I have hosted many dinner parties in my life. Some have gone really well and some, needless to say, not so well (…dry food, arguing guests, stressed hostess….ugh….). I’ve learned a lot of party planning tips along the way and I’m happy to share some of my favorites with you here!
1.) First and foremost, determine how many people you can handle for dinner.
If it is your first dinner party, I would advise starting with an intimate group of up to 6 (including yourself). The more guests you have the more coordination is needed. If you have several parties under your belt and you have the space, the more the merrier. Today, my happy number is 10 guests, which is a great group for lively discussion. Just remember, more guests = more food, more wine, more chairs, more plates, more napkins, more dishes to clean…….
2.) Beware the self-involved friend who doesn’t possess a high-level of social awareness.
If you have a good friend who is incredibly loud, self-centered and expresses many controversial views, don’t invite them to you dinner party. Just don’t do it. This might sound harsh, but I have learned from my mistakes! If you do invite a guest like this, you are making every other invitee a captive audience for this person’s views. It will negatively impact everyone’s experience. Instead, have this type of guest over for a cocktail party, where people have the option to politely, or not so politely, walk away. Your dinner party guest list should consist of those friends and acquaintances who seem to play well with others. Certainly invite folks with strong opinions and unique perspectives, but make sure they can also listen to and appreciate the views of others.
3.) Carefully select your menu in advance of the party.
I’ve heard some party planners advise that you never make a new dish for a dinner party. I don’t follow that rule. I like to cook whatever makes me happy and seems interesting, with one caveat: I only choose something that can be made ahead of time. While risotto, pasta and shell-fish dishes are delicious, they usually require cooking once your friends have arrived. That means that while your guests are mingling, you are tied to the kitchen, sweating over a hot stove and trying to get the timing of all of the components just right. If you get distracted (pour a glass of wine for a guest, get involved in a conversation, etc.), the entire dish can go south! What a bummer. Dinners like lasagna, baked fish, Quiche, and roasts are all tasty and can be made ahead of time. You simply heat your oven before the guests arrive, throw the dish in once they walk in the door, and then let it cook!
4.) Spend time designing your table.
From my perspective, nothing sets the tone for a dinner party like the table itself. Flowers, linens, stem ware, cloth napkins, candles….it all matters. Formal or casual, the table is the visual setting for the entire evening. If you need ideas or inspiration, check out my Pinterest Board. Make sure that your table design facilitates conversations and dish passing (please don’t create an elegant floral arrangement that blocks faces). You don’t need any fancy touches like name cards or a menu at each seat….but if you want to do it, go ahead and have fun with it!
5.) Set your table 24 hours before your party starts (as long as you don’t have a pet that will get up on the table and knock over the glasses or, even worse, lick the dishes…).
Setting your table will get you in the party mood, and it is one less thing you need to do on the day of the event. More importantly, it gives you time to walk around the space to consider lighting and other small details, and then make any necessary adjustments.
6.) Put together a great soundtrack that will enhance the party atmosphere.
Music is a great way to let your personality shine so have fun with it! Select a few albums that you love, or create a play list with a variety of musicians. My favorite dinner party artists are: Coeur de pirate, Frank Sinatra, Diana Krall, Edith Piaf, Harry Belafonte, and Charo.
7.) On the day of the party, plan backwards from the arrival of your guests.
If friends are set to arrive at 7:00 p.m., that might be when you pop dinner in the oven. You want to have candles lit, music playing, wine bottles uncorked, and your own first glass of wine by 6:30 p.m. You should tidy up the kitchen by 6:00 p.m. Have all dishes prepped by 5:30 p.m….etc., etc. Don’t forget to consider things like bathing and getting dressed….you’d be surprised how many hosts are in the shower as guests are arriving!
8.) Have a fun ice-breaker to play over dinner.
This might sound a little cheesy, and maybe it is, but I promise you it is really fun! Especially if you have a group of friends that don’t know each other well. In the past, I have asked guests to bring their favorite piece of advice ever given, a favorite childhood memory, or the name of a person, living or dead, they’d most like to have at a dinner party. I also keep a canister of ice-breaker questions on my dinner table. This ensures that everyone has the opportunity to participate and meet new friends.
9.) Relax, don’t rush.
I like to let every course happen gradually. If dinner has ended but the conversation is progressing beautifully, don’t feel like you need to jump up and bring dessert to the table. Take the pulse of the event. You will know when the time is right to move on to the next stage.
10.) After every event, write down the things that went well and the things you would change for next time.
Make sure to learn from your “oopsies” and let the things that went really well become part of your signature entertaining style. I love entertaining in its entirety but I am best known for styling tables, serving great bottles of wine, and creating a fun and inclusive environment for my guests.
I hope these tips will help you prepare for your next dinner party! Every Monday, we feature a new blog post dedicated to entertaining ideas and inspiration. In the meantime, happy hosting!