Dinner Party!
July 20, 2009 7:25 AM   Subscribe

Teach me how to be a great host. I'm hosting a dinner party for my SO's birthday in September. Give me some tips to make everyone (including the birthday boy and ME) feel relaxed and happy.

We hosted a Christmas Eve party last year, which went okay, but I felt flustered much of the night, trying to help serve (we have a VERY small kitchen) the food people brought, etc., while SO played entertainment director. This time up, I will be cooking it all myself. I guess my primary question is how do I not become flustered, while trying to do it all?
posted by roomthreeseventeen to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My tips:

Limit your guests

How many people are you inviting to dinner? I have personally found serving 8 people a 3 course meal to be my absolute limit. Even then, this is only for Thanksgiving and I was really occupied with the meal. Otherwise I serve 4 max. to be able to feel "breezy".

Limit your time in the kitchen

Is it critical that you cook all the food? What about cheese and crackers for a starter or dessert? Or actually, a store bought cake for dessert makes sense for a birthday party.

Limit your time on the stove
How about prosciutto & melons for a starter? Anything, pre-assembled and no cooking involved is what you want.
How about something you bake in the oven like a casserole, lasagne, stew, roast chicken or something in a crock pot. Think, "set it and forget it".

Rethink dinner
Is it critical that it be dinner? An assortment of pre-made snacks and nibbles with plenty of drinks could suffice. Think: cheese/hams/olives plate, pizza bites, nachos, mini quiches, bacon wrapped figs (yum!), fancy crisps&veg with dip, etc. I think the Askme archives probably have plenty of suggestions if you go this route.
posted by like_neon at 7:49 AM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: So I just had ~25 MeFites over this weekend, and this is how I stayed relaxed and happy.

- I started early, with division of labor. lagreen was planning the event, and she and I worked together to think of potential hiccups that might cause stress. We had a plan.

- I started early getting things ready around the house and in the garden. Over the course of a few days before the event I started tidying up in the garden, I started mentally going over what things needed to get done, and I started doing some light cleaning so that the last minute stuff wouldn't be too strenuous.

- I started early the day of the event. I planned NOTHING else for that day, making sure that I would have time to deal with everything. I moved furniture, I did dishes, I scrubbed tables and floors and the bathroom, and I slowly made a list of everything that we might need for the evening as I went along. Two hours before the party, I was done, showered and changed into my party clothes.

(So far, there has been a theme. Start early. You wont regret it.)

Organize the party so that there is a good flow. I live in what could pass for a treehouse. It's tiny. But it is functional, and it served us well. I put drinks outside at the end of the garden, and we set up a buffet of food in the kitchen. With a small space, it is better to permit people to serve themselves than to force yourself to hover around and attend to every little detail. Not only is that impractical, it will make you more nervous.

Through the course of the evening, people occasionally asked for things that weren't on hand, or just helped themselves. It's impossible to foresee every potential need or wish of every guest, so just do your best and invite guests to make themselves comfortable and ask for anything they don't have or don't see.

Good luck!
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:50 AM on July 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Cook and prepare as much as you can in advance. That's key to helping things go smoothly. I live alone, so I always do that when I entertain and it really helps. Plan your menu carefully, and think about how you'll coordinate the cooking of the various items. Make sure you have all the ingredients you need. Test out recipes in advance to be sure they'll work and you know what you're doing.

If I'm baking anything, I bake it ahead of time, and freeze it if necessary. I sometimes set the table night before. I do my dishes before the guests arrive to preserve counter space, which would be especially important in your small kitchen. If I'm serving mashed potatoes, I peel the potatoes and put them in water in their pot on the stove, all ready to be switched on at the right time. I'll set the serving dishes and spoons and so forth out on the counter, ready to be filled. I mix the punch or whatever and put it in the fridge to chill.

And don't be afraid to ask your guests for help (they'll probably offer). If there are to be any kids there they'll like helping. I usually draft my smallest nieces and tell them they are my "assistant hostesses".

I still don't get a lot of time to relax and sit and chat with my guests, but not being overwhelmed with work or with food not turning out the way it's supposed to does make a huge difference.
posted by orange swan at 7:55 AM on July 20, 2009

This Amy Sedaris book is really funny and has some great information on entertaining, including recipes.
posted by heather-b at 7:58 AM on July 20, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, as a follow up, we're having 8-10 guests, no kids.

