How to Throw a Progressive Dinner Party

An appetizer spread including small bites on toast, bread, cheese, grapes and a salad
Make your progressive dinner course easy by choosing dishes that can be prepped and cooked beforehand, then assembled when guests arrive.
Thomas Jackson/Lifesize/Thinkstock

We know game night is a sure thing. So is girls' night at the city's newest hot spot. But don't discount a dinner party -- especially the progressive kind.

This moving feast offers hours of entertainment with a limited amount of prep work. It's a great way to entertain a group of friends or neighbors without shouldering the whole responsibility (or cost) of a multi-course dinner party -- all because a progressive dinner party is held at several homes in succession, with a single course served at each one.


Whether you'd like to plan a simple affair or throw an elaborately themed mobile soiree, there are a few basic tenants to follow. The most important? Encourage each host to prepare their course ahead of time so they can join the guests as the party migrates.

A weekend may work best for your progressive party, as a four-course dinner will take nearly four hours. Each course -- appetizers, salad/soup, main course, dessert -- will last about 45 minutes. Plus, you'll need to include an appropriate time cushion between courses as guests walk (or take a short ride -- with designated drivers, please) to the next destination.

If guests must drive from one home to another, the party may take considerably longer -- perhaps five or six hours. It will work best if the homes are no more than 15 minutes apart by car. Otherwise, guests will spend the evening driving instead of socializing.

Whether guests ride or walk from home to home, you'll want to designate "people movers" to ensure that guests are subtly corralled and mobilized at appointed times; this will keep the party on track, especially as the evening progresses. Staying on schedule also allows you to predict when you'll arrive at each home, something that's important if any of your guests plan to drop in just for cocktails or dessert. The fluid nature of a progressive dinner party is part of its appeal. Guests aren't locked into an hours-long commitment, but can attend as their schedules permit. And because hosts aren't required to plan, prepare and serve each course, they're free to party down, too. It's the proverbial win/win.

Taking a progressive dinner party from idea to reality means recruiting the right hosts and nailing a knock-out theme, so we'll share more ideas on the next page.


Progressive Dinner Party Ideas

Throwing a progressive dinner party is less work than a traditional seated meal, but it still requires some effort -- group effort, that is. There will be multiple hosts and homes, so you'll need at least one planning meeting to coordinate the courses and theme.

Recruiting other hosts could be as simple as asking your next-door neighbor to serve cocktails -- or as complicated as convincing a casual acquaintance to dish up a main course. If you have a reluctant host, suggest that he or she cater the first course. This way, the host can prepare the appetizers in advance and simply welcome guests as they arrive.


As for the guests, you could stick to your tried-and-true circle of friends or invite a mix of old friends and new acquaintances. For example, you could introduce fellow employees to longstanding friends or welcome a new couple to your neighborhood. While the typical size of a progressive dinner party is six to 10 people, it could easily accommodate dozens of guests, too. If you've invited a crowd, it might work better to serve appetizers en masse at a central location, then break out into smaller groups that travel from home to home round-robin style.

The invitation for a progressive dinner party will be more detailed than most because it needs to include the time each course is expected to begin, as well as the name and address of each host. If guests are driving or walking in unfamiliar territory, you may want to include cell numbers for each host -- just in case someone gets turned around. Let guests know they're welcome to come for whichever courses they like, but be prepared to serve everyone every course.

To make your progressive dinner party a more cohesive event, plan it around a theme. For example, a romantic theme makes sense if your party is scheduled mid-February, as does a Cinco de Mayo theme around the fifth of May. Or you could ring in the New Year with your mobile party.

A theme that centers on a geographic location may simplify a few of the planning decisions. If you select Italy as your theme, the wine, food and decor all seem to fall into place. However, another very real question still remains: What about cost? On the next page, find out how much each host can expect to spend.


Tips for Throwing a Progressive Dinner Party

A progressive dinner is a great way to party on a budget. Each course could cost as little as $35 -- or more than $100. The key is to meet with the other hosts and mutually establish a budget to help keep costs in check, which is often the point of hosting a progressive dinner anyway.

Hosts can minimize stress by preparing as much food as possible ahead of time. Many appetizers can be made the day before and assembled just before the party begins. For example, it only takes a couple of minutes to pull a cheese spread (molded into a pleasing shape) from the refrigerator and surround it with crackers. The same goes for premade snacks, such as baby dill pickles wrapped in cream cheese-spread ham and speared with a pretzel stick or toothpick.


Crockpots are a no-fuss way to prep a second-course soup (and keep it warm). You could also whip-up a crockpot-friendly main course, like pulled pork or even rack of lamb -- no kidding!

No matter what course you're hosting, keep a few empty containers handy so you can make short work of storing leftovers. If you serve foods on disposable, environmentally conscious bamboo plates -- or use recyclable paper or plastic plates and cups -- it makes post-party cleanup easier. As you head out of the house for the next course, just rinse the used plates and cups briefly and toss them into a trash bag or bin for sorting later. At least you won't return home to a stack of dirty dishes, right?

