hosting a successful dinner party
Hosting a dinner party doesn't have to be stressful, but there's definitely an art to it. I love preparing a thoughtful meal for family and friends because it's a way to express how much I care about them. As opposed to going out, hosting a dinner at home is more relaxing for guests and offers a more intimate setting. Use these steps to help guide your own dinner party game plan.
Create a thoughtful menu. Inquire in advance whether any of your guests have dietary restrictions or food allergies. The last thing a guest wants to say, in front of everyone, is that they can't eat most of the food you've prepared. Or worse, they may feel too bad to say anything at all, and end up eating something they'll soon regret. In my circle of family and friends there are those of us who are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, sugar-free, low-FODMAP, you name it! Our holiday gatherings cater to every dietary need under the sun. Buffet tables are littered with various placards labeling each dish and which diet(s) they're friendly toward. While accommodating individual food needs can be challenging, it's important to respect people's health and digestive needs. You don't have to cook an entire meal that is exclusively gluten-free or vegan, but just make sure there's something for everyone. Above all, be understanding and sympathetic, food needs can be very stressful for the individuals who have them. There are plenty of resources out there--food blogs and recipe books, so find something that will serve your guests' needs and consider it an opportunity to increase your cooking repetoire.
Do what you know. Testing a new recipe or making a complicated dish that has many opportunities to fail, it not a good idea. Make something you've had success with in the past. Why make things harder or more stressful? Consider preparing something simple and can feed a crowd.
Manage your guest list. Some people have the gift to gab, while others may take a while to open up. Consider the personality types of the guests you are inviting and make sure there's a good mix of people. It's okay if not everyone knows each other, but it makes it easier if at least a few people are already acquainted. It's also good to invite that one person who you know can carry a conversation with anyone (luckily Joshua is that person for me!). That way, you won't feel stressed leaving guests alone for a minute or two to check on things in the kitchen or excuse yourself to the restroom.
Prepare ahead of time. Anything that can be done ahead of time, do ahead of time. If you work full-time during the week, it's probably better if you host your party on the weekend or when you have a day off. Clean the house, set the table, put out glasses, drinks and appetizers before the first guest arrives. Make a dish that you can pop in the oven or leave simmering on the stove-top (think lasagna, chili, galettes, stew, or dishes that can be served at room temperature).
Consider your space and create a flow. If you're cooking in the kitchen, inevitably, everyone will funnel in there, no matter the size of the space. My kitchen is small and only fits about four adults comfortably. If I'm having more than four people over, I make sure to prepare the bulk of the meal (save salads and a few things here and there) in advance so I can spend quality time with my guests. I set up appetizers and drinks in the living room or outside where everyone can be comfortable. If you have a large kitchen, then that's a great place to allow guests to congregate and get a preview of what you're serving. Just make sure there are places for people to sit and relax. It's nice to change the scenery throughout the dinner party. If the weather permits, and you have an outdoor space with some ambiance, having appetizers (or dinner) outside is a good idea. In the winter, you can serve appetizers in the living room area and allow guests to relax on the couch or stand at their leisure and converse. When your meal is ready, transition to the dining area. Depending on your dessert or post-meal plans, it might be nice to transition back to the living room area after dinner.
Allow your guests to contribute. I sometimes have the mentality that I can do it all. But I also know that personally, I don't like to show up at a dinner party empty-handed. If a guest asks what they can bring, allow them to contribute. Depending on how much you want to put on your plate (no pun intended), you can ask guests to bring a bottle of wine (or beverage of choice), an appetizer, or a side dish such as a salad. Just don't ask them to bring anything too crucial to your menu--you should be doing the bulk of the work and, they may forget whatever it is you asked them to bring! Always suggest something simple and easy for them; nothing too time consuming. When in doubt, use your common sense. If you know someone has a stressful job and works a ton, don't ask them to do anything that will cause undue stress. On the on the other hand, if you have a friend or family member that you know loves to cook (me!), and they really want to bring a new dish that they've been dying to try out, then allow them to do just that.
Manage your expectations. Someone may cancel last minute or show up with a plus one. One of your guests might forget what they were suppose to bring. Overestimate how much people will eat and drink. You may overcook your main dish and not everything will go as planned. Your first guest will show up too early, and the last too late. Be prepared for all these circumstances so you aren't stressed when things don't go according to plan. As long as there's laughter, some food and plenty of wine, everyone will enjoy themselves.
Set the mood right. Make a music playlist. Put on something that is relaxing and enjoyable for everyone (oldies, jazz, etc.). Light candles--use unscented ones in the dining room area and kitchen, and scented in the bathrooms and bedrooms. Make sure there is plenty of wine to loosen everyone up. If appropriate, think about doing something interactive, such as an entertaining game or an activity that will stimulate conversation and laughter (I sometimes set out a Polaroid camera so guests can take pictures; introspective people especially like this). Again, cater to your guests and their personalities.
Relax and enjoy. No one likes a stressed out host, it makes things uncomfortable and awkward. As suggested before, have everything prepared at least 30 minutes before guests arrive. Then, let yourself relax. Pour a glass of wine and breath.