Is it worth it to rent one of those huge coffee makers that make 60 cups at a time?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:11 AM on July 20, 2009

I'm not an expert at being a relaxed hostess, but my most successful attempts always include easy appetizers and a number of make ahead items. Easy appetizers for me include a simple cheese tray - say, 3 cheeses, two types of crackers, and some strawberries and grapes - which I can arrange well before the party the starts and keep in the fridge. Sometimes I make my own spiced nuts, but more often I'll go to Trader Joe's and buy a few types of nuts (Thai Lime Chili Cashews are my favorites) and put those out in a few pretty bowls. Likewise, I might make a dip of some sort, but I'm just as likely to buy a couple at Trader Joe's or my local cheese shop. I keep the appetizers really simple so I can focus on the dinner and, my favorite, dessert.

Soup is an easy thing to make ahead and just heat up for your guests, and it often tastes better the day after you make it anyway. Since the party is in September, a roasted butternut squash soup like this or this would be seasonal and the color is quite pretty.

I also chop up all the parts of my salad the morning of a party and store them in a sealed container in the fridge - you just don't want to dress a salad ahead of time or it will wilt, but I have it ready for quick assembly.

One of my other tricks is to make a low, slow cooking main dish that I can have braising all day. I never have to worry about the meat being cooked to the proper temperature then, because it's supposed to be falling off the bone. Sometimes I'll do a pork shoulder (although lower temp and longer cooking time than that recipe) with sides, but for something dressier I'll do lamb shanks like this or this- then just serve over polenta, mashed potatoes or egg noodles.

Dessert should also be easy to prepare ahead, and if you're not much of a baker there's no shame in buying a nice cake or pie from a good local bakery. I usually make a cake the day before (this is an amazing party cake for chocolate lovers) or I do individual pavlovas, making the meringues a couple of days early and then just whipping some cream and assembling just before serving.

On preview, I agree that keeping the number of guests manageable is also key to staying calm. My house and table are small (as is my kitchen), and anything more than 8 people is very stressful, but 4 or 6 is my preference. Also, serving things up family style rather than making fussy plates for everyone makes it easier. I set the table the morning of the party, and like greekphilosophy, I devote the whole day to the preparations. My husband is in charge of music and beverages, so I can just focus on the food!
posted by katie at 8:11 AM on July 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Is it worth it to rent one of those huge coffee makers that make 60 cups at a time?

That's 6+ cups per guest. It depends on your guests. :)

I like katie's suggestions for soup and pork shoulder. MMMMMMM pork shoulder! I also like using pork shoulder in a crock pot with bbq sauce to make pulled pork sandwiches.
posted by like_neon at 8:27 AM on July 20, 2009

I would say no to renting the big coffeemaker. I don't think "post-dinner coffee" is quite as common as it used to be. Friends of mine do a big Christmas Eve thing every year, for 6-8 people, and maybe two or three have coffee with dessert.

I think the slow braising idea someone mentioned is a good idea. Not only is it fairly hands-off, in fact many such dishes actually improve if you make them the day before. Beef Bourguinion, for example, is generally better the second day because the flavors have more time to meld. So make it the day before, then all you have to do is reheat it for dinner.

If you get the Food Network, I find the Barefoot Contessa and Nigella Lawson shows often have great entertaining tips. I got a great hors d'oeuvres tip from Nigella - take dried figs and spoonfuls of goat cheese, wrap them in slices of prosciutto. No cooking, easy to make ahead, and when I made them at a party they were a huge hit.
posted by dnash at 8:32 AM on July 20, 2009

Ask a guest to bring their coffee maker. 2x10 or 12 cups is sufficient.
posted by jeather at 8:33 AM on July 20, 2009

Re the coffeemaker: no it's not worth it.

How to relax? Some French writer once said: buy two, make one. That means: buy the entrees and the dessert (stuff like the melon with ham is good, or just a plate of cold cuts, get a nice cake for dessert), and only cook the main course. Then, make sure you can do most of the cooking before your guests arrive.
posted by NekulturnY at 8:44 AM on July 20, 2009

Not worth the coffeemaker. Not everyone will want coffee.

As others have said, I think the key is preparing in advance. There are lots of make-ahead recipes that you can do way in advance and even freeze for weeks before you need it. I like the CI one a lot as it goes way beyond stand-bys like chili and lasagna. It even helps me on big events like Thanksgiving to build myself a time line for the days ahead and for the actual day to have an hour-by-hour plan for what needs to be done. It just makes me feel a little more in control though you have to able to change things up when circumstances alter on the fly, so don't be too wedded to your time line. Ask guests for help with stuff like getting drinks out to people and clearing plates. It'll take the load off of you and people like to be of help anyway. Just give yourself way more time to prepare than you'll think you need and try to stay calm.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:09 AM on July 20, 2009

No to the big coffee maker. Make one pot and make another if you need to. There is a good chance that not all of your guests will want coffee.

