When I was in high school, I would daydream about what my life would look like as a “proper grown up”. I thought about a lot of things– the cute house, the great style, the fabulous and sophisticated social engagements… and fancy dinner parties! To me, it seemed like nothing could be better at announcing “I am now, quite officially, an adult” than great dinner parties thrown for even greater friends.
So I started throwing dinner parties. Sure, I wasn’t working with the dream kitchen and unlimited budget I had once imagined, but I so enjoyed experimenting, learning, and bringing joy into the lives of my loved ones with food, drink, and conversation. While I’m no old pro now, I have learned a lot! And because people seem to find dinner parties daunting, stressful, & downright scary, I’ve put together some real-life tested tips and tricks to get you through your dinner party stress-free.
Anyone who plans to clean their house and prepare a dinner party in the same day is either going to be enjoying great food in a messy house or choking back really mediocre food in a clean house– you can’t have both. Everything is more time consuming than you expect, and you’ll likely feel rushed even if you don’t have to clean…. so start with a mess-free house. By keeping up with your normal cleaning schedule, you’re giving yourself the best chance at a successful party that doesn’t involve you shoving all of your dirty dishes in the pantry the second you hear your doorbell. My usual approach is to go with my normal cleaning schedule for the week, but to add an intensive cleaning of the public rooms and washrooms the day before the event. That way you can focus on your soufflé not falling, not on scrubbing toilets.
Ask your guests if they have any allergies or food restrictions when you send out your invitations. This way, you’ll likely hear about any potential problems when you get an RVSP, which means you can plan your meals and do your shopping with any issues already in mind. Trust me, it’s a lot better than finding out that Susy is lactose intolerant, Bobby is gluten-free, and Freddie is a vegan when you’re halfway through making your chicken & goat cheese fettuccine.
As soon as you have confirmation on your number of guests, plan what you’ll serve. And not just the big stuff, either! Plan your sauces, your buns, your toppings, and your garnishes, too…. along with everything you need to make them. The sooner you know what you’re serving, the sooner you can get everything you need. The less rushed you are, the less likely you are to forget things– and that means far fewer last minute dashes to the corner store. Here’s an example of what I usually do about three days in advance: Once I have that done, I can then map out which ingredients I have, which I need to buy, and which grocery stores in town have the best deals on them.
While we’re talking about meal planning, let’s get this tried-and-true rule out of the way; no new recipes. I know how tempting it can be– you stumble upon a gorgeous, perfect recipe that you’re dying to impress your friends with. Don’t do it. Not even for something little. It’s a bad, bad, bad idea.
Why is it so bad? Well, because you don’t know how its going to turn out. Everything looks great as a recipe, but until you make it at least once, you don’t know if the buns are tough or the soup is tasteless or brownies are dry. And beyond that, even if the recipe is great, you have no idea how long it’s going to take you. You may have found the absolute perfect roasted beet salad recipe, but if making it takes two hours longer than anticipated, no one is going to know about it. If you absolutely insist on using a recipe that is new to you, at least do a trial run a few days in advance to get the kinks out. Do you really want to realize a recipe sucks at the exact same moment as 12 people sitting at your dining room table? No, you don’t.
Avoid the stress, and make what you know. Remember, simple and delicious is a lot better than fancy and mediocre. Of course there are special times when you truly want to show off that cake it took you 8 hours to make…. but there are also times when just-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies are the perfect thing. Get to know the difference.
Even if you ignore every other piece of advice I give, try to remember this one. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your grocery shopping (and this includes alcohol!!) to the day of. It’s stupid. It’s lazy. You’ll pay more than you should and you’ll be stressed and rushed and nothing will turn out as well.
If you get what you need at least a day in advance, you can start in on meal prep as soon as you wake up. You can spend your day calmly preparing your meal, not driving to five different stores looking for fresh oysters or paying $7 for the one red pepper that your grocery store has left.
Because we’re so excited planning the meal itself, it’s common for drinks to get lost in the shuffle. The “whatever, I’ll just grab a couple bottles of wine while I’m out” path is an easy one to stumble down. Don’t do it! Drinks are important. Not only is it really cute to have a “cocktail of the night” or two, but it’s nice to offer your guests wine that pairs well with your food (if this sounds intimidating, it isn’t– I don’t know anything about wine, but I do know how to google “wine that goes best with salmon”). Finally, don’t forget that not everyone on earth drinks alcohol, so have at least one nice non-alcoholic option available, even if it’s just sparkling water.
Don’t be afraid of a theme or of some decorations. I think people avoid doing this for one of two reasons; either they’re uninspired and can’t really think of anything and don’t want to deal with it, or they’re afraid of coming off too much like a cheesy sorority party. Neither of these things has to happen.
It doesn’t have to be complicated! If you’re serving a Moroccan-style lamb as an entree, try to carry that culinary theme into a cocktail and few other dishes. Or if you’re hosting a pre-holiday brunch, spend an evening the week before to craft a cute festive centrepiece. You don’t have to get too matchy-matchy, but a little bit of effort goes a long way in seeming pulled together. This one probably seems silly, but if you have dingy, unpolished silver and don’t notice that you have dingy, unpolished silver until the day you’re supposed to be using it, you’re going to be in a bad mood. Make sure the plates, platters, glasses, and cutlery you’re planning on using are in tip-top shape. You’ll be glad you sorted it out before your guests start to arrive.
Another dishes-related piece of advice? Label what dish is going in what bowl (or on what plate, etc.) with a little post-it note the morning of your dinner party. I know it sounds like overkill, but you’ll be so thankful you did it when you have 5 sides coming out of the oven at the same time and you’re scrambling for a serving plate. One of my favourite things to do is plan my day-of-dinner-party schedule backwards. Stay with me on this. If you know you want dinner on the table at 7, that means your should put your appetizers out around 6:30, right? And if those appetizers take 30 minutes in the oven, that means you should put them it at 6, right? Work backwards from there, right up until the time you wake up, and write the whole thing down. This way, you won’t wonder about what time you should peel your potatoes, or if you have time to fit in a quick jog. It pays off massively when done right.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do not forget to relax. This is supposed to be fun; your kitchen’s Michelin star rating isn’t on the line, and these people eating are at least supposed to be your friends– if the soup needs salt, no one is going to die or assume you’re a terrible person. More to the point, if you are really stressed, then you’re probably not being a good hostess. Even if the food is great, your guests aren’t likely to have fun if you seem like you want to stick your head in the oven. Don’t discount the effect your mood can have on the whole party.