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I don’t know how it was for you, but October was a shaky month. My normally happy-go-lucky circle of friends (including me) reported overwhelmed, overstressed weeks that seemed to squeeze everything out of us. Noticing all this, I planned what I thought would be an easy-enough gathering to help shake off the blues, whether they stemmed from economic stressors or temporary pitfalls. I invited overworked pals to my house last week for a “Raise Your Spirits” Cocktail Party, asking each to bring their beverage of choice. I pictured gracefully whipping up a menu of fun finger foods, while friends checked their frustrations at the door and settled into my living room to relax and trade tales.

Here’s the twist: I was so busy at work and overburdened myself that I barely made it home before my guests. With the clock ticking, I had to scale my menu back from five main items to three (based on what I already had in my fridge), made a quickie sign for my gate, spotted a still-good snowberry wreath from last season and hung it on my door (in lieu of the colorful one I was going to whip up), and hit play on iTunes with fingers crossed on the play list (please let there be more mellow Jack Johnson than broken-hearted Ella Fitzgerald).

The result? A party that worked for everyone—including me. The guests (a copywriter, Air Force flight surgeon, pilates studio owner, publishing marketing director, and fellow editor) helped me in the kitchen and served themselves to drinks before settling into the living room and talking over each other as if there wasn't a care in the world. Sure, everyone’s list of headaches was still waiting for them at night’s end, but it was a good break for all of us. The best part? Nobody (including me, the hostess) had to add a hefty bill at evening's end to their list of grievances.

Sun-dried Tomato Boursin and Five-Spice Meatballs (both from the Fall/Winter issue)
Caprese Crisps (halved grape tomatoes, cubed fresh mozzarella, and balsamic vinaigrette served on storebought pita crisps)
A selection of olives, dates, nuts, and cheese straws

BYOB, although one pal brought margarita fixings, which was a hands-down hit.

Hosting Shortcuts:
1. I always hang a sign at the entrance. I may not have a single other piece of homemade party décor, but this one item goes a long way toward a festive mood.
2. My digs were less-than-lovely when I raced in from work, but by turning off overhead lights and lighting lots of groupings of candles, I gave the living room an instant makeover.
3. Need a sure-fire party saver? Have margarita mix on hand. I found that this makes up for most any party shortcoming.