How to Host a Dinner Party

There's more to worry about than just the menu when you're hosting a dinner party.

­When you picture the perfect dinner party, you probably think of a dozen close friends gathered around the table, enjoying a meal, sipping wine and engaging in interesting conversation. What you don't think about is those dinner parties that go wrong, with burnt food, guests who have nothing to talk about and a harried host busy sweating in the kitchen. The difference between these two scenarios is the r­esult of proper planning. A bit of preparation before the big day is the key is to ensuring your dinner party will be an event that your guests will rave about.

While there are countless ways for friends to get together, a dinner party is one of the most intimate types of gatherings. Because the whole point of the dinner party is sitting together for a meal, there's much more opportunity to talk as a group than at other types of parties. Not only is everyone in one spot at the same time, but things tend to be quieter and calmer than at a traditional party. Many people also feel that a dinner party allows the host to add a personal touch to the event, especially compared to having the party at an event hall or restaurant. In addition, guests will appreciate the extra effort that goes into the event, and the host will enjoy a chance to show off a lovely house and a bit of home cooking.


For the first-time host, there are many factors to consider when it comes to planning a successful dinner party. Not only do you need to think about what type of party to hold, but you must evaluate the guest list, plan the menu and manage to pull off the entire event while still finding time to enjoy yourself. Even if you've hosted dinner parties in the past, there are many ways to make your next event easier and more fun for both you and your guests.

To get ideas for unique dinner party themes and finding the right time to hold your event, read on to the next section.


Planning a Dinner Party

The first important decision when it comes to hosting a dinner party is what kind of atmosphere you'd like to create. Would you like a low-key event, where jeans and sneakers are the norm, or will this be an elegant affair, giving guests a chance to dress up and wear their fine jewelry? Before you decide on a casual or formal party, consider the following: Are the guests neighbors and friends, or are they co-workers? Will children be invited?

All of these factors will play a role in determining what the appropriate atmosphere for the party should be. After all, it's silly to invite your formal co-workers over for Buffalo wings and beer, and it's even more ridiculous to serve filet mignon to young children.


Are you able to pull off a fancy multiple course meal? If this is your first dinner party, it can be difficult to properly schedule too many courses and fancy foods. Start simple, with a party that's focused on the casual side, and try something more formal once you're more comfortable.

If you expect that your friends would enjoy a chance to dress up, plan to hold a more formal event. On the other hand, if your friends and family wouldn't know a salad fork from a steak knife, keep it simple. Nothing is more miserable than a group of people who are so busy worrying about the proper way to do things that they forget to have fun. And isn't that the point of a party?


Dinner Party Themes

After you've determined what type of atmosphere will be the best for your guests,­ it's time to decide whether you'd like to have a theme for your party. Here's where you can really let your imagination run wild. Of course, there are the obvious themes that include birthdays, holidays and celebrations ranging from an engagement to a new job. You may decide to hold a Valentine's Day dinner with a romantic, couples theme or a party to celebrate the news of a friend's engagement. With any of these ideas, meals, decorations and music can be tailored to the person or event being celebrated.

Of course, there are hundreds of themes beyond the basic celebration and holiday ideas. You could choose a theme based on a specific region or country, such as a classic Italian meal, a Spanish tapas party or a traditional Asian celebration. Other popular concepts include island or beach décor, bon voyage parties that are focused on the country to be visited or classic Hollywood parties where guests dress up like their favorite film stars.


Some hosts may simply choose a theme to give them a framework for creating a meal, while others may want to take the idea further, adding decorations, music, favors and games that help accentuate the chosen theme. At some dinner parties, it may even be fun for guests to dress in costumes, or in traditional clothing associated with the theme. This could range from summer gear for beach party or luau themes to kimonos and slippers for Asian themed parties.

Now that you've chosen the type of dinner party you'd like to have and picked a theme, read on to the next section for help with creating a guest list and sending invitations.


Dinner Party Guest List

dinner table
Be careful with your guest list -- you don't want any drama around the table.
RonTech 2000/

­Many people become so focused on the menu for their dinner party that the guest list becomes almost an afterthought. While the menu is important, nothing is more critical to the success of a dinner party than creating the right mix of guests. A good host will take the time to evaluate potential invitees and decide whether they will have the right chemistry not only to get along, but also to create an interesting evening full of conversation and laughs.

First decide how many guests you can handle. This not only means evaluating the available space in your home and at your table, but also determining how many guests you can successfully cook for. Many people will say that the ideal dinner party will include six to 12 guests. This is a great rule of thumb but can be modified depending on what you can afford and how confident you are in your cooking. It's always better to start small so you can enjoy the party and not feel overwhelmed.