I tend to get flustered myself and I have learned to calm down over the years. I don't stress as much because I have been to enough parties where everything doesn't go smoothly and nobody much cares. They all sit around and chat oblivious while the host is desperately trying to find the cake server or whatever. The last dinner party I hosted was my best ever. When my (eight) guests walked in my dog, and my sister's dog, were barking like mad and I could barely greet them properly. I was also cooking a dish that had to be done last minute when the walked in. My guests, some who I barely knew, all thought the dog barking and commotion was hilarious. It lightened the mood. My husband poured the wine and they proceeded to socialize amongst themselves. Don't think you have to be at their beck and call. Show them where the alcohol is and they'll be fine.

Play some music that your birthday person likes and keep it really low. It should be in the background, unless you want to kick off your heels and dance after dinner. My favorite celebrity hostess Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa) likes the Hotel Costes CDs. You can also buy them on MP3. I'm always hearing good "dinner party" music on the radio. Yesterday I was listening to Cassandra Wilson and I thought, perfect for dinner party.

You already have some good tips and I'll reiterate some.

Have a good seating arrangement for people to gather before dinner. In your living room make a U shaped seating arrangement with a coffee table in the middle. Pull up some extra dining chairs if you don't have enough seating, or let everyone sit around the dining table if your place is really small. Put nice bowls of salted nuts, cheese straws, and a tray of cheese/crackers/grapes and/or olives on the coffee table. Have a cart (or your kitchen counter or other table) set up with, chilled white wine, red wine, beer, and water. You can always offer your guests Coke or Iced Tea from the fridge if they don't drink. Have your table setting ready. People can use their wine glass or water glass from their place setting and keep it throughout the night.

Have everything prepared ahead of time, from the food to the table setting. I have absolutely everything ready and available. I iron tablecloths and napkins the night before. The bread baskets are ready. I have clean potholders available. The sugar bowl is clean, refilled and ready to go. The correct amount of dessert plates are coffee cups are stacked and ready to go. I count the silverware. Both bathrooms are cleaned in case someone has to use both at the same time, etc. Be prepared for anything.

Buy a fantastic dessert from the bakery. Don't make one.

Buy one inexpensive bouquet of flowers. Cut and divide them into small vases for your centerpiece. Or cut down and put them in one short vase.

Don't be afraid to have your guests serve themselves from the kitchen and bring their plates into the dining area. I have done this and I think people appreciate it instead of passing a lot of heavy serve ware around the table.

Don't buy a bunch of stuff. Use what you have. Don't be afraid to use mismatched silverware or put plastic salt and pepper shakers, or bottled salad dressings, on the table. If you're a casual person, like myself, don't be afraid to be casual at your dinner party. Sure, you should make an effort to make things special to entertain your guests but don't give yourself a ton of extra work or spend a ton of money.

Drink a glass of wine or down an a beer before they get there to relax yourself.

Appear relaxed. Smile, laugh. Wear something festive but comfortable and walk around in bare feet or stocking feet.
posted by Fairchild at 9:38 AM on July 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Buy a fantastic dessert from the bakery. Don't make one.

SO is a big fan of my strawberry pies, so I'm going to be making several of them a day or two in advance.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:44 AM on July 20, 2009

practice making everything you're having at least twice before the party. it takes away from specialness of the menu on the day of the party a bit, but you'll be way more relaxed the day of.

if you really want to get into the planning, you can make a list of every dish, glass, and utensil you will need for the evening. if people are helping you, you can even label which food goes in which dish/platter.

clean the area of the house that people will be in at least one week before the event. then you can just do a little tidying the day of.

buy flowers the day before if you're going to have any.

if your kitchen is really small, plan to eat out the night before and then have sandwiches or something easy for lunch the day of so that you don't have to worry about cleaning extra dishes.

feel free to move furniture around to odd places and make sure you have enough seating and surfaces to place drinks if you're doing cocktails before dinner. i read in a magazine about a woman in a very small apartment who would set a bartender up in the doorway of her bedroom to save room (not that i am recommending hiring a bartender!)

if one of the guests is a good friend and asks if you need any help, allow them to help. even if it is just to stir something while you shower and get ready.

plan your outfit beforehand and make sure you wear comfortable shoes.

since you have a small kitchen, if people ask if they should bring any food (which they probably won't if it's a dinner party), ask for wine or something else to drink instead. if you don't make it to their bottle, people usually understand, and it saves you the trouble of trying to figure out where to put extra food.

if you don't already have a coffee maker, you can get something simple like a melitta. coffee's good to have as it's a signal that it's time for people to go home!

while i find that people always appreciate whatever i'm doing in the kitchen, it's usually more fun for everyone if i'm not there all night. feel free to take shortcuts.
posted by betsybetsy at 9:51 AM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: Have lots of paper towels available. Have your dishtowels all clean. Cut up everything that won't brown the morning of: onions, garlic, parsley, whatever. Go through the entirety of your menu prep and serving in your head. Helps you remember the small steps, many of which can be prepped the day before or hours ahead. And helps you not gloss over the lengthy steps, it helps you be reasonable about how long you should expect things to take. So not "make manicotti shells" but "make batter, cook one at a time in a crepe pan, let cool."

