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How to Plan a Tea Party

While it may have gone through a few modernizations since it originated in England in the 19th century, the tea party is still very close to its roots. A unique combination of teas, scones, sandwiches, and pastries makes an excellent basis for a celebration, whether that’s a birthday party, engagement, Mother's Day or just because you enjoy spoiling yourself. We’ve got some useful advice for planning an afternoon tea party, whatever the occasion.

Part 1: Planning

Who to invite

Tea parties are designed to be intimate. Some might even argue that it’s the perfect party to have just for one! If you would like some company though, keep it to eight people as an absolute maximum. It’s the perfect party type for those who you don't see very often such as parents, grandparents, old college friends, or even a fun event for younger children or teens.

Where to go

Big hotels are well set up for afternoon teas with elaborate offerings in beautiful surroundings. But when you look at the price tag, are you really getting value for money for what’s essentially a hot drink plus a few nibbles? Hosting a tea party at home is a far more attractive idea for many (especially if you have a garden) and you can easily achieve the same effect for a fraction of the cost.

Afternoon tea types

The strict definition of an afternoon tea has been lost a little over time, but traditionally it’s a light meal eaten somewhere between lunch and dinner. While you might see a ‘St Patrick’s Afternoon Tea’ or ‘Christmas Afternoon Tea’ advertised as a promotional gimmick, the usual variations include:

  • Afternoon tea - the most common, and most flexible option
  • Cream tea - specifically for scones, clotted cream, and jam
  • High tea - served later with more substantial food such as quiche or soup

Afternoon teas for children

Just because they’re more formal affairs, it doesn't mean the kids have to miss out on the delights of a tea party. Especially if you can base it around Alice in Wonderland or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both these stories have stood the test of time and provide excellent opportunities for costumes.

Part 2: Preparation

Work out the menu

The food is the main focus of a tea party, and there are three main elements to include:

  • Sandwiches - Made using white bread with the crusts removed, the main options include cream cheese and salmon, cucumber, and egg salad. Vegetarians usually fare very well at a tea party, but if you are serving ham and mustard, make sure there are alternatives available.
  • Scones - These are an important part of a tea party, but aren’t to everyone’s taste and can be quite a filling part of the meal. Consider mini bitesize versions and opt for fruit-based scones, especially if you’re feeding younger mouths.
  • Pastries and deserts - You could try recreating some patisserie-style raspberry millefeuille or chocolate meringue kisses recipes at home. However, they’re fiddly to get right, so consider buying these in from a local supplier to ensure they’re picture perfect.

Decide on drinks

A fun pre-party activity could be going to a local tea shop to try a variety of blends. You’ll want to be able to offer your guests an option of a dark tea (such as Earl Grey or Darjeeling), a caffeine-free option (like chamomile) and a fruit tea. Buying a selection box will be much more economical than big bags of each unless you’re thinking of making this a regular event.

Loose leaf tea is more traditional than bags, but it also means extra equipment such as strainers so check you have what you need if you go down that route.

Not everyone likes tea, so have a decent coffee option available too, plus a bottle of champagne should you want to add a little fizz to the celebrations. And for the kids, iced tea or babyccinos can make them feel grown up without pumping them full of stimulants. For summer events, a concessions stand serving snow cones could be the centerpiece that sets your party apart.

Enlist some help

No true afternoon tea experience would be complete without a butler! It might be a bit extravagant to hire a professional for the afternoon, but a friend of the family with time to spare might be interested in helping out for a few dollars. Just find whoever looks best in a tailcoat!

Part 3: Buildup

  1. Deliver the invites
    As it’s a small event, handmade cards are the most appropriate way to communicate with your guests — email hadn’t been invented in the 1840s! Make sure they contain the essential info and give instructions on when to turn up, what to wear and what to bring.
  2. Check out the competition
    Visit a few fancy hotels and check out their afternoon tea offerings. You don’t need to actually buy one each time, just gather good ideas and spy on the plates being served up for inspiration.
  3. Source the right equipment
    Make sure you have enough chairs, china plates, cups, and a proper afternoon tea stand — presentation is key. If you can’t find one, check out a local flea market, ask around friends or consider renting one.
  4. Choose some appropriate music
    This should very much be background music rather than pumping pop. You don't need to go for the full classical experience, opt for acoustic tunes or some lo-fi covers of modern favorites to set the right mood.
  5. Decide on an outfit
    It’s tempting to go for a Victorian ensemble, but that might not be very appealing for your guests to organize. Afternoon tea can't be enjoyed fully in flip-flops so ask people to dress up for the occasion, without going too stuffy.
  6. Add a little sparkle
    The afternoon tea is the event but can be supplemented to make it really special. Imagine the surprise of a real princess turning up at your child’s party!

Part 4: On the day

  1. Check the weather
    Tea parties can be enjoyed inside or out, but it’s good to know where to set up.
  2. Have a good breakfast
    You may be nervous about hosting and not eating again until mid-afternoon. Fill yourself up to give you the energy to see you through.
  3. Prepare the decorations
    Fresh flowers can change the feel of a place instantly. A few suitable subtle decorations can transform your home into a beautiful party venue.
  4. Lay the table
    As well as the obvious place settings, make sure you've got sugar cubes, milk, cream, honey and lemon slices available for every need.
  5. Time the baking
    You may make your scones in advance, but try to heat these up as close as possible to your guests' arrival so the house fills with the glorious smell of baked goods.
  6. Prep your service
    If you’ve called in help, show them how to work the music system and let them know about afternoon tea etiquette. Scones on the top, sandwiches in the middle, and sweets on the lower tier.
  7. Enjoy it!
    This is your party, so don't fret over the details even if it doesn’t all go to plan. Have fun with the special people you’ve chosen to celebrate with.

Part 5: Once it’s over

Say thank you

It’s easy and cheap to get personalized cards printed so pick an appropriate photo of your event and deliver a message by mail. This extra effort really makes a difference to guests, and you may even end up getting an invite to another tea party in return.