Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner, which means it's the perfect time to start thinking about the best Mexican flavor combinations and how to use them in your party planning. This year, impress your guests with authentic Mexican menu items and a party that's as lively as the culture it celebrates! When you're thinking about what to buy, what to serve, and how to celebrate, here are some tips for throwing the perfect Mexican-themed bash from Chef Matt Dugan, a recipe development manager at Vitamix.

Start with Chips and Salsa

Do you want to host a party that gets people mingling and talking? Think like a Mexican restaurant. "What Mexican restaurant doesn't fill you up with salsa and chips before you order your entree?" asks Dugan. As your guests congregate around heaping bowls of tortilla chips and your favorite homemade salsa, they'll be sampling some of the freshest flavors that define authentic Mexican cuisine. For inspiration, check out these recipes for spicy salsa Mexicano, red salsa, tomatillo salsa, and pineapple salsa. You could also treat your guests to fresh guacamole alongside those chips and salsa.

Look for Quality Ingredients

According to Dugan, "You'll find a lot to love at your local Mexican store, like authentic chilies to make a sauce or marinade with a nice buzz." In terms of what to look for when you shop, "Cumin and dried peppers come to my mind when I first think of Mexican food—and not just the dried cumin you get at the store but cumin seed you toast yourself. It has a lot more vibrant flavor and yet is more mellow." For some recipe inspiration using cumin, check out these la lengua tacos, featuring marinated, slow-cooked, spice-infused beef tongue alongside chargrilled peppers.

Build Your Menu around Hands-Off Dishes

It's not a celebration until everyone's in on the action—and that includes you. So when you're thinking about menu ideas, "turn to your favorite cookbooks and look for those items that have a lot of flavor but also let you enjoy the meal and not be cooking the whole time," Dugan suggests. Think braises, stews, and other slow-cooked entrees that will fill your house with sweet and smoky aromas as they cook. After all, you want to enjoy your party with your guests, and a hands-off menu frees you up to get out of the kitchen as much as possible.

Prep as Much as You Can Ahead of Time

The more you can prep and make ahead of time, the less you have to do on the day of the party and, sometimes, the better your flavors will meld. Make your salsa a day or two ahead of time, for example, Dugan says, and you'll "let the flavors really marinate together really well." You could also prepare big batches of cocktails like whole-fruit margaritas or piña coladas and place them in jars, so you already have some legwork done for the day.

Customize with Condiments

Want to get your guests involved in creating custom dishes? Offer an array of Mexican-themed condiments. "I like putting out a lot of simple, bottled hot sauces or flavored mayonnaises," says Dugan. "Small, little bottles give people choices and make your buffet larger." What's more, he adds, you're giving your guests more ways to customize the menu to their tastes, whether they want to go with chipotle seasoning or a little extra hot sauce, so everybody gets food tailored to their individual preferences.

Kick Back with Cocktails

Nothing says party like great drinks, and to make your home bartending simpler, Dugan says to put your blender to work on the preparation. "If I'm doing it, I'm going to do a jalapeño simple syrup," he says. "Take one to three jalapeños (seeds or not, depending on how hot you want it), water, and sugar. Let this go in the Vitamix for five or six minutes, and, at the end, you get this nuclear green color from the jalapenos. [Meanwhile] the water and the sugar spin together and heat up to create a nice simple syrup to flavor a cocktail with." Use this jalapeño syrup for custom cocktails, like a vodka jalapeño margarita, suggests Dugan, to really wow your guests. When it comes to party planning, Dugan says he uses his blender as much for food prep as he does for bar and cocktail prep—from the perspective of a host, making things easier is a great way to make the party more fun.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is all about having fun and letting loose, so when you're planning the menu and thinking about what to make, keep the tips above in mind. With an authentic menu and fun cocktails, you'll create the kind of event that leaves everyone energized and inspired, and already looking forward to next year when you can do it all over again.