remedial hostessing 101
November 16, 2008 7:45 PM   Subscribe

I want to give dinner parties! But I don't know how. Please give me all your tips and secrets. Three limitations: I am not a fabulous cook, and don't have a ton of free time, and my social group is really diffuse (ie most of my friends only know me and none of my other friends).
posted by footnote to Human Relations (18 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I can give you a couple of tips on cooking for dinner parties:

  • Never make anything for the first time intending to serve it to guests. Now is not the time to experiment (there are cooks for whom this is not true, but they know who they are, and you're clearly not one of them). Whatever you want to make for dinner guests, make the recipe a week before to make sure it works.
  • Dishes you can make the day before and just throw in the oven an hour before your guests arrive are awesome. Chief amongst these is lasagna -- it comes in zillions of varieties from vegan through carnivore-ready, red sauce, white sauce, pesto sauce and everything in between. It is almost invariably better if left to rest overnight and baked up at the last moment. The advantage of this type of dish is two-fold:
    --You can do the vast majority of the dishes the day before, as well. By the time your guests get there, your house is clean, your clothes are clean, you look relaxed and ready to go.
    --If you fuck it up, you can try again, or try something else, on the day of.
    Plus, people are impressed as hell by lasagna. They just are.
  • If you're planning to make multiple dishes and you need them all ready at approximately the same time, create a schedule and work backwards. I wrote about how I do this before.
  • Realize that most of your friends will be inordinately pleased even to be invited and fed. Unless you hang around with insanely food snobby food snobs, or are the worst cook in the history of the universe, most people will be perfectly pleased to eat something they neither had to cook nor pay for.
  • People rarely have much room by the time they get to dessert if you've done appetizers and a main course. Serve it, but keep it simple and light -- a light cake, nice ice cream, something like that. Unless you're noted for your desserts, and people make a deliberate effort to save room, huge efforts there never seem to reap the rewards you'd hope since only half of it gets eaten.
  • Speaking of appetizers, serve some. It'll help tide people over while you finish the details of dinner and wait for late guests to arrive. Unhungry guests are happier guests and make for smoother conversations.

  • posted by jacquilynne at 8:21 PM on November 16, 2008 [4 favorites]

    What jacquilynne said, especially about things you can prepare beforehand, desserts & appetizers.

    A rule I also try to follow is: the number of separate dishes or courses should be inversely proportional to the number of guests. The more people you invite, the simpler the meal should be, otherwise you get snowed under with dirty dishes & you spend all your time rushing around trying to deliver zillions of plates when you should be enjoying your guests' company.

    Usually, some kind of main that you can make in volume is ideal, eg curries or pasta. Then work out some appetizers, salads, other sides & basic desserts around that big pot of whatever. Roasts also work well in that regard. Part of the trick is that you can prepare salads etc while the main is under way, so a kind of set-and-forget main is ideal.

    See if you can have it simmering away when your guests arrive - yummy smells! Serve some snacks & chat & sip wine as you do your other preparations. It's a lot of fun.

    Also: don't fall for the trap of feeling like you need to make everything yourself. A cheese platter, for example, is a zero-preparation appetizer. You can do likewise with a lot of desserts - buy from the patisserie, heat & add icecream. Nobody will be complaining. Like I said, concentrate on the main, and build the other bits around the side.
    posted by UbuRoivas at 8:56 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

    It's always good to give everyone a drink right away - a little alcohol really does make things easier in my experience. And enjoy yourself, that way everyone knows to enjoy themselves too. I don't usually do appetizers, nor much in the way of desert. A nice boeuf bourguignon (make it a day ahead, the flavors blend and smooth out better) and a nice salad, then ice cream and/or fruit and/or cheesecake is fine. As already said, the secret is making harmony or at least interesting interaction for your guests.
    posted by anadem at 9:20 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

    - oops, dessert -
    posted by anadem at 9:21 PM on November 16, 2008

    Also, it really doesn't matter if your friends don't know each other. It comes down to your instinct of who will have a good, or at least an interesting time with each other. It's mix-and-match and keep experimenting. You learn by doing, it's not difficult!
    posted by anadem at 9:26 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

    Don't invite anyone grating or even slightly obnoxious.
    posted by sondrialiac at 10:09 PM on November 16, 2008

    A good way to reduce the stress if you are worried about your cooking ability, is to have a pot-luck dinner party. It doesn't have to be totally pot luck of course, you can be as organised or freeform as you like. You can start off small with say 4 or 6 people, and have each person responsible for bring one item e.g. side vegetable, dessert, meat course etc. Or you can decide on a style of meal and have people bring one pre-determined item (this is what I do for thanksgiving), e.g. I'll do the roast chicken, you bring salad, you bring mashed potatoes, you bring bread and dessert etc.
    posted by Joh at 10:17 PM on November 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

    There's no sin in ordering in. Or having a pot-luck. Frankly being a host at a dinner party if you don't love cooking is no fun. Managing a kitchen plus a house full of people can go south fast.

    How about "cafe night". It can either be after dinner or before dinner. I find it works best saying my door is open from 6-9, and whoever is there at 9:00 we order in. You supply coffee, a 12 of beer, maybe two bottles of cheap wine and some snacks. Everyone else has to bring a bottle or a snack or a game to get in.

    This works well if you have friends who can't/won't/don't show up on time. It also helps people mix and mingle more since when you sit at a table you're pretty much locked into talking to those three people the rest of the night. However if you have friends who are wallflowers then you're going to have to work harder to engage them than you would at a dinner party.
    posted by Ookseer at 11:07 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

    nice nuts and fruits for when they come in. Some cheese maybe? Have everything out and or cooking before hand. Have a wingman doing the socializing while you toil in the kitchen keeping everything hot. A decent home-made macaroni and cheese with garlic and real parmigian will go over beautifully and takes almost no effort. Serve booze. Lots it. Have fun, you're there to enjoy your friend's company and spend time with them. Serve coffee and liqueurs afterward and don't be demure about people wanting to help clean up.
    posted by The Whelk at 11:11 PM on November 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

    I love throwing dinner parties. I am a college student with a small apartment (small enough that our "table" is a desk from my office, and when it is set up, there is no living room to sit in), but it's still so much fun and everyone has a blast. Most things have been said already, but here you go:

    -- People will ask "can I bring anything?" Even if you want to do all the cooking, you can always ask them to bring: booze (of course), ice (I always like to have someone else grab a bag of ice; I never have room for it in the freezer and it's nice to not have to worry about), bread, or a prefab dessert. Call me a control freak, but I don't want someone bringing a salad if I don't think it will go with the meal I'm making; you can politely decline those things if you want. Of course, if you don't, accept the help, of course.

    -- Things to have on hand: lots of lemons and limes (for drinks and simple garnishes), ice (see above), extra napkins and place settings, lots of glasses (if you have them).

    -- Have coffee ready a little after dinner, even if you're not doing dessert. It's a nice way to calm down and, for those who have to stop drinking and sober up to drive home, a good way to have something else to drink while those 3 glasses of wine wear off.

    -- Have lots of pitchers of water. Also, interesting drinks for those who don't want to drink booze.

    -- Eat things you can make ahead. Pasta dishes, easy as they are, are not actually a great dinner party meal, as they require a bit of last-minute prep.

    -- If you want, serve courses. If not, don't. This is not a big deal.

    -- Have music, and something to do if the conversation doesn't work out great. We like Catchphrase; you may prefer Pictionary or Charades or whatever. But it's nice to have a game, because even close friends sometimes run out of stuff to just talk about.
    posted by rossination at 12:14 AM on November 17, 2008

    Turn off overhead lights- light the room with table lamps and candles.
    Crack a window so it doesn't get stuffy.
    Play nice music.

    Encourage shy people to sit in the middle, and chatty people on the ends (that way the shy people don't get shut out of the conversation).

    Serve easy inexpensive grocery store food:
    A small wheel of brie, warmed in the oven, served with fruit (sliced pears, grapes) & crackers.
    Some deli salads, a grocery store roast chicken, and garlic bread.
    Ice cream & a bottle of chocolate sauce, sliced strawberries, and Smarties.
    Wine, coke, fizzy water, cranberry juice, ice, + BYOB.
    Coffee or tea after dinner.
    posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:21 AM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

    1) my social group is really diffuse (ie most of my friends only know me and none of my other friends)

    This is THE BEST kind of dinner party! Don't worry about it too much; somehow, they all have something in common, because they all found you and became your friend. I especially recommend this if you live in a place where it's hard to meet new people, or you have friends that haven't met yet but really should (e.g. overlapping interests).

    2) Also, consider having, instead of a bring-out-each-course-and-eat party, one where people have to be somewhat involved in the making of the food, also. It gives people something active to do, something to learn, something to talk about, and best of all, slows down the evening so you can eat more and have more fun. My top slow-meals are crepes, fajitas, and dumplings (gyoza, potstickers, jiao zi, whatever they are in your neck of the woods).

    3) If you're stressed about being "not a great cook," 2 is good but also you can turn it into a potluck, especially with a theme (bring your mom's best recipe, or something from the country your ancestors are from...).

    (I do this about once a week, and host anywhere between five and 50 people.)
    posted by whatzit at 3:19 AM on November 17, 2008

    You've gotten some really good tips, but it doesn't look like anyone has mentioned olives yet. Olives are a great and easy thing to set out as a casual appetizer while you're finishing the dinner prep.

    Get yourself some nice olives at the fancy food store. If you have the time, warm them in a saute pan with some olive oil and lemon or orange zest. If you don't have the time, just dump 'em in a bowl. Most people like olives.
    posted by trip and a half at 4:49 AM on November 17, 2008

    Oh, also, if you want to get really fancy, toast some almonds and dump 'em in with the olives when you're warming them.
    posted by trip and a half at 4:56 AM on November 17, 2008

    I love love love throwing dinner parties!
    Some tips...
    Don't try a recipe for the first time when you have guests.
    Make sure you know in advance whether anyone is a vegetarian, lactose intolerant, etc so you can pick a meal that accomodates everyone.
    Get as much done as possible before the guests arrive- set the table, make the salad, etc.
    Put out some appetizers (it can be something simple, like olives, bread and cheese) so people can snack while you finish preparing the meal.
    Dim lighting or candles.
    Timing is probably most important and the trickiest...if you invite people over for 7:00, you'll probably want to plan to serve the main course around 8:00.
    Have appetizers out and serve people drinks as soon as they arrive.
    Ask a close friend to come over early and help you.
    Have a dessert, but you can task that to someone if they offer to bring something.
    If people ask what to bring, either say "nothing" or "there's no need, but you could bring a bottle of wine if you'd like."
    As for guests, it's perfectly fine if people don't know each other beforehand, and that often makes for the best dinner party conversations. You might want to lean towards more outgoing friends, though, and not include any friends who are painfully shy or uncomfortable in these sort of situations. Or make sure shy friends are seated near more outgoing ones.
    Clear dirty plates off the table, but you can just set them in the sink and take care of them later.
    Offer coffee or tea at the end of the night.
    Most importantly, do not run out of booze! I don't know about your friends, but mine fly through the wine.

    Lastly, if you're worried about your cooking ability, you really can't go wrong with pasta, salad, and garlic bread.
    posted by emd3737 at 5:13 AM on November 17, 2008

    Response by poster: Consider yourselves all favorited! I especially like the suggestion of seating the quieter people in the middle or pairing them with the more outgoing -- I never would have thought of that.
    posted by footnote at 6:36 AM on November 17, 2008

    I'd like to emphasize how fun "party games" are. Consider playing a round before dinner as an icebreaker? Apples to Apples is my go-to favorite, but I recently got into Cranium Pop 5.
    posted by radioamy at 11:10 AM on November 17, 2008

    See if you can buy or borrow a raclette set. Raclette's fantastic for entertaining, because all you need to do is set up the oven in the middle of the table and provide an attractive spread of cheeses, vegetables, cold cuts, and other roastables. The guests do all the cooking themselves, to their own requirements, and are invariably thrilled by the novelty.
    posted by Iridic at 1:14 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

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