One of the first times I played host to our annual soup party, the first guest arrived and I was still in my pajamas in our kitchen, ladle in hand, stirring frantically.

This winter, by contrast, I had hours to relax on the couch before the party started, thanks to a change in approach and a whole lot more planning, which it turns out are the not-so-secret keys to any good party. That and a great guest list.

Our annual soup party started half on a whim and half as a birthday gathering for me; with a Christmas birthday, I wanted to get friends together around the holidays to celebrate, but on a different day. Soup was one of the only meals I felt confident enough to make for a crowd.

Eight years later, I've locked myself into making soup for at least 50 friends every December, and much to my delight, the event has taken on a life of its own.

My work begins long before the party takes place.

Event planner Candace Kalasky offers tips for hosting a soup party.

Four recipes to try from eight years of Sarah's souper event.

We mail invitations — each year, a friend has kindly designed a postcard, sometimes even handmade — and we address and stamp those about a month in advance. Guests almost always ask me what they can bring to the party, especially because I prepare all the food. When guests bring wine and beer, it takes a lot off my plate.

And if they're particularly inclined to make something, I advise them to bring a dessert, because I don't make sweets for the party, either.

All my attention then turns to menu planning. Generally I make three or four soups, planning to double and triple all the recipes. Though some years the party has been theme-based, most of the time I stick with one soup that's worked well in the past and then add a couple of new ones. A sweet potato stew has been a repeat, as have different varieties of chili.

At first I kept the soups basic, but as I've become better in the kitchen, I've gotten fancier, trying out things like elk stew and a version of Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon.

Some years we've done more than just soup. Grilled cheese sandwiches were expensive and time consuming. A cheese plate with good, crusty bread is simpler. Black beans and rice with loads of toppings were another easy option, and a popular one with my friends. A large bowl of easy-to-make punch was a big hit — so much so that it ran out in the first hour of the shindig.

The styles and types of soups vary widely, but I always keep a few things in mind: One soup should be meatless, and one should be vegan. If possible, I keep all the soups gluten-free.

To avoid a repeat of the kitchen-and-pajamas scenario, I now make the soups a day ahead. Not only did it make the day of the party less stressful, it improved the flavors of the stews. Generally I cook all day, cool the soups down and then pack my fridge overnight.

Though I'd love to use real bowls and spoons at the party, it's just too much work. Disposables — holiday themed, if I can find them — are the rule of the evening, and I stuff oversize Mason jars with spoons. Last year I ran out of spoons and bowls and learned another lesson: Buy a lot more bowls, spoons and paper towels than you think you might use.

My stove is large enough to hold two large stockpots, but I usually have four soups. Slow cookers and portable electric burners have become my friend. I have my own big slow cooker, which I use for one soup and the plug-in electric burner, a more recent acquisition, now keeps a fourth soup hot.

I heat up the soups a few hours in advance to make sure they're hot in the hour before the party, and, of course, check each one for seasoning as a final touch before the guests arrive.

Once the party gets going, the best compliment I can get is empty soup pots. This year, all four hit the bottom of the pan before the night was over.

Contact the writer:, 402-444-1069,

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