Even as a professional Event Planner, hosting a dinner party at my home for our closest friends can be daunting! What makes dinner parties so nerve-wracking for me, although it may be different for you, is figuring out the precise timing of the food while still trying to be a good hostess and mingle with guests. No one wants to be stuck in the kitchen while all of their friends are enjoying themselves!
The benefit of being an Event Planner professionally is that I get to dictate to the caterer what time the food needs to be ready and although I do keep an eye on their timeliness and the overall schedule for the event, I do not have to personally worry about the food preparation. While personally hosting parties at my home, I am the caterer, the event planner, and the hostess all in one! Don't get me wrong - I love wearing multiple hats and one might even go so far as to say that I thrive under pressure, however, I do still get nervous about hosting the perfect party. There are so many things to worry about; the food, the decor, the ambiance, the guest-list and the flow of the evening to name a few. Really, the easiest part of the evening is picking an outfit and opening our doors!
In my experience both professionally and personally, I have found that there are a few things that help me eliminate the stress of both planning and hosting a dinner party and allow me to enjoy myself and the company of my guests. Hosting parties should be fun and here's some ways to ensure that you're putting your best hostess foot forward.
1. I have always found it very helpful to create a mock set-up of the table and the place setting that I have in mind at least 1-2 weeks before the dinner party. I like being able to visualize the set-up and decide if I need to replace any of the items whether for space or for overall aesthetic. It's not as important to do a floral/centerpiece for the mock-up but the plates, flatware, and glassware that you intend to use are a must. Seeing everything out on display also helps you to decide on what type of centerpiece or floral arrangement would go best in the remaining space and with the color scheme you're going with. I even go as far as picking out the serving vessels for dinner so I can gauge how much room is on the table and if an additional table is necessary for service. If you are doing assigned seats this is a good time to determine where each guest is going to sit and ensure everyone has sufficient space.
2. Menu plan and prep in advance! This is a game-changer. I plan my menu almost immediately upon sending out invitations for the dinner party if I hadn't used the menu to create the theme for the party in the first place. I make a detailed list of the menu starting with appetizers and including the full dinner menu, as well as the dessert being served. I try to choose items that can be cold, room temperature, or transferred over and kept hot in a crock-pot or the oven until it's time to sit down and eat. Having to stand over a stove while your guests are in a separate room is no fun and doesn't make for a lot of good socializing. To make life easier I stick to what is in season and local so that I know I will find everything that I need when it comes time to grocery shopping. I list each menu item in my planning notebook and write down each and every ingredient below that so I can check off what I already have and what I need to buy. I do all of my grocery shopping at once a few days prior and instead of putting all non-perishable items away in my pantry, I keep it all out tucked away neatly on my counter-top grouped by menu item. All refrigerated items stay grouped together in the refrigerator so that I know where everything is, nothing is forgotten, and nothing gets eaten by the family beforehand! Prep whatever you can in advance to cut-down on actual time being spent in the kitchen on the day of the party. You'd be surprised how much time can be eliminated from the kitchen if you prep in advance!
3. Candles are lovely but I always find them to be impractical especially when serving a family style dinner with people reaching across the table to one another. Opt for a flower arrangement instead of candles - and don't worry, it'll still provide a beautiful ambiance! Flowers have a bigger impact, last longer, and do a better job at setting the tone for your dinner whether it's a simple grouping of bud vases filled with flowers from your garden for something more casual or a more elaborate centerpiece that makes a bold statement. Make your flowers the day before and leave them in your refrigerator or a cool dark place to prolong their life and check that task off of your day-of to-do-list. If you need more space on your table just simply transfer them to a side table so that you can enjoy them over after-dinner drinks in another room.
4. Skip the array of appetizers. Yes, you read that right! I love food and I swear by the more the merrier on most occasions but for dinner parties at home I feel like you should save their appetite for the actual dinner. Instead of worrying about making multiple appetizers just go with one nice cheese & charcuterie board. With a spread like this you don't have to worry about preparing anything. You can make it ahead of time saving you time in the kitchen (as you can see that is a repeat theme for these tips!) and you can add enough variety of components to it that it will be both beautiful to look at and delicious to eat! Also, this makes for a great presentation piece that doubles as decor. When preparing a spread like this here are a few tips and tricks: Offer at least 3 cheese varieties & let them sit out up to 1 hour before serving but no longer than 2 hours in total, provide 3 varieties of cured meats, add fresh fruit which is best chilled to counter everything else being room temperature. I like to have a few selections of crackers and I prefer one to be fruit & nut flavor for a sweeter addition. I add a few spreads which is always yummy to top the crackers with, a trio of olives or marinated mushrooms adds a nice salty poppable option, and lastly, scatter a variety of nuts on the board in little piles that can be easily grabbed and snacked on until dinner is ready.
5. Do not waste your money on tablecloths! Seriously. If you're going to cover your table and/or use a table runner save your money buying the expensive table cloths and just purchase the fabric from your local fabric store for 1/3 of the price! Depending on your table size your fabric will most likely drop to the floor so you don't even have to worry about sewing the fabric either! For this table I purchased 4 yards of the light gray fabric and 2 yards of the dark gray fabric which I then cut in half to use as a runner. I found both on clearance in the fabric section of Hobby Lobby for super duper cheap. It's all machine washable and iron safe, too! I love using this guide to help me figure out the size of linen that I need for my tables.
6. Have a well-stocked bar centrally located for your guests! The bar does not have to have every type of alcohol offered and does not even have to have alcohol at all, actually! It does, however, have to feature a few options that everyone will enjoy. Extra points for knowing some of your guests favorite drinks and having those on hand, too! If you get easily overwhelmed by all the options just pick 2 types of alcohol that can be used multiple ways for various drinks - and don't forget all of the fun garnishments that your guests can add-on to personalize their cocktails. I always have a chilled bottle of Champagne (or a few, because who am I kidding...), a vodka, and a bourbon. I fill the cart with mixes like sweet and sour, simple syrup, tonic water, and any fun mixers I have on hand. I like to put out little bowls with fresh garnishments that can be muddled, stirred in, or just placed in the glass for a pop of flavor and color! Since strong flavored cocktails don't always go with meals I usually keep a bottle of red and/or white wine on the dinner table for wine service, too. For the non-alcoholic drinkers I offer the small bottles of Pelegrino usually with a side of lemon or lime (or any of the garnishments you have out for the cocktails) as well as sparkling Lemonade for variety. Make sure you have enough glassware, too! If you don't have enough space on a bar-cart utilize another existing piece of furniture nearby like an end table or console table. Don't forget; after initially greeting your guests be sure to ask them what you can make them to drink and suggest something fun for them to try!
Whether you are hosting a formal dinner or an impromptu brunch, it is all about creating a warm and welcoming environment and having fun with friends! No one is going to remember if the chicken was dry or if the bread was burnt but what they will remember is enjoying an evening with friends at what seemed like an effortlessly fabulous party. As the hostess, you set the tone for the evening from the minute you send out the invitations to the last wave goodbye. Remember to take a deep breath, put a smile on your face, enjoy a glass of champagne (or two), and have fun!
As the late Kate Spade said in her entertaining book All in Good Taste, "if it doesn't go awry, then it isn't a party!"