Putting together a dinner party for the first time can be both daunting to think about and exhausting to do. Or it can be easy and you and your guests can have a great time. It just takes a little planning and learning a few secrets experienced hosts know, often from making common mistakes. Here are ten steps that can ensure it isn’t an ordeal.
Btw, we are talking about you cooking the whole thing- no takeout or pot luck. Those things are great, and I’m not above cheating on some things, but the idea here is to offer your guests a treat, something they don’t experience everyday. And to show off your skills!
You are planning an event, not a meal
Before we get into the details, it’s important to understand what a successful dinner party is. It is, simply, entertainment, an event, a break from the humdrum meal routine, a social occasion. Plan it like an experience that has a beginning, middle, and end. And plan it so you can enjoy yourself as much or more than your guests!
Keep it simple
This is so important. The more complex your food and evening is, the more likely things will go wrong and you’ll just end up stressed and exhausted. Most of these steps are designed to keep it simple to execute, fun, and something you want to do again. Once you understand the flow of dinner entertaining, you can expand into more complex or themed dinners. For the beginning make something you have done before and know works.
Plan every stage
Get out a notebook and write out your plan. With this you can check off actions to ensure you don’t forget anything or find yourself without an ingredient you need at the last minute. The plan should include picking a date that doesn’t have major conflicts with other events your guests may be attending. You won’t be able to satisfy everyone but you don’t want to have to start over with another date. Carefully think through your guest list. Think in terms of interactions. More on that next. Plan your menu and your timing. Make your shopping and pre-prep list. This plan will help you stay on track since timing is probably the most critical skill you’re going to need.
I tape this list to a wall near my workspace and check things off as I go. This avoids being in the middle of a course and realizing you forgot something. Or realizing that after it’s over. It happens…
Choose your guests carefully
This is a bit of an art form. You want a group that will have fun, keep the conversation going, and not generate conflict. Some basic rules include:
- Avoid newly lovey dovey couples. They tend to stay in their own world.
- Avoid exes, yours or anyone else’s (self-explanatory)
- Mix up backgrounds and interests. Bringing some new blood into a group can break up the same old conversations and jokes. One formula is one comfortable outgoing couple, two singles, and three other friends who may not necessarily know each other. Breakup age boundaries and genders.
- Check on food preferences when you invite. Discovering you have two vegans when you planned a roast chicken is not good. More in the menu section.
- For this meal, if they ask what they can bring, suggest a favorite beverage
Think about this in terms of stages. In a three hour event there is the arrival, drinks, and savory snack section, the sit-down with an appetizer or simple amuse bouche*, the main course, and the dessert or digestif (after dinner drink) stage where things slow down and everyone relaxes. Each of these stages have requirements for prep and serving.
*Amuse bouche, literally ‘amuse the mouth’, a tasty little bite of something unusual. It is very cheffy to send these out guests while preparing the first course and it gives guests something to bond over. People love this stuff!
Create a menu that doesn’t keep you in the kitchen every minute
The most amateur error you can make is trying to do something too complex. The goal is to not be in the kitchen going nuts all during dinner. Menu planning is designed to make sure this doesn’t happen. Have a cheese and meat platter ready in the fridge for the drinks stage. Don’t put too much stuff out now- you want hungry guests! Keep your first course simple, like a salad or cold dish you can have ready to bring out. Putting food on the table is a great way to break up the happy hour and get people sitting down. Put a basket of sliced baguette out to ‘fill in the gaps’. Your main should be something that you take out of the oven and serve, not something you cook to order. You can rarely go wrong with a roast chicken, something like baked pasta, or a grilled entree. Jazz it up with a unique add-on like chimichurri for meats, or a spicy mayo. And have enough. My go-to third course is a chilled dessert like a fruit salad with whipped cream or warm fruit with icecream. If you want a starch, consider making your salad course something heartier like a pasta salad or French potato salad served at room temp.
This menu approach keeps managing dishes easier. Plate the salads in the kitchen or have plates on the table and serve family style. Dress the salad just before serving so it doesn’t go limp. Put the entree on its own plate with a garnish. Keep it simple.
Clean up as you go
This is another amateur mistake- letting dishes pile up in the sink only to find yourself faced with a colossal mess after everyone leaves, just when you’re exhausted and want to relax. Pre-preparing as much as you can makes this easier. If you have a dishwasher, make sure it’s empty beforehand and feed things into it as you go. Otherwise rinse and stack dishes so cleanup is just some washing.
Don’t be afraid to fancy things up
It only takes a few things to glam things up a bit, even on a budget. Get some cheap cut flowers. Plan your playlist so it’s chill enough to not not overpower conversation. You’re not having a dance party, you’re creating a relaxed mood. The dance party can come later. Remember, people love it when you treat them as special guests, regardless of age or background. Have glasses of water on the table.
Pre-prepare everything you can
In French cooking this is known as mise en place, everything in its place. Basically you prep everything ahead, usually in its own dish or container, and then combine these pre-prepped items when you plate. This includes all the stages. Have a bucket of ice ready for drinks and at least a white and a red wine opened before guests arrive. Have glasses and tools like corkscrews out and a few bowls of drink garnishes like citrus slices so guests feel free to help themselves to a drink. Keep the drinks simple. If you want to do complex cocktails make that the theme of another cocktail party.
Recruit an ‘assistant’
It is likely someone is going to want to help. That’s great but don’t turn them into your kitchen lackey. Have them bring out plates. They can help guests get oriented with where to leave their coats or help with drinks.
Have fun and don’t worry if things get crazy- your guests won’t care!
This is the most important thing to keep in mind. If this is your first dinner party, it may be a first for your guests too. People love invitations and they are rarely judgemental about anything. The real goal here is to have fun, provoke stimulating conversation, and, hopefully, encourage others to reciprocate. That starts with a host who is obviously enjoying themselves!
I realize this may sound daunting but when you break it down into small actions, plan and work ahead, it doesn’t have to be hard. And once you’ve done it, you’ll be much farther along as a cook and an entertainer. Even a very simple shared meal can create bonds, new friends, and reveal sides to people you might not see in their comfort zones. Just try to not pick guests that have issues or conflicts! Play it safe when you’re getting started and you’ll find out how fun this can be.