How to Host an Unforgettable Dinner Party
So you’ve decided to host your first-ever dinner party and have no idea where to start, what to do, or how to go about figuring any of it out. We’ve all been there, and while hosting a dinner party can be extremely overwhelming, especially for first-timers, there are a few tricks of the trade that will make throwing even the most elaborate dinner party a total breeze.
Whether you’re hosting your family for Thanksgiving this year, throwing a holiday party for your closest friends, or just wanting to bring your loved ones together under one roof to enjoy some good food and great company, we’ve got you covered. Here’s everything you need to know about hosting a dinner party.
Choose a Theme
One of the most important things to sort out first when you’re throwing a dinner party is the theme of the menu and what kind of food you plan on serving. Having a spread of, say, a seven-layer bean dip, a pot roast, crackers, spinach dip, and French fries literally makes no sense, and you’ll not only confuse your guests, but you’ll also confuse their taste buds (and probably their stomachs) as well.
That said, really think about the theme of your menu, including the type of cuisine you’d like to serve. Think about if you want to have multiple courses or just have a bunch of tapas, small plates, or appetizers. Discuss with your partner or close friends whether you want a big dessert bar or if you plan on serving everything family style or buffet style, and so on.
Keep in mind that if you’re throwing your first-ever dinner party, you’re probably going to be a little overwhelmed, so doing a four-course meal – especially if you have a large number of guests – might not be the best option, so go with whatever you feel comfortable with. Buffet style or family style is always a safe bet; however, you must plan and time your cooking so everything is ready around the same time – don’t worry, we’ll show you how to tackle that in another section below.
Next, you need to decide on a theme not only for your menu but if you want your guests dressed a certain way, too. Whether you’re having a Thanksgiving gathering with a smart casual dress code, an ugly holiday sweater party with, well, an ugly holiday sweater requirement, or you’re just throwing a casual get together for the big game, make a note to your guests on the invitations. Want everyone to wear jerseys for a Super Bowl Sunday brunch? Let ‘em know. You’re throwing a 1920s murder mystery party and need everyone to dress accordingly? Tell them.
Send Out Your Invitations
It’s important to give your guests enough time to figure out if they will be able to make your dinner party; you don’t want to send out a last-minute group text three days before you plan on throwing your soiree and expect everyone to drop their plans to make it to your party. Two weeks before you plan on throwing your dinner party, make your guest list and send out invitations, which should include date and time, dress code, address, if they should bring anything (wine, dessert, an appetizer, or just themselves), and the theme, if any.
You should also be sure to request that they RSVP by a certain date – a week before your dinner party is perfect and gives you enough time to finalize your guest list. In turn, this will help you start to plan your menu, which we’ll get to below.
Plan the Menu
The easiest way to get organized and stay organized is to start a spreadsheet. It may sound very type-A or old school, but trust me on this. Having everything in one place will help you tremendously, and you can organize everything from the dishes you’re making, the ingredients you need at the grocery store, the ingredients you already have, the price of each item so you know how much you’ll be spending, etc.
When creating a spreadsheet for a dinner party or theme party, I typically organize by dish, and then put all of the ingredients that are needed under each recipe, along with a link (if there is one) to the recipe; if you’re using a cookbook, just mark down the name of the cookbook and what page it’s on, and if it’s a recipe you’ve come up with yourself, no need to put a reference link in the spreadsheet.
You can then go through your pantry and mark down the ingredients you already have (I usually highlight them in green to show that they’re not needed on my grocery list), and with the remaining items on your spreadsheet, you have your completed grocery list. To make things easy, I recommend physically writing your grocery list down and organizing by department (produce section, meat section, fancy cheese section, etc.) – it’ll make your grocery trip much easier and you’ll be less likely to forget an item.
It is important to note that before you finalize your menu, you should ask your guests if they have any dietary restrictions, like a gluten, nut, or dairy allergy, if they’re vegan or vegetarian, etc., that way you can save yourself the awkwardness of not being able to serve them whatever you made and trying to throw together something that’s edible for them.
