This is the time of year when social calendars die down. The holidays are over, much of the country is experiencing cold, snowy, or overcast weather, and it’s easy to hibernate. We say, all the more reason to practice your host/hostess skills. If you’ve not attended many dinner parties, or thrown any yourself, there’s a good reason for that–this is a dying art. Here at TPGP, we’re sad about that, and we’re looking to bring it back from the dead. Dinner parties are a great opportunity to get to know new friends, to reconnect with old ones, to show off a new home or put those cooking lessons to the test. In a time when many people get their social “fix” via Twitter and Instagram, hosting a dinner party is a great way to connect with people the old-fashioned way: face-to-face. Here’s how.
Throwing a dinner party doesn’t mean you try to copy the excess of The Great Gatsby. You don’t need a lot of guests, you don’t need 8 courses, you don’t need a string quartet in the corner. It can be you and a couple of friends, good food, a little Sinatra on the stereo. That’s all. So don’t overdo it. Start small and manageable. Often dinner parties are composed of people who all already know each other, but there’s nothing wrong with inviting several couples who’ve never met, and playing friend match-making. Choose people who enjoy good conversation and have good appetites.
Date and Time
Give people enough time to plan. A proper dinner party usually isn’t thrown together the day of, though I admit I’ve done that before. If the people you’re inviting have obligations like crazy work schedules or children, make sure you invite enough in advance (at least a week, maybe several), so that they can arrange to make it work. As far as time of evening–you’re not going to serve people dinner the moment they walk in the door (more on that later) so you want to build in some cocktail/appetizer/socializing time before the actual meal. If you’re planning to eat at 7, invite them to come over at 6, for example.
Planning the Menu
A couple days before the dinner, sit down with your cookbooks (or computer) and decide on the menu. You want an appetizer, a main dish with several sides, perhaps a dessert. Traditionalists would say absolutely yes on the dessert but I’ve found that it’s not always necessary. You want dishes that mesh well together. For instance, it doesn’t make sense, aesthetically or palatably (yes, made that word up), to pair an Italian lasagna with a Japanese miso soup. Stay in roughly the same region of the world when choosing your dishes. Here are two sample menus I came up with just from browsing online:
Theme: Southern & Casual
Appetizer: Sweet Potato Squares from MyRecipes/SouthernLiving
Theme: Italian & Vegetarian
Appetizer: Kale and Artichoke Dip from Food Network
Dessert: Espresso Brownies from Food Network
A couple things to notice about the dishes I picked. First, none of them are incredibly time-consuming. You may be tempted to impress your guests with your cooking skillz, but remember that they came over to hang out with you, so choose recipes that can either be heavily prepped ahead of time, or are fairly simple to throw together. Second, think not only about theme, but about taste. For instance, when picking the vegetable to go with the Pasta Putanesca above, I originally thought of a simple salad with a garlic vinaigrette. But then I realized that Pasta Putanesca is already a garlicky, acidic dish, so I didn’t want to pick a side with similar flavors. I picked the Charred Vegetable Salad instead because it has a different flavor profile–smoky and grilled, to contrast with the vinegary flavors of the Putanesca.
Prepping Ahead of Time
Once you have your list of needed groceries, go shopping. You want to do this a day or two ahead of time so that you have the time to run to a different store if the first one you go to doesn’t have everything you need. When you get your groceries home, look at what can be done ahead of time. Chopping vegetables, marinading meats, making the dessert, even measuring out spices into little containers–much of this can be done in advance as long as it’s properly stored. Do what you can the day before (or early the day of) so that you have less to do when the guests arrive. Also, look at the cooking times of each recipe you’re making. If necessary, jot down a schedule for rotating items in and out of the oven, on and off of the stove top. This is especially important the more dishes you’re making.
Don’t forget about drinks! If you’re really into mixology, think about what cocktails you might offer your guests that would mesh well with your menu. (This is a good way to get your partner involved if you have one–s/he can be responsible for the beverages.) Make sure you have wine and beer available as an alternative, plus non-alcoholic options like sparkling water, juice, and soda. Especially if you’re just establishing a friendship with the people you’ve invited–you never know who might be sober, who might simply dislike the taste or effect of alcohol, or who might have health restrictions that prevent them from drinking.
Other things you want to do in the days before a dinner party–clean the main areas of your home (living room, guest bathroom, dining room) that guests are likely to see, de-clutter surfaces that have stacks of papers or mail or books, buy flowers or set out decor you like to use for special occasions. If you’re going the fancy route, wash any china or table linens that might be collecting dust.
Consider the table setting. For a proper dinner party, you’ll be eating at a dining room table or kitchen table, depending on the arrangement of your home. You need, of course, silverware, plates, and glassware. No doubt there is an “official” way to arrange everything, but I like to use the arrangement in the picture above. Fork, knife, and spoon all together on the napkin to the left of the plate, the glass (on a coaster! They look so nice on the table) to the upper right of the plate, and then usually a smaller dish for bread or salad to the middle right of the plate. I also like to use cloth napkins. They’re more attractive, and they’re better for the environment.
If you’re feeling crafty, you can think about more involved decor for your table. It can be fun to create a centerpiece of some kind. Even if you’re just setting out a simple vase with flowers–that makes such a difference. Or use a table runner or tablecloth to add some interest and pop to the table. If you have a really large group, it could be fun to make name cards so people know where they should sit (this also avoids mealtime chaos as people mill around, unable to decide where to sit). Certainly none of these touches are required, they’re simply options. What you want to remember most of all is that whatever you do, you’re not just feeding your guests, you’re entertaining them. So make sure your space is warm, inviting, and attractive.
When the Guests Arrive
So you have all your ingredients, you’ve prepped whatever you can ahead of time, the house is clean and the table is set. Now it’s time for the main event. When your guests arrive, make sure to offer them a drink right away. An appetizer should also be served within 15 or 20 minutes of their arrival; this can be done casually, just a serving plate on the coffee table in your living room, with small plates or paper napkins to accompany. If you’re co-hosting with a partner or friend, make sure the duties are evenly distributed so that you’re not the only one jumping up to refill drinks or getting additional napkins or checking on dinner.
Think about tunes. Play something that easily fades into the background, but still contributes to the celebratory atmosphere. I usually turn to jazz and Big Band, but I’m also a nostalgic nerd. You can easily play contemporary music as long as it’s not threatening to overtake the conversation. One big no-no: television. Do NOT turn on the TV. People can stare mindlessly at a TV in their own homes. They’re at your place to chat and be social.
Although this time frame is going to vary depending on who you’re with and what you’re cooking, you want to serve dinner ideally 45-90 minutes after your guests arrive. If you eat when they step in the door it will feel like the meal is rushed, without adequate time to visit; if you eat 3 hours after they arrive, you’re likely to have hungry, crabby, perhaps sloshed guests. You can serve all courses at once by having all the serving dishes on the table when you sit down, or you can stagger them (salad first, then after 15 minutes the main entree). If you’re having dessert, it’s nice to let people digest for awhile after dinner, perhaps leave the table and adjourn to the living room or another area of the house.
The Last Word
Finally, enjoy yourself! It can be overwhelming cooking for and entertaining others. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of having a good time. Drop the raw steaks on the kitchen floor? Brush ’em off before slapping them on the grill, nobody will know! Appetizer a total flop? Laugh it off and bring out the Ritz crackers and block o’ cheddar. Happy hosting!
Got some suggestions for throwing the perfect dinner party? Leave them in the comments!