Three different kitchen timers go off at the exact moment you drop a carton of eggs; the avocados you bought days ago still aren’t ripe; and the oven was a little too hot, leaving your roasted chicken bone-dry. Is it a nightmare? No, we’re just thinking of all the things that could go wrong right before a dinner party. Add 10 guests and the pressure of ~entertaining~ to that equation? Way too much for a Saturday night. The secret to avoiding all the mess and frustration of a traditional dinner party: Don’t make dinner.
Counterintuitive? Maybe. But once you abandon the stressful task of actually cooking a full meal for a group, you’ll feel a weight lift from your shoulders. You’ll remember to buy ice and actually have time to shower before everyone arrives. Keep it up and you’ll want to host every week.
Still not convinced? We also checked in with a few of our favorite bloggers (they’re no strangers to making tons of food!) to get their biggest tips for anxiety-free entertaining.
How to Host a Dinner-Free Dinner Party
1. Give people something the moment they walk in.
Greet guests with a drink and have snacks ready on the table. While no one should feel like they have to ask for something to eat at any point in the evening, just because you’re hosting doesn’t make you a waiter. Have a bar set up in the kitchen or living room stocked with options for those who drink and those who don’t, and make it known that everyone can serve themselves. If a particular drink runs out, that’s just a sign of a fun party—no need to run to the store for another six-pack of the Lagunitas just because everyone really liked it. You can always whip out your stockpile of not-so-great wine too. And don’t forget to refill the chip bowl once—and only if it’s nearly empty.
2. Let the setting do the work.
“Lit candles and a really good playlist set the mood,” says Jamie Webber, our own senior food editor, suggesting a Top-40 station for a casual party or jazz for a moodier setting. Webber also stresses the importance of a tidy space: “People tend to judge you if you have a dirty bathroom.” Instead of spending 40 minutes making a baked Brie, use that time to refill the hand soap, straighten out the shower curtain, and move your roommate’s towel to his or her bedroom. Your guests may not notice outright, but your pad will feel instantly more polished (with little effort).
3. Keep the main event minimal.
Just because you’ve invited people over doesn’t mean you also have to cook a four-course meal. When Laura Wright of The First Mess has friends over, she keeps it simple by making a “deluxe hummus table.” She whips up a big batch of hummus (store-bought works too!), divides it into three bowls, and covers each with unique toppings. “From there, I load up the table with crackers, pita chips, vegetable chips, pickled vegetables, extra olives, and chopped fresh vegetables. This strategy usually takes care of multiple dietary needs, and keeps everyone busy and milling about.” Use this model for the base of any party—maybe it’s a taco bar instead of hummus—because sticking with a theme always helps to keep the focus simple.Ali Maffucci, the queen of the zoodle and founder of Inspiralized, relies on a big salad to feed everyone. “I like tossing zucchini noodles together with pesto and then adding chopped tomatoes and chickpeas,” Maffucci says. “I’ll place the salad in a bowl with some serving tongs and set it out for [self-serve].” Maffucci suggests supplementing with small bites, like cheese and crackers, hummus and crudités, and olives. The most important thing to remember? “No need to go overboard, the wine and laughter will do the rest!”
4. If you still want to cook, stay organized.
Shelly Westerhausen of Vegetarian ‘Ventures swears by action lists, making sure every moment of her prep time is well-spent. “I hosted a big grill-out the other weekend and had a list of action items split up,” Westerhausen says. She makes ‘do on Friday night’, ‘do on Saturday morning,’ and ‘do right before the event’ lists, including steps for recipes, setting up the backyard, and errands she needs to run. Westerhausen knows this extra planning step pays off in the long run: “[They] help me feel less stressed about what I still need to do and guarantee nothing is missed.” If three to-do lists is too much for you, just stick with one.
5. Go halfsies with your friends.
“Get the guests involved,” says Giselle Rochford of Diary of an ExSloth. “With all the food allergies, sensitivities, and restrictions today, [it’s] impossible to cater to the needs of all your guests without going all out.” Rochford suggests throwing a potluck-style party, in which every guest cooks one dish. “It gives the party a more relaxed and intimate vibe, which is something I love,” Rochford adds. “Plus the different dishes [are] great conversation starters if all the guests don’t know one another.” You’ll also have more time to focus on stocking the bar.
6. Most importantly, don’t worry.
Whether you’re cooking or opening a container of premade hummus, “dinner parties are meant to be fun and social,” says Chungah Rhee of Damn Delicious. “Instead of trying to cook everything down to the last second, try make-ahead recipes; all you have to do is reheat.” Rhee also suggests using a slow cooker for “set-and-forget” meals that also keep food warm throughout the length of the party. Pulled pork sliders, anyone?
7. Don’t always host in your home.
Who says you have to set up your house for company because you want to host? For some, particularly those living in tiny apartments, even finding more than three chairs may prove difficult. There’s a solution here too: Host a picnic in a local park instead of in your home. Tell everyone to bring a drink or a side, make a few long sandwiches on baguettes, slice, and bring speakers (and if it’s not summer, a blanket or two.)
Even if the guacamole turns dirt-brown halfway through the night or someone drops a full beer, shattering glass all over your kitchen floor (not that I’m speaking from experience or anything… ), if you’re hanging with good friends, the evening will still be a success. Just maybe check that you have a frozen pizza in the freezer and a vacuum on hand for cleanup.