Everyone has an image in their head for what a “dinner party” looks like. Maybe yours is of a woman presiding over an immaculately laid table with gold candlesticks. Maybe it’s a man in the kitchen, showing off his roasting skills or carving a big bird. Maybe it’s a potluck. Maybe it’s a planned and themed menu. Maybe there is a table, or maybe there are plates balanced on laps. All count as dinner parties.
So, given the wide variety of shapes a dinner party can take, where do you even start? After you’ve decided that you want to have some friends over for dinner, what on earth do you do next? A lot of dinner party tips and tricks focus on presentation and ambiance, but I find what really makes a good dinner party are the friends, the food, and the conversation. So, with that in mind, here’s a few tips, tricks, and general rules of thumb to help you get started.
- Don’t cram your space too much. How much seating do you have? How about standing room? Imagine your house filled to the gills. Then consider how much you like your friends. Depending on the answer to that, that’s how you choose how many people to invite.I like to base my guest count on the amount of seating I have. My table seats 8, so that’s my cap for a sit-down dinner. My couch and auxiliary seating is about 6, so non-table dinners are actually smaller for me.
- For your guest-list, focus on introducing people to each other. My biggest fear when throwing a dinner party is to have two people argue. Or have two groups of people who don’t mingle at all. To avoid this, rather than ask “who do I want to come,” I ask instead, “who would I like to introduce to whom?” This way I’m sure everyone will have something to chat about with at least one new person.I’m hosting a “Dinner and Geekery” party because I have a few friends who are geeks and yet, gasp, don’t know each other. That then is my guest-list.
- Ask your friends to bring things you don’t want to provide. Make the moochers contribute something. You’re slaving away throwing this thing. It’s the least they can do! Seriously, though, they’ll probably be grateful for a chance to contribute something meaningful (and feel less like freeloaders). If you don’t ask, you’ll likely wind up with lots of bottles of (probably cheap) wine.
- Don’t make that crazy dish you’re not sure you can pull off. It’s tempting, I know, to make something Instagram-worthy. But put the blowtorch down. Leave that for when the only person’s dinner you’ll accidentally ruin is your own. If you want to do the crazy turducken meal, practice it first. Then, by all means, show off your kitchen-boss skills.
- Do as much as you can before the guests arrive. I’m terrible at this one. I always am in the kitchen, a sweaty, gross mess, right up until the 2nd or 3rd person shows up. But all the same, try to clean the house, set the table, cook the pasta (just shy of it being done), make the sauce (just stick it on low heat to keep it warm), or bake that chicken (low heat is your friend – keeps things warm once it’s done cooking!) before everyone arrives. You’ll want a chance to enjoy your dinner party, too, not just slave away in the kitchen.
- Plan for alcohol-drinkers and tea-totlers alike. Not everyone likes booze. It’s nice to offer something other than water to your friends who don’t like alcohol. Of course, if you’re one of those people, maybe ask a boozy friend to provide a wine for the meal. Let them show-off a tad. Everyone will enjoy themselves.
- Have an “assistant host.” If you live with a partner, this person is by default them. If you are needed in the kitchen, they’re the one who opens the door, makes sure everyone has a drink when they come in, takes coats, and is generally welcoming. A really good “assistant host” can also fill in for you in making introductions or keep the conversation going if your pasta is boiling over and you need to run to the kitchen. I don’t live with anyone, so this role is often bestowed on the first person to arrive. This usually works well-enough, but it might help to ask a friend in advance with a quick text, so they know what’s coming.
- Have nibble food out for when people arrive. Don’t make them wait. They’ll be hungry! Also, this saves you a trip to the kitchen if you were planning on an appetizer and gives you some wiggle room if that chicken is taking a bit longer to finish than expected.
- If you want to serve a cocktail, make it in a pitcher first. It’s oh so tempting to make bespoke cocktails for all your guests. I have mixing alcohols just for this purpose, only I never use them. No one wants to take you away from your conversation to make a drink. Self-service pitchers – they are awesome.
- Ask about dietary restrictions. Everyone has that one friend who doesn’t eat gluten, a friend who is allergic to chocolate, or one who is a strict vegan. Make sure you take their needs into consideration. I usually don’t revamp the whole menu – but I try to make it flexible. Either the meat is on the side, or the vegetarian side can double as a main course.
- Enforce the start time. This can be tough, but it’s essential. Just like when going to a restaurant, the whole party needs to be seated before you can eat. People tend to think of dinner parties as regular house parties, where the arrival time is a bit flexible. Disabuse them of this notion. (At the same time, recognize that people won’t arrive on time. Depending on where you live, plan for anywhere from 10-30 minutes of lateness. Think of it as cushion time for your chicken to finish cooking.)
With these 11 tips, I think you’ll be off for a great start to enjoying your dinner party. Let me know if you have any other tips on Twitter or Instagram at @KateDavids, particularly any that help chickens to cook faster (it may be a problem I have).
Have fun in the kitchen!
Check out these books to help you get started on planning your own dinner party: