Brilliant dinner parties all have one thing in common: great planning. The key to starting off on the right foot for your dinner party is to be well organized and prepared before you even set foot in the kitchen.
Contact your guests well before the day to find out any particular likes, dislikes, and dietary requirements. Once you have an idea of individual preferences, you can begin to sort out your menu.
Write your menu down, tweak it if necessary, and stick to it on the night. Most dinner parties follow the standard three-course rule (think Come Dine With Me), but feel free to branch out from this format if you have a better idea.
With your menu to hand, create a detailed shopping list of everything you could possibly need for your dinner party. Before you head out shopping for ingredients, double and triple check your shopping list, just to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything. Make sure to shop well ahead of time so no one ends up running around searching for the last few ingredients on the day of the party.
If your dinner party is a particularly special occasion, make your menu extra special. Try pairing each course with a quality wine; the extra effort will really wow your guests.
For those of us who want everything to be absolutely perfect, a trial run of cooking the menu might be a good idea. After all, contestants on the Great British Bake-Off practice their showstoppers for weeks before the competition, so get a leg up on yours and test out your menu on friends and family.
The key to dinner party food preparation is organization. A well-organized kitchen space makes for quicker prep and less stress. Start out with a clean, stocked countertop and your meal setup will seem much simpler.
Try to get as much prep work done as you can before your guests arrive on dinner party night. To a guest, there is nothing worse than an absent host, so make sure you are well prepared and are able to focus on your guests and their needs when they are in your home.
Start with the basics: chopping vegetables, marinating meats, and assembling and refrigerating any items that will go into the oven or onto the stove later on. Some meals can even be pre-cooked ahead of time and simply warmed up or finished off once your dinner party begins. Work out which parts of your meal can be partially prepared now and save yourself stress later on.
Once your slicing and dicing is finished, sit down and work out timings for cooking. This kind of schedule works best if it is very detailed, so be specific. Follow your schedule down to the minute on dinner party night and your stress levels will thank you.
Be conscious of your hob and oven space and whether you have enough pots, pans, and baking trays to cook all your food at the right time. Save yourself the frustration of forgotten side dishes and add these space notes into your schedule for the night.
It seems obvious, but make sure to clean up as you go. By keeping your workspace clean and your dishes at least pre-washed and stacked in the dishwasher, you will save yourself some washing-up time at the end of your dinner party.
Begin to prepare your party decorations and table setup at least the day before your dinner party, saving you time and stress on the day. If you feel stressed for time and are using a separate dining space for your guests, consider setting the table completely the day before the party.
If you’re struggling to think of suitable decor ideas for your dinner party, consider theming your night. Don’t worry, we’re not suggesting a burlesque night or anything too over the top, but a few subtle links to your menu will not go amiss. (For example, if you are serving Moroccan food, a dining room with gentle, soft lighting, authentic Moroccan serving tagines, and dark red and purple tablecloths and napkins will make an understated and appropriate addition to the ambience of the night.)
However you choose to decorate your living and dining space, keep it simple. Guests will be able to recognise when you’ve gone to too much trouble; too many over-the-top decorations and pieces of delicate china give your away your struggle. The goal is to make your home look effortlessly tasteful, so remember that less is more.
When guests begin to arrive at your home, the most important tip is to appear relaxed and calm. Regardless of the state of your kitchen and of your own mind, a happy greeting will put guests at ease and make them feel welcome.
Most dinner parties begin with canapes or nibbles and drinks, so set your party apart with a do-it-yourself drinks tray. Choose one or two signature tipples themed around your night and stash a table or trolley with all the fixings to encourage guests to mingle and chat while you sneak away to finish up appetizers and any last minute food preparation. Don’t forget a non-alcoholic option for the designated drivers or teetotalers in your group, and remember not to go overboard, or no one will make it to the table!
If any guests wander into the kitchen while you are preparing food and want to help, don’t shoo them away immediately. Make them feel included by giving them small, simple tasks such as chopping wedges of lime for G&Ts or filling water jugs and glasses. Anything more complicated will only stress you and/or your guests out!
Don’t forget the music! Make or choose a playlist for the night, or pop in a CD before guests arrive and make sure it’s on repeat. There is nothing worse than coming to a lull in conversation and experiencing complete silence.
After drinks and nibbles are finished, it’s time to move to the dining room. Seat your guests however you like, but a handwritten place card would make a lovely personal touch. Only split up couples if you know they will welcome a chat with new people; some people will not appreciate the surprise.
If your dining room has the space, keep a side table stocked with extra drinks, cutlery, napkins, and anything else your guests might need. This way, if something happens while you are away in the kitchen, no one will need to run around looking for supplies. It also makes replenishing drinks far more convenient and leaves more room on the table for platters and dishes.
While your guests know you aren’t a Michelin starred restaurant, the presentation on your plates really does give that extra wow factor. Take a few minutes to make your dishes look stunning and your guests will notice the difference.
Take your table service up a notch and pair wines with your courses. Most of us know the basics of chicken and white wine, beef and red, but wine pairing is a much more complex art. Take a little time to do the research and your meal will be better than you could imagine. For some wine inspiration, check out this detailed wine pairing list from BBC Good Food.
Keep the lighting in your dining room low or use candles to create ambience. Low light is soft, romantic, and very forgiving of even the most burnt dishes.
Once you’ve left the kitchen and joined your guests, remember to turn off the hob or oven: no one wants a house fire as part of the night’s entertainment! Even if your guests are imbibing, try to have only one or two drinks yourself and keep your senses sharp throughout the party.
End of the night
After dinner, offer your guests a coffee, tea, or other nightcap, but make sure there’s something to signal the end of the party. If you’re struggling to get everyone out of the house, nothing ends the night like turning up the lights and clearing away the dirty dishes.
As long as you haven’t drunk too much, you can be aware of others’ needs. Does anyone look like they might need a cab home? Feel free to gently suggest it and offer to call a firm for them if they like.
After everyone has left, it’s finally time to relax. Have a nightcap (or two!) yourself and put your feet up. Give yourself permission to leave the washing up until the morning, and pat yourself on the back for having hosted a successful, brilliant dinner party.
Pictures via Modernize