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Get the Ambiance Going
Again, this is where spreadsheets come in handy. Make a spreadsheet noting everything you have in your house that you can use to set the ambiance, whether it’s candles, houseware, or decor that can double as something else (I’ve been known to use tumbler glasses or depression glassware as tea light candle holders), real or fake plants, flowers, etc. so you can take inventory of what you have already and won’t have to run out and buy a bunch of new things.
When in doubt, candles and flowers or plants will always look good on a table setting, and if you have no idea how to design a table setting, then cruise Pinterest for some easy ideas; you don’t have to be Martha Stewart to design a bomb-looking table setting.
Clean Your Space
This is actually one of the most important steps when getting ready to host a dinner party. You don’t have to clean every single room in your home from top to bottom, but make sure the kitchen, living area, dining space, and bathroom are all clean and be sure to put away any clutter and/or organize your common areas if they are a little messy. Cleaning the day before is your best bet, so you can focus on cooking everything and setting everything up on the big day.
If you already have a dining table that can fit the number of guests you invited, then you’re one step ahead already. If you have to rent or borrow a table and chairs, make sure you clear out enough space to set it up, and that guests have enough room and will be comfortable.
How To Prep the Food, Drinks, and Decor for Your Dinner Party
There are a bunch of steps you can take to prepare for your dinner party so you’re not completely overwhelmed and running around the day of. A week before your dinner party, you should have your finalized guest list. You should also buy any decor (excluding flowers), dishes, trays, candles, etc. that you may need. You should also start to conceptualize how you want your plates to look if you’re going to set up the food buffet-style in your kitchen or family-style at the dinner table or serve individual courses, where you want your guests to sit (if you want assigned seating), and so on.
Two days before your dinner party, head to the grocery store with your handy (and super-organized) list and pick up all the ingredients you need. You should also pick up wine or other alcohol and mixers if you’re planning on making cocktails, as well non-alcoholic options for those who may not want to drink. Having extra coffee and/or tea on hand is also a good idea, as is having plenty of water. Additionally, be sure to make extra trays of ice or buy a bag of ice so you’re not serving warm beverages as the night goes on.
Another extremely helpful tip to stay organized during the chaotic couple of days before your dinner party is to make an oven/cooking schedule so you know what to bake and when. Again, making a spreadsheet is the easiest way to do this in my opinion, and seeing everything laid out in one document with the oven temperature, bake or cook times, whether it needs to be served straight out of the oven or off of the stove or grill, etc. will help things run smoothly.
One day before your dinner party, prep what you can: chop veggies, make anything that you need to bake (i.e. dips, casseroles, mashed potatoes, etc.) that can be covered and stored in the fridge until bake time – that way you can just pop it in the oven and worry about doing something else while the dish is baking – and prep dessert if possible. You can also pop back into the store if you forgot something or need more of something. The day before your party is also a good time to pick up fresh flowers if you’re displaying them on your table.
On the day of, finish making any of the remaining dishes – don’t forget to consult your oven/cooking schedule – and get your table all set up. Depending on how you plan on serving food to your guests, set up your dishes appropriately, as well as your beverage station. An hour or so before guests are set to arrive, put some pitchers or carafes of water on the table, light those candles (or turn them on if you go the LED route), get dressed, start your playlist, and pour yourself a celebratory glass of wine for all your hard work.
Other Preparations To Make
In addition to all of the food, decor, and drink prep, you’re going to want to make sure you have all the necessary tools readily available for your dinner party, including serving spoons, multiple wine openers, bottle openers, enough glasses, plates, silverware, etc. You should also take the time to create a playlist for your guests, or as most of us do, find a good one on Spotify – there are literally thousands to choose from.
Be the Host With the Most
Hosting a dinner party can be stressful, especially if you are a first-timer. However, it is important to remember that all of your hard work and preparation will not go unnoticed and will pay off in the long run, and your friends and loved ones will totally appreciate everything you’ve done to bring them all together.
Once guests arrive, it may seem like you can go into party mode, but remember, you’re still hosting, so if a guest needs anything, be sure to help them with whatever they may ask. Don’t worry though, you can do this with a glass of wine in your hand all night, because the hardest part – the planning, the prepping, the cooking – is over, and you can still enjoy the fruits of your labor while being the host with the most.
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