Some sources claim that the dinner party has become “endangered” — but we’re not buying it. What’s more fun than inviting a bunch of friends over for good food, drinks, and conversation? Plus, studies show that sharing a communal meal with buds can make us happier and healthier.
If throwing a dinner party feels hopelessly complicated and stressful, we’ve got some news for you: It’s not. Hosting at home can be simple and fuss-free, especially if you start the planning well in advance and don’t sweat the small stuff. Even if you’re not Martha Stewart, here are some tips to make your next dinner party fun for all (including the host!).
Plan for Success
1. Pick a good group.
Of people, that is. Choose friends who get along well, have similar interests, and have at least some things in common. If you’re looking to spice things up with a wildcard invitee or two, make sure they'll fit in and won't make the rest of your guests uncomfortable. Handwritten mailed invitations are nice (if you’re feeling fancy), but emails or phone calls work fine, too.
2. Ask about allergies ahead of time.
It’s never fun to hear about someone’s celiac disease right as you’re pulling the baked ziti from the oven. Most of the time, if a guest has a serious allergy or religious observance, they’ll let you know about it, but it’s always nice to ask anyway. Make sure there’s at least one thing (besides green salad without dressing) that everyone at the table can enjoy.
3. Go with what you know.
Make dishes you’ve whipped up at least once or twice before the big event. If you’re used to cooking that famous casserole, practice making it in a larger, party-worthy size (since sometimes volume can affect cooking time). If you’re determined to impress guests with a fancy new dish, give it a test run a few weeks in advance.
4. Cook smart.
This tip also falls under the “don’t drive yourself crazy” category. Avoid food that involves to-order cooking, constant stirring, flipping, or checking. Individual omelets at brunch? No, thank you. Mini chocolate soufflés for dessert? Just say no. Simple is sometimes best. Check out our lists of one-pot meals, healthy casseroles, and Crock-Pot dishes for a stress-free, satisfying entrée.
5. Check your inventory ahead of time.
Make sure you have all necessary accoutrements (serving dishes, wineglasses, extra plates, dessert forks, etc.) the weekend before the party so you’re not rushing around the day of trying to buy, borrow, or steal ‘em. Lay everything out the morning of to make sure it’s all present and accounted for (and clean). Do the same with your recipe ingredients a day or two before the party.
6. Be flexible.
While a good old-fashioned RSVP is worth its weight in gold, unexpected drop-ins aren’t the end of the world. Make sure your menu and plan for the evening won’t fall to pieces if somebody can’t make it or brings an extra friend. Use this drinks calculator to figure out how many beverages to buy. The general rule of thumb in terms of food is to make enough to serve an extra two or three guests, but you can check out this guide for more specific suggestions.
Prep Like a Boss
7. Plan menu items strategically.
Prepping for a dinner party isn’t quite the same as tossing together some pasta and veggies on any given weeknight. Plan the menu strategically — avoid a table laden with dishes that require last-minute prep, exotic ingredients (that necessitate multiple grocery store runs), recipes with long prep times, or items that need lots of time in the oven or fridge. It’s OK to have one crazy centerpiece dish, but don’t drive yourself crazy!
8. Do the hard work first.
Try to get as much prep work as possible out of the way ahead of time. Look for recipes that include instructions on how to “plan ahead” and mention what can be prepared (up to a day or two) early. Two easy tricks are to chop veggies the day before the party and to make baked desserts a few days prior to the big event.
9. Clean as you go.
It might seem like a pain in the moment, but it’s usually a good idea to wash pots and pans as you finish using them. That way, you won’t have a scary pile of dirty dishes at the end of the night (or it’ll at least be slightly less towering). Pro tip: Start with an empty dishwasher.
10. Cut yourself some slack.
Between the homemade signature cocktails, hand-stuffed olives, and individual crème brulées, it can be hard to remember that this is supposed to be a casual dinner party, not a display of the craziest Pinterest items ever shared. Don’t sweat taking easy shortcuts like buying appetizers from the supermarket (cheese and crackers, anyone?), setting up a mix-it-yourself bar, and heading to the local bakery for bread and sweet treats.
11. Delegate like a boss.
Ask reliable friends to contribute to the meal by bringing desserts, drinks, or side dishes. If partygoers ask how they can help, there’s no need to be a martyr — put ‘em to work slicing citrus fruit for cocktails, filling water glasses, or doing some other easy task. Don’t make them help you out with the dishes, though — that’s just mean.
12. Start early.
Cooking for a large group takes longer than a meal for two, plus there are probably more courses and add-ons to juggle. Give yourself an extra hour or two in the kitchen — just in case!
13. Set the table the night before.
Or, if you’re extra paranoid, get out the tablecloths and silverware two nights before. It’s an easy thing to check off your list and feels oh so satisfying.
14. Buy extra ice.
Stock up on bags of frozen cubes before the big event — even if your freezer makes ice faster than a Siberian winter. It’s never a bad idea to be prepared (even Questlove agrees!)
Host with the Most
15. Get the party started.
The party attitude starts with you! Stay relaxed and cheerful, even if the cake caves in and the roasted veggies burn. Or, try celebrity chef Ina Garten’s favorite tip for making guests comfortable: Greet them at the door in socks, slippers, or barefoot —it sets a fun, chill vibe right away.
16. Choose some sweet tunes.
Make an awesome playlist to set the mood, or save yourself some time and let Pandora, Spotify, or Sirius radio do the job. Classic crooners like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Rolling Stones never fail.
17. Go easy with the hors d’oeuvres.
An overzealous cheese plate means you’ll spend lots of money on something that’s not even dinner and nobody will be hungry for the fabulous meal you made. Limit yourself (and your guests) to one or two options, and don’t keep replenishing the supplies.
18. Dim the lights.
This one’s just for aesthetic purposes. Low light makes everyone look prettier, sexier, and more mysterious. Turn down harsh overhead lights and light some candles. (Christmas lights are always a good option, too.).
19. Don’t forget about dessert.
Unfortunately, the last (and arguably most important) course often doesn’t get its fair share of respect. Serve up one of these healthier treats along with coffee and tea to signal the end of the meal.
20. Laugh it off.
Last but not least, don’t take yourself (or your dinner party) too seriously. Nobody will care if the casserole is ever-so-slightly uneven or the drinks don’t come in Mason jars — hey, they’re getting free food, great conversation, and tasty drinks. There’s no need to work yourself up over mistakes people probably don’t even notice.