Tea Hee Hee: A Fun Guide to Hosting a Tea Party
Send out those tea party invitations (two weeks in advance, please) and follow this easy guide full of scrumptious tea party ideas
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Everyone loves a tea party. Whether it’s little girls spending afternoons pouring pretend tea for their friends and admirers (you know, dolls and stuffed bunnies), the Rose Parlor at Vassar College every school day afternoon, or the Queen of England herself, no one seems to outgrow the pleasure of sipping a cup of tea, nibbling some cute treats, and cheerfully chatting with a friend or two.
And while our vision of a traditional tea party may be raised pinkies and hushed voices, today’s tea parties are accessible to anyone with a teapot and a finger sandwich dream. But where to start once you’ve decided to make your childhood fantasy come true? Our guide will take you through all the steps, with tea party ideas for table setting and decorating, fun suggestions for what to wear, and recipes for what to serve at a tea party. Put some water on to boil and embrace your inner queen.
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How to set up for a tea party
You can keep it simple or go wild, depending on your budget and available time. Either way, make your tea party a hit by following these five simple guidelines.
Tip 1: Have a few different teapots, and enough tea cups for everyone
You can purchase a tea set if you like, but it’s not necessary to spend a small fortune to throw an afternoon tea party. Beautiful vintage tea cups with saucers and teapots can be found at thrift stores, estate sales, church or synagogue bazaars, or can be borrowed from a friend or your grandma’s collection — and it’s trés eco-friendly! It’s no longer necessary to have a matching set either; shabby chic has shown us that mismatched china and tea cups look lovely together, too.
Tip 2: Serve everything on pretty platters
While tiered cake stands are a classic, they’re not a requirement. Any attractive serving platter or plate can be used to showcase the tiny tarts, delicate cookies, and the many shaped tea sandwiches on your tea party menu.
Tip 3: Offer small plates for guests to put their food on
The delicacies served at a tea party are all mini sized, so the plates should reflect those smaller sizes. Mismatched china and/or pretty plates from a thrift store are an easy affordable option. Cuteness is key, and tiny food eaten from tiny dishes maximizes the adorable factor.
Tip 4: Fresh flowers are a must
Even if it’s one bouquet at the center of a tablecloth-lined tea table, fresh flowers, whether cut or in an attractive delicate pot, are important for setting the tone for tea party decorations. Be sure to take one bloom out and place it in a small vase in the bathroom for guests to enjoy in private moments, too. Or if you’re able, scatter myriad blooms and greenery throughout the space to create a garden vibe.
Tip 5: Make sure each guest has a place to sit
It sounds obvious, but there must be ample seating and level spaces for everyone to set a tea cup or plate down while they chat and eat.
What to wear to a tea party
Encourage guests to come in their finest Downton Abbey style! Big hats with ribbons are strongly encouraged, as are any long, old-fashioned gloves they may have. Older guests will be delighted to dust a pair off, and younger attendees will enjoy the dress-up element. These gloves can often be found at thrift stores for bargain prices; as host it can be fun to have a basket of them at the door for guests to don as they arrive.
There’s no need to buy a new outfit; any flowery, flowing garment can be pressed into service, or opt for a delicate colorful scarf. Chandelier earrings fit the theme beautifully, and any pearl jewelry — whether ocean, freshwater, or costume — is a yes. The most important element of your outfit is to enjoy it. Wear what feels fun, floral, and festive for you.
What to serve at a tea party
What to serve? I’m so pleased you asked. Ideally there would be two types of tea in pots for guests to enjoy, one black (and caffeinated) and one herbal tisane, with hot water added periodically to keep the tea flowing. However, you can also offer a selection of elegant tea bags alongside a pot or urn of hot water. Be sure to offer sugar cubes, lemon slices, and milk options, as well.
The edible offerings must be beautiful and varied, and not smushed together on a platter or stand; each piece should have enough space for it to be admired. All foods should be easy to pick up by hand; the only utensils you need are small spoons for stirring tea. Plan for each attendee to eat about 6 or 7 pieces to figure out how much food to serve. When plating, be sure to consult the exuberant small child you once were to make sure the presentation is inspired and pretty enough to fill you with delight. Feel free to add flowers, leaves, or pretty baubles to make it as beautiful as possible.
Most tea parties are held in the mid- to late afternoon, and are not a replacement meal so much as an afternoon treat. As for what to serve, the collection of dishes below is a great place to get started when planning your afternoon tea party menu. Pick a few from each section, have fun, and let us know how it goes!
Sweet and savory scone recipes, mini tarts and baked wonton “pastries”; wow your guests with your fabulous tea party food.
These hearty scones provide a welcome savory surprise on a tray of otherwise sweet baked goods. Punchy black pepper, salty bits of ham and luscious Gruyere cheese is scattered throughout these delicate and buttery scones. Be careful not to over mix the dough, and knead it only a few times until it holds together; this creates light and tender scones (instead of sad, dense rocks).