"And then I put out the cheese...hmm, do I have enough knives for that? Let me make sure. Ah, and I will want to take the cheese out of the fridge a half hour earlier than I will serve it, so I can serve it at room temperature."

"And then I plate the pasta...oh, right, I will want to garnish with parsley, I can wash and chop that in the morning."

"And then I take the chicken out of the oven...ok, so I'll need potholders available for that."

Etc. It's a dress rehearsal for your head. I love making my dinners from scratch, so I understand any hesitation with buying x or y (last time I cooked for my entire family, I made the crackers too), just go with the flow, and your SO will love the effort.
posted by teragram at 10:03 AM on July 20, 2009

Agreed on all of the above. I plan a party a couple of weeks in advance: I have a mental menu (which I made by ascertaining my guests food sensitivities and preferences, or else I always have vegetarian/meat options if serving a large group) that's tweaked when I go grocery shopping, I clean my house a few days before the party, make dessert and a soup appetizer the day before as well as the prep work for a braised dish or casserole (lasagna, for example). The day of, I arrange the chairs, have some easy to prepare crudites and or savory mushroom tart, set up a drinks bar and change into my party dress and put on some mix CD.

I'm not an ironic hipster, but I do like having themed dinner parties for setting the mood in advance. I had a Comfort Food and Cookies party with '90s alt rock for my fellow 30 year old friends, a Spaghetti Night with Dino, and a You Got Spring Rolled! party with Rick Astley. I have a plan for when I'll roll out courses and dessert and coffee are usually a signal the night is over. That, or when we finish the board game.
posted by dhn at 10:27 AM on July 20, 2009

Just remember when you get all crazy about how something was supposed to turn out (a dish, the table setting, whatever).... the only one who will judge how it was supposed to be vs. how it turned out is YOU.

Everyone one else will think it's perfect, no matter if you are missing a few garnishes or forgot some flowers. They love you! They come to your home to see you and your SO.

Have fun.
posted by jbenben at 11:00 AM on July 20, 2009

Keep it simple. Limited menu.
Sangria. Marinated sirloin tips, tomatoes, green peppers, yellow squash & onion kabobs on the grill. Good bread, butter. Tofu can be marinated and grilled, too, for vegetarians. Keep the marinades separate. All of this is prepped ahead.
Let people bring stuff. If someone asks "What can I bring?" ask them to bring an appetizer or a dessert or wine.
Let people help. If someone asks "Can I help?" ask them to bring the bread to the table or get more ice, or some easy task.

Introduce people. Jane, have you met Michael? He's an amazing surfer. Michael, this is my friend Jane from Nebraska.

Play some good music, not too loud.

Coffee? Make 1 pot early, in a thermos/carafe. Then prep another pot, in case you need it.

I always write out my menu, in detail, and put it on the fridge, so I don't forget anything.

Some of the best parties are when the dog steals the meat off the grill, or whatever. The most important part is to connect with your guests. and to never run out of booze.
posted by theora55 at 2:31 PM on July 20, 2009

Best answer: I used to entertain a lot, and everyone here has given you some really great tips. Here are some that I use every time.

1. Get a cooler filled with ice. Put all the drinks in them. Beer, wine that needs to be chilled, mixers, real booze...get all that stuff out of your way. Put it on the back patio. If you have the room, set up a mixing station out there with glasses, a bowl of ice and tongs, cut fruit, what have you. Give folks an area to congregate that isn't your kitchen.

2. They'll all end up in the kitchen anyway. No matter what I do, everyone always ends up in the kitchen. (But at least they're not using my counter space to make drinks, so there's that.)