After you've se­ttled on a basic guest list, you'll need to pick the right day and time for the party. Avoid weekdays, especially if you're a first-time host. It's just too complicated to prepare a meal and get the house ready when you've been dealing with work all day. Set the time of the party to give your guests time to mingle before dinner, but try to pick a time that's early enough so no one has to rush through dinner and conversation.

For more formal events, or those around holiday times, you'll want to send invitations about a month before the party. For smaller, more casual get-togethers, it's OK to provide only a few days' notice. Invitations should include party location, date and time. Explain that dinner will be provided, and ask your guests to notify you of any food allergies along with their RSVP. Include information on theme, costumes or dress and what guests should bring with them, if applicable. Be sure to specify whether guests can bring a date or their children along, too.

When hosting a smaller or more casual party, an invitation by phone is generally sufficient. If you'd like to be a bit more formal, consider having custom invitations printed at a specialty paper shop. The variety of choices is virtually unlimited, and custom cards add a touch of elegance and creativity to your party invitations.


Creating the Perfect Dinner Party Menu

The number one key to planning your dinner party menu is choosing foods you're experienced at cooking. It's also important to choose foods that are fairly simple to prepare. After all, you want to spend the evening with your guests, not sweating over the stove. Selecting easy versions of your favorite foods to serve will allow you to spend more time enjoying the party.

When planning your menu, start with the main course. If choose to throw a theme party, you'll want to choose a dish that works with your theme. If you've decided to keep it simple, consider sticking with a simple roast, a baked ham, fish fillets or a stuffed turkey or chicken. All of these items are not only easy to cook, but each can be complemented by a large variety of side dishes, soups and salads. The best part, however, is that all of these items can be prepared well ahead of the party, allowing you to simply heat and serve, and spend your time mingling with guests instead of cooking.


Appetizers can include cheese and vegetable platters or hot dips made from crab, spinach or artichoke. Keep these items light and easy; you don't want guests too full to enjoy your cooking. Be sure to provide plenty of coffee and tea for after the meal, along with a dessert or two. To save time, focus your energy on cooking the meal and pick up a cake or pie from a local bakery. Most guests will never know the difference.

Many hosts have to evaluate the pros and cons of serving alcohol with the meal. Decide ahead of time if you want to serve alcohol or if guests are responsible for their own. If you plan to invite a large number of guests, and don't want to be stuck with the tab, be sure to note on the invitations that the party will be "Bring Your Own Beer (BYOB)."

Finally, if you want to experience all the fun of a dinner party with none of the hassle, consider hiring a caterer or serving staff to help with the process. You'll be free to enjoy the party, and your guests will be happy to enjoy your company. Even if you choose to prepare food ahead of time, a serving staff can free up your time during the event so you can spend more time with your guests.


Preparing for a Dinner Party

The most important item to focus on now is, of course, the food. Once you're menu has been determined, it's time to go shopping. ­Start by making a list of everything you'll need when you start cooking. Don't forget spices, garnishes, beverages and alcohol, if you've decided to serve it. If your party will be themed or involve decorations, make a list of everything you need for that as well. Try to do your shopping a few days before the party. This gives you time to get everything you need, but isn't long enough for your food purchases to spoil.

The day before the party, get the house ready for your guests. Start with a thorough cleaning, focusing especially hard on any areas that guests may see, such as the kitchen, bathrooms, dining and sitting rooms. Bring silver flatware and tableware out of storage and polish it. Make sure all dishes, plates, cookware and glasses you plan to use are clean and ready for your guests.


Prepare as much of the meal as possible in the morning. In between food preparation, you can focus on decorating the house, setting out flowers and making sure the dining area is clean and ready.

At this point, depending on the foods you've chosen, you can begin to prepare the main course. With most basic meals, such as roasts, chicken or fish, the food can be prepared early and left in a warmer or heated during mealtime.

Start setting out appetizers and drinks just before guests begin to arrive. Turn on music to create background noise during the mingling and introduction phase of the party. When your guests have finished making basic introductions, it's time to get them seated in the dining area and serve the food.

Finish the evening with cocktails, tea, coffee and dessert. For livelier or themed events, you may want to follow dinner with games, entertainment or dancing. Hopefully by this point, your hard work and planning have paid off, resulting in a wonderful evening for both you and your guests.


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  • The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. "Common Food Allergens." 2007. (02/10/2009)