You may recognize these adorable tiny tarts from the silver rolling carts at a dim sum restaurant, their sunny sweetness heralding the finale of a meal made of delectable tiny bites and perfumed tea. Egg tarts are welcome guests at a tea party, too; the crust can be prepared and frozen up to a month in advance, making them quick to put together beforehand. (Western measurements are provided on the directions page.)
Using purchased phyllo dough makes these hearty little bites a breeze to prepare. Pimento cheese is a Southern favorite; if you can’t find it at your local grocery store, substitute a cheddar cheese spread you enjoy. And don’t skip the scallion garnish; it adds a little bite to cut the richness of these tarts.
These citrus-scented mini scones boast proper English flavors, though you can substitute a half-cup of raisins, dried cherries, or any other dried fruit (in small pieces) you prefer or have on hand. Barely mix the dough to ensure a tender crumb; once it holds together, you’re finished. These would be lovely served with lemon curd and clotted cream.
Using purchased wonton skins from the refrigerated aisle of the grocery store makes these little baked pyramids fast to put together. Dipping your finger in water, then “painting” the edges of each wonton ensures they hold together in the oven; feel free to brush each one with the egg wash and sprinkle with cinnamon before they enter the oven, then bake for 18 minutes total.
Tea party sandwiches
Feel free to use any seasonal or flower-shaped cookie cutters you have on hand to shape the bread for these tiny tea sandwiches.
Be sure to use English cucumbers in these lovely and refreshing tea sandwiches; pale green circles sit atop a seasoned cream cheese mixture full of dill and chives for echoes of homemade summer pickles. Be sure to buy the best white bread you can find for the base.
These festive little open-face tea sandwiches are fun and easy to prepare, and will make even the grumpiest guest crack a smile. Briefly blanched carrots may turn the filling the color of a sunset, and the shredded cheddar on top won’t brown when exposed to air — not that they’ll last very long once they’re offered!
In days of England yore, peasants would walk along the riverbanks and pluck wild cress that grew there to make breakfast sandwiches from those peppery greens and bread spread with a bit of butter. But today we eat them as a celebration of our good fortune. Feel free to add a dab of goat cheese if you like.
Use the prettiest radishes you can find and slice them as paper thin as your equipment (or knife skills!) allows. If you’ve never tasted butter and radishes together, you’re in for a treat. For a tea party, slice each piece of bread thinly and into four triangles. Arrange radish slices in the style of your favorite modern art, and use your crunchiest sea salt to adorn the top.
The peppery watercress makes the lusciousness of the lox really pop in these colorful tea sandwiches, and with only five ingredients, they're quick to assemble. Feel free to sprinkle them with Everything Bagel seasoning if you’ve got it on your spice rack. Put these together shortly before guests arrive so the lox stays supple.
C is for cookie … and tiny cakes!
Tea party ideas abound when it comes to cookies and cakes, but they must all follow two rules: Be small, and be super cute.
These classic tea party offerings, each its own tiny gift from the French, look almost too good to pick up and eat. The delicate yellow sponge cake is filled with raspberry jam and buttercream, then covered with a white chocolate coating. You can decorate them with additional white chocolate drizzled on top, a perfect fresh raspberry, or a curl of candied citrus peel.
These cheerful little clouds are edible puffs of delicate vanilla and pecan cookies rolled through a drift of confectioners' sugar. Eminently poppable, using a stand mixer makes quick work of putting them together, and they can be made up to a week in advance and stored in an airtight tin.
Lemon cake is a natural pairing for tea, and who doesn’t love the pleasure of eating a cute cake pop while wearing elegant old-fashioned gloves. A white chocolate coating gives them a truffle-like quality that is pleasurable to bite into. Use a row of small clean bud vases to serve them, about three to four pops in each, so they look like an echo of tiny white peonies.
Use any small shaped cookie cutters you like for these delicate shortbread finger foods that turn a dusky matcha green with the addition of green tea powder. If you only have loose leaf green tea on hand, use your spice grinder to pulverize it into a powder.
For these Italian-style mini ricotta cakes, feel free to swap out different citrus depending on what’s available; cute little clementines and Meyer lemons, or even tiled sliced kumquats would be beautiful. Pureed almonds and rosemary deliver a delicate aroma, while a rosemary syrup keeps them moist, sweet, and with a slightly astringent nose.
A tea party is the time to truly dazzle, and this homemade version of those crunchy cookies in the white paper bag everyone loves from the grocery aisle will surprise and delight all your guests as they gasp: “Wait, you made these?!” If you don’t have a pastry bag, feel free to take a quart-sized plastic sandwich bag, fill with dough, snip one corner, and pipe onto the cookie sheet before baking.
More tea time inspiration
Check out more ideas for hosting your own elegant affair.