3.) Starters: Go with non-cooked starters. Some mentioned above melon and prosciutto, or fig and goat cheese quenelles...fantastic. One of my faves is to get the pre-baked filo tart shells (bite size), and then I make a goat cheese and apricot filling, use a pastry bag to pipe it into the shells, dot with apricot, and sprinkle with crispy prosciutto. You can make the filling while you're crisping the shells and the ham...all told, you can put it together in under 30 minutes for a small crowd. I also do a layered tort of sun dried tomatoes, basil pesto and Chaource or Gourmandise cheese. Layer them in that order in the bowl, let them set overnight, then plop out (like a jello mold) and it will hold it's shape and look stunning. (serve with crackers...cause toast points are a pain in the patoot) If you can't find weird cheeses, use cream cheese, plus a little (full fat) ricotta, and teeny bit crème fraîche or sour cream and a little salt...it'll work just as well.

4.) Relax. Remember that everyone is there to see y'all, not judge the food. It's not a contest, and there aren't scorecards. The biggest problem I ever had was worrying too much about stuff that really didn't matter to the folks that were coming. Rejoice in your friends, and trust them to love anything you do.
posted by dejah420 at 2:36 PM on July 20, 2009

1. Pay more attention to the people than to the things.

2. Have store-bought backups that store well, in case things go really wrong.

3. Drink heavily enough to not worry about anything, but not so much you can't handle it all.
posted by yesster at 6:08 PM on July 20, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. These are great.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:00 AM on July 21, 2009

I just had a dinner party last night, and used lots of the advice in this thread. Here's what really helped me:

Limit your time on the stove. How about prosciutto & melons for a starter? Anything, pre-assembled and no cooking involved is what you want. (like_neon)

The prosciutto and melon was a big hit, and I got to use my melon baller for the very first time.

Start early. You wont regret it. Organize the party so that there is a good flow. (greekphilosophy)

I happen to work in one of those fabulous industries where we get half days on Fridays in the summer, so I left work at three and had about four hours to prepare before my guests started arriving at 7:30.

As for flow, I prepared mojitos in a large pitcher that afternoon, and put them out in the living room with a couple bottles of wine. Folks gravitate toward liquor, so it kept everyone happy and out from underfoot while I finished the last bits of cooking.

Cook and prepare as much as you can in advance. (orange swan)

I selected dishes that could be prepared in advance (prosciutto and melon, banana nut bread) or were very quick to prepare (spaghetti carbonara). I did as much prep as I could the two nights before (I set the table on Wednesday, baked my dessert—a very easy banana nut bread—on Thursday, and chopped everything that needed to be chopped early in the afternoon on Friday).

Buy one inexpensive bouquet of flowers. Cut and divide them into small vases for your centerpiece. Or cut down and put them in one short vase. (Fairchild)

I bought two $10 bouquets of roses on my way home on Friday (large pink ones for my centerpiece, and little white ones for a red vase on my bookshelf). I just plopped them in the vases (no fancy arranging) but they really made the room look more festive.

practice making everything you're having at least twice before the party. (betsybetsy)

While I didn't practice especially for this party, every dish I made is a favorite of mine, so I've made them all multiple times before. I also read and re-read my recipes a few times in the run up to the party. It's so much easier to relax in the kitchen when you aren't constantly referencing a cookbook.

Go through the entirety of your menu prep and serving in your head... It's a dress rehearsal for your head. (teragram)

This was perhaps the best piece of advice in the whole thread. During a meeting at work on Wednesday, while I was waiting my turn to present, I went through all my plans, step by step, and determined what things I still needed to buy, in what order I was going to prepare dishes, and so forth. Those fifteen minutes of thinking things through was really the key to doing this successfully, and without stress.

Just remember when you get all crazy about how something was supposed to turn out (a dish, the table setting, whatever).... the only one who will judge how it was supposed to be vs. how it turned out is YOU. (jbenben)

That's a reminder I really needed. I'm prone to point out my errors as a hostess. Last night, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't point out any errors, and I kept that promise, and it made me feel better, because whatever compliments I got weren't happening as a response to deprecating comments I'd made about myself and my cooking.

Let people bring stuff. If someone asks "What can I bring?" ask them to bring an appetizer or a dessert or wine. (theora55)

One of my guests brought a salad, another brought wine, and a third (unasked) brought candles which fit perfectly into my candleholders. It took a lot of weight off my shoulders.

Relax. Remember that everyone is there to see y'all, not judge the food... Rejoice in your friends, and trust them to love anything you do. (dejah420)

This is the first dinner party I've ever given where I really felt that things were under control, and where I was actually able to host, and not just run around like a chicken with my head cut off. And I'm happy to credit that accomplishment to all the excellent advice in this thread; I wouldn't have been nearly so together without considering all of these things. I had a wonderful time with my guests (lots of excellent conversation, well into the night) and everyone went home full and happy. Thanks, Metafilter!
posted by ocherdraco at 10:53 AM on July 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

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