So you’ve mustered up the courage, procured some extra folding chairs and have decided to host a dinner party.
First off, applause. Pour yourself a drink. Second, let’s get down to brass tacks. How, exactly, are you going to pull this off?
This past summer, one of my oldest high school friends was facing this exact dilemma and called me up for some advice. A few emails back and forth, scanned recipe attachments from my cookbook collection, and two potential menus later, I began thinking that there were probably quite a few other 20-somethings (or 30-somethings, 40-somethings…) that were facing the same conundrum. So I thought about all the dinner parties I’ve hosted since I was 14–what was successful, what dishes were total flops, what lessons I had to learn the hard way, and ultimately, what my top list of tips would be.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but it’s a good start and it’s the 7 things I keep coming back to whether I’m cooking for two or whether I’m cooking for 12. So here it is: my 7 tips for hosting a dinner party without losing your mind.
1. Set the table beforehand.
Plates, glasses, napkins (bust out the cloth ones here; bonus points for artful folding), silverware, serving platters–the whole shebang should be set up a day or two in advance. Why? Because it makes your life easier, that’s why. And it sets quite a nice scene when your guests arrive.
2. Start the night with an empty dishwasher, an empty sink, an empty trashcan.
I have learned this lesson the hard way on more than one occasion. You’re cooking all day, playing a game of dishwasher tetris–that by the time everyone arrives, you’ve eaten and it’s time to clear the table, you realize the damned dishwasher is already full! Start the night out with a tidy kitchen–clean up will be swift and you can get back to enjoying yourself and that well-deserved cocktail. Don’t have a dishwasher? Same principle applies to the sink.
3. Figure out how much time you need. And then increase it by 1/3.
I am notorious for cooking up to (and beyond) the moment people arrive. It’s my downfall. It’s my weakness. But knowing is half the battle, right? Make a to-do list, a plan of attack, a schedule for yourself. And get comprehensive here–from when you’ll need to go grocery shopping (and all the ingredients you’ll need), to what you can make one or two days ahead, to when one dish needs to come out of the oven while another goes in to stay warm. I know this will sound crazy, but I typically sketch out a schedule for myself for the 3-5 days leading up to a dinner party. That way, I’m less likely to forget something, I have a plan to stick to, and barring some culinary meltdown, there aren’t any surprises (read: you won’t realize one of your recipes calls for a 24-hour marinade or extra long prep time). And yeah: on the day of the dinner party, give yourself about 1/3 more time than you think you need.
4. As my grandmother used to say, “Go put on your face.”
You will feel far less frazzled if you’ve had time to clean yourself up, get dressed and put on some makeup (or shave and put on some deodorant, for you dude hosts out there). Plus, if you look the part of a dynamite host/hostess, the rest will follow.
5. You can use a dinner party to try new recipes.
I say this with a giant caveat: know what you’re capable of and use trusted sources. I’ve been cooking and baking long enough that I can read a recipe and get a general sense of if it’s completely whacked or if I have room to improvise. But I also know that a dinner party is not the right occasion for me to try making a Baked Alaska for the first time. What I’m saying is: play to your cooking strengths. If you make a killer casserole, casserole away! If you are confident you can cook the cover of the last Bon Appetit, give it a whirl! Similarly, use recipe sources you trust if you’re going to branch out with a new dish. For example, I have yet to be disappointed by America’s Test Kitchen or Ina Garten. So I’m willing to try a new recipe without testing it first if it’s from either of those sources.
6. Take a deep breath and let people help.
One of the best examples of this was during a Christmas party I hosted last year. In my haste, I had decided in the eleventh hour that deviled eggs would really round out this cocktail party spread for 25 people. So rather than shoo everyone out of the kitchen, I didn’t blink when four of my girl friends started peeling eggs and slicing them. It became a fun moment with eggshells flying and I was thankful that they were all trying to help me get things done faster so I could actually enjoy everyone’s company at my party. If that happens, roll with it. It’s called making memories.
7. Keep track, Jack.
After a party well done, there will come time for another one. And another one. And chances are you’ll want to remember what you served, which dishes were hits, which recipes you’d tweak and if that double batch of brownies was actually necessary. I borrowed this tip from my mom, the woman who pretty much taught me everything I know about being a good hostess: write your menus down and notes after the party. I always like to keep track of menus I’ve served in a notebook, so I can recreate the magic or swap out a dish or two.