Hosting a dinner can be kind of nerve-racking. Hosting your very first dinner can be downright terrifying.
But it doesn’t have to be. Even if you'd rather never eat again than cook for a group of friends, parents, or—gasp!—in-laws, hear us out: It doesn’t need to be as complicated or intimidating as it sounds. Somewhere between individual beef Wellingtons on fine china and Chinese takeout on paper plates, there’s a happy medium for at-home entertaining that’ll let you impress your guests without feeling like you’ve come off an episode of Hell’s Kitchen.
We’re breaking down seven essential pieces of advice, so the worst part about the evening is that it has to end. Here’s to a meltdown-free maiden dinner party.
1. Don’t Accidentally Serve Pot Roast to a Vegan
Hosting that one friend who eats meat except for three days every two weeks on alternate months? Will your celiac cousin be camping out in the bathroom for the rest of the night if they even go near a piece of bread? Avoid cringe-worthy moments by asking about your guests’ food allergies, restrictions, or preferences beforehand. Not only will it help you plan to a few options for them, but it’ll also allow them to enjoy the meal without worrying (or worse, grilling you) about the ingredients you used.
Accommodating limitations can be a challenge, but it’s a heck of a lot better than putting effort into an entire meal they can’t eat. Plus, it’ll save you from potentially humiliating situations, like proudly plonking a plate of spaghetti Bolognese in front of your gluten-free, vegan mother-in-law. Awkward.
2. If Nigella Lawson Can Use Store-Bought Appetizers, So Can You
How would you rather spend the hour before dinnertime: frantically trying to maneuver prosciutto strips around asparagus bundles? Or taking a shower and not smelling like cured ham when your guests arrive? Unless your guacamole is famous in other states or there’ve been special requests for your garlic hummus, don’t go nuts making your appetizers from scratch. Even the most experienced home entertainers let the store help out without feeling like cheaters.
Premade items arranged on a pretty plate can make it look like your hosting game is on point. Go with a simple cheese, fruit, and cracker board, an antipasti platter of marinated veggies and deli meats, or a delicious dip (homemade or not) with crudités and pita wedges. They look pretty, are filling enough to hold your guests over until the main course, and include enough variety to keep everyone, from the carb-shunning CrossFitters to the dairy-free diners, happy.
3. Your Guests Are Not Your Guinea Pigs
If you’re trying to convince your parents that you do, in fact, know how to adult, this is not the occasion to get experimental in the kitchen. Choose recipes you’ve made and had success with in the past—you’ll feel a lot better about serving people a dish you know you can actually pull off, even if it is that spaghetti Bolognese.
If you really want to attempt something new, make time for a test run earlier in the week. That way you can sort out any taste or prep issues in advance. There’s nothing like the embarrassment of carving your first-ever roast chicken in front of company and finding raw meat inside because, as it turns out, your oven doesn’t cook as fast as Martha Stewart said it would.
4. Make-Ahead and/or One-Pot Dishes Are Your Friends
“I don’t want to make a meal that saves time and cuts down on dishes!” said no one ever. Leave the multidish menus to the Michelin-star chefs and simplify your own prep, cook, and cleanup processes with make-ahead entrées that come together in a single pan. Most of them taste better if they’ve had time to sit for at least a day anyway. Think lasagnas, casseroles, and Crock-Pot recipes; they all get a hearty meal on the table and don’t require you to live in your kitchen for the week leading up to dinner.
All you need to do before your guests arrive is reheat the prepped meal and throw together a salad or toast some bread. If you don’t have time to make the entire dish beforehand, opt for something easy that can be made the day of your dinner. Colorful stir-fries and one-pot pastas can come together in all of 15 minutes, as long as you chop veggies and prep seasonings in advance. And store-bought sauce does wonders. The end result will look so good, your guests will think you slaved (go ahead, let them).
5. Make Seasonal Ingredients Do the Work (So You Don’t Have To)
Hopefully we all know that a cookout when it’s snowing isn’t the best idea (duh). When we say “eat seasonally,” we’re talking about planning your menu around ingredients that grow best at the time of year you’re eating them, so they taste amazing without much added to them. Fresh corn or juicy sliced tomatoes in the warmer months and simple roasted root veggies in the winter can be mouthwatering with just a touch of salt and pepper. If making dessert isn’t your thing at all, fresh seasonal fruit served with scoops of ice cream ends the meal on a perfectly sweet note without making it look like you slacked off. Plus, seasonal ingredients usually cost less, so save your wallet and don’t insist on making a spring pea salad if it’s mid-December.
6. Pretend Like You Know How to Garnish
If just the word garnish sends you screaming off into the night, panicking about having to carve carrots into roses, we’re here to tell you that you don’t need to have the finesse of a sushi chef to nail the presentation. There are so many easy ways to garnish that call for minimal elbow grease and still make your dinners look restaurant worthy. Run a vegetable peeler through a wedge of Parmesan for delicate curls. Elevate a stir-fry with a scattering of sesame seeds, sliced green onions, or chopped peanuts. Swirl just a touch of light cream onto soups or dust your dips with paprika. Frame a meat platter with lemon wedges. Sprinkle fresh herbs onto literally anything for some bright, appealing color. You get the idea! A few simple flourishes can prep your dishes for their inevitable Instagram close-ups—#nofilterneeded.
7. Decorate Like the Dalai Lama Would
In other words, go minimalist. Got an entire Pinterest board dedicated to tablescapes? That’s cute. But unless you majored in arts and crafts, twisting doilies into heart shapes, painting individual place cards and wrapping them in twine, or attempting anything with pinecones will more often than not amount to way more stress than you need. Simple candles or grocery-store flowers can be the perfect elegant touch. Even if you don’t have fancy vases, you can use mismatched drinking glasses. That way, the dramatic effect comes from the different heights they create, instead of from you curled up in a corner of your apartment surrounded by mangled paper napkin swans.
Finally, just breathe, eat with everyone else, and as long as you see smiling faces around you, you can count your first dinner party as a success.