atmosphere than a traditional sit-down dinner. But don't be intimidated by such an undertaking…these helpful hints make it a snap!

  • For an appetizer buffet that serves as the meal, offer five or six different appetizers (including some substantial selections) and plan on eight to nine pieces per guest. If you'll also be serving a meal, two to three pieces per person is sufficient.
  • In order to appeal to everyone's tastes and diets, have a balance of hearty and low-calorie appetizers as well as hot and cold choices.
  • So that you can spend more time with guests, look for appetizers that can be made ahead and require little last-minute fuss.
  • Chill all punch ingredients before mixing so that you don't have to dilute the punch with ice to get it cold. Or consider garnishing a cold punch with an ice ring (which lasts longer than ice cubes) made from punch ingredients instead of water.
  • For hot beverages, avoid shattering the serving bowl by making sure the bowl is heat-resistant and by warming the bowl with warm water before adding the hot punch. If you don't have a heat-resistant serving bowl, serve the punch in a chafing dish, fondue pot, slow cooker or in an attractive pot on the stovetop.

Orchestrate an Appetizer Party with Ease

Hosting an appetizer buffet with no set seating is easy on the host. But to make it more manageable for guests to mingle while munching, make note of these key tips:

  • Think about guests who might have trouble standing for any length of time. Arrange a few groupings of two to three chairs where several people can converse.
  • Position extra end tables throughout the house so guests are able to set down their beverages.
  • When planning the menu, look for recipes with make-ahead aspects to prevent last-minute fuss. Have a variety of tastes, textures and colors to please your guests' palates.
  • Chose a selection of snacks that can be picked up and eaten without a plate such as cubed sausage and cheese, skewered meatballs, fruit kabobs and cut-up vegetables. Avoid foods that require a lot of cutting.
  • Set out bowls of nuts and snack mixes in other rooms. Make extra napkins readily available.
  • Offer guests small, sturdy plates that are easy to handle. Consider making simple-to-carry bundles of cutlery and napkins.
  • Think about the traffic flow and place plates, napkins and utensils on the buffet table near the doorway where folks will walk into the room. Make sure guests can reach all of the serving platters on the table.
  • To discourage lingering and congestion around the buffet, remove chairs and other tables from the room. Set up the beverage station in a different area.
  • People are more inclined to eat something when they know exactly what it is. So consider labeling the appetizers on your buffet table with place cards.
  • It's tempting to hide trash receptacles for a party, but all of the used plates, napkins, utensils and toothpicks from an appetizer buffet can look a little unsightly when they start piling up. So make wastebaskets visible in various rooms.

Setting Up a Buffet Table

As a buffet, the table filled with flavorful food is the main focus. An easy way to make the table especially attractive is to create risers in varying heights. You don't need special equipment to achieve this look…everyday items in your home work just fine.

Position the table in the room where you'll be serving the food. Place selected risers on the table to create different heights. We used sturdy boxes, a phone book and a coffee can. Other ideas include hardcover books, inverted cake pans, clay pots and metal buckets. Make sure the risers are big enough so serving platters sit steadily.

You may want a layer of plastic wrap over any risers that you want to protect. Then drape a tablecloth over the top and form around the risers so that the cloth won't pull when platters of food are set on top.

Dressing Up Everyday Vegetables

A side dish doesn't have to be elaborate. In fact, when serving a variety of flavorful foods, it's nice to include a basic vegetable that's been simply seasoned. Try these tasty toppings for hot cooked vegetables.

  • Combine 1/4 cup plain dry bread crumbs, 1-1/2 teaspoons melted butter, 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley flakes and a dash of salt. Sprinkle over cooked vegetables.
  • Melt 1/4 cup butter over low heat; stir in 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1 tablespoon slivered toasted almonds, 1 tablespoon minced chives or 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese. Drizzle over cooked vegetables.
  • For extra ease, prepare a packaged white, hollandaise or bearnaise sauce mix as directed and serve over your vegetable of choice.