With a little planning, even when you're hosting a portion of the party you'll be a guest at the rest. Does this mean you (and other guests) should present gifts to each and every host or hostess? Although etiquette experts are divided on whether this is a necessary nicety or overkill, you could compromise by offering a small sign of your appreciation -- like a wine stopper or a homemade treat (like chocolate-pecan toffee, perhaps) -- that the hostess can enjoy after the party's over.

Or, you could simply bring a bottle of wine -- a libation that's sure to be flowing as the party progresses. After all, the festivities probably launched with a round of cocktails, right? Check out the next page for a few stellar (yet simple) recipes.


Cocktails for Progressive Dinner Parties

Mojitos made with fresh mint and lime juice
Whatever cocktail you pick, use fresh ingredients instead of packaged mixes and make more than you think you'll need.
Š Mateev

No matter which progressive dinner party course you've been charged with coordinating, it should begin something like this: Greet guests as if they are the only people on earth you wish to see at that exact moment in time -- and then offer them a drink.

We're not talking complicated mixologist maneuvers here, just immediate access to the libation of their choice. A few moderately priced bottles of wine and a pitcher of signature drinks should do the trick. Just give your custom cocktail a theme-appropriate nickname, and use fresh-squeezed ingredients to give it vibrant color and flavor.


Sangria is simple to make for a crowd. Just combine a bottle of red wine with 1 cup Grand Marnier, 2 cups orange juice, 1 cup fresh lime juice and 4 tablespoons sugar. Then add about 1 cup each of various sliced fruits: lemons, oranges and whatever else is in season. Swirl in a couple cinnamon sticks, chill, pour over ice and voila -- a house cocktail. Plus, it can (and should) be made ahead of time so the flavors can meld -- just strain out the steeped fruit if it's not as pretty the next day, and/or add a few fresh slices for garnish.

Or whip up a pitcher of skinny margaritas. Bartender Darrell Autrey of Georgia-based Bowties & Shirtsleeves Consulting says that for every four guests, you can combine 1 cup silver tequila, 3/4 cup fresh lime juice and 6 tablespoons agave nectar (which is 40 percent sweeter than sugar) in a large pitcher with ice. To serve, drop thin slices of jalapeno into each glass or garnish with a split pepper.

For a non-alcoholic drink that still packs a visual punch, stir up some ginger-pineapple sparkling punch. Though great on its own, it's delightfully easy to rev up with a splash of gin. If you're serving the dessert course, offer a couple of chilled dessert wines, as well as coffee (Irish cream optional).

Keep white wine bottles and cocktail pitchers nestled in a tub of ice so guests can refill at will; a strategically convenient placement will lend a comfy air of abundance to your party. Plus, when guests can pour their own drinks you can get out from behind the bar and do what you were meant to: Play host -- or hostess -- during what's sure to be one of the year's most memorable parties.


Progressive Dinner Party FAQ

What is a progressive dinner party?
A progressive dinner party is a multi-course dinner that's served at multiple houses. Diners travel from house to house, eating a single course at each destination.
What is a four-course progressive meal?
A four-course progressive meal is a dinner party that travels to four different locations (or homes) to eat four different courses.
How do I host a progressive dinner party?
All you need to host a progressive dinner party is a few friends who are interested in participating. You need at least two hosts who will make a single course each and welcome diners into their home, and you can plan the party from there.
How many courses are in a progressive dinner?
It's up to you to decide how many courses are served in a progressive dinner. Four is common, but you can serve more or less.

Progressive Dinner Party: Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • BuildingYouth. "Progressive Dinner Parties." (July 12, 2011)
  • Ellis, Kori. "Entertaining Tips and Sweet Sangria." May 30, 2008. (July 12, 2011)
  • Epicurious. "Ginger Pineapple Sparkling Punch." December 2004. (July 12, 2011)
  • Gentleman's Quarterly. "GQ Hosts: Everything You Need to Know to Entertain at Home with Style and Ease." March 2010. (July 13, 2011)
  • Hoffman, Constance. "Social Etiquette and Good Manners: Hostess Gifts for Progressive Dinner Party." Sept. 23, 2010.
  • Jordan, Chris. "How to Host a Progressive Dinner Party." July 14, 2009. (July 12, 2011)
  • Ketteler, Judi. "Fast After-Party Cleanup Tips." (July 12, 2011)
  • Knowlton, Andrew. "How to Deal with Dinner Guests' Food Allergies." May 24, 2010. (July 12, 2011)
  • Savitt, Brandi. "Throw a Progressive Dinner Party." June 25, 2010. (July 12, 2011)
  • Stewart, Martha. "Hostess Gift Ideas: Tiny Treasures." (July 12, 2011)