Tips for reoccuring, family-style dinner parties?
January 2, 2015 9:00 AM   Subscribe

What are your key tips to throwing a good dinner party? What do you do about that one friend who will. not. stop. eating? What do you think is a good price per head for a group meal? How many people do you think is ideal for a good dinner?

I love to see my friends, but we all gripe about going out to loud restaurants and paying lots of money. Hey, why don't I just organize a regular "dinner party" with standing invitations? But there's a big difference between throwing a "dinner party" where you impress and astound your guests by having a more put-together life than them and having friends over for a good time. I know this sounds like "being a human 101" but I would really love advice from some more socially adapt, experienced, or older mefights out there.
posted by rebent to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
When I have friends over for the type of informal, "fun" dinner you seem to be talking about, I like to keep it simple. I make a big batch of one of my favorite dinners - something I would make for myself, just more of it, maybe with slightly upgraded ingredients - open up some wine, and let the socializing be the focal point instead of the food. Skip things like using fancy china or printing menus, etc.

I tend to like smaller groups better, so I'd suggest sticking in the single digits. Six people is perfect from my perspective.

Price per head is going to depend a lot on your tastes (and your guests'). Will you be happy with inexpensive comfort food? Would you rather try somewhat more unusual dishes? Are you picky about quality ingredients? For the dinners I described above, cost per head is usually pretty low, maybe $15-20?

I don't know what you mean by "that one friend who will. not. stop. eating." Do you mean people who seem to eat more than their fair share, or people who eat really slowly, long after everyone else has finished? In both cases these are the sorts of behaviors that I try to just ignore, but YMMV.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:09 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Rather than a price per head I recommend a potluck style experience. Its hard to tell everyone to pay X amount of dollars for a home cooked meal. Its a lot easier to have them bring their favorite dish with them. The other option would be to rotate hosts and dont charge anyone, anything. Every week/month its a different host and they buy/prepare all the food. The atmosphere is a lot more fancy/sophisticated when you're not asking people to come out of their own pockets for dinner at your house.
posted by SamMiller at 9:10 AM on January 2, 2015 [27 favorites]

If you want some cool ideas, this book may seem corny as hell but actually has some decent ideas for low-key, informal gatherings. They do take a "theme party" approach, and some of the ideas for themes are REALLY corny, but other ideas aren't so much themes as they are "flimsy excuses to just get people to come over and hang out", and you can always just go with their food ideas and ditch all the other foofaraw.

I also find that a sort of "appetizer" approach - where you just have a whole lot of different nibbly things that people can graze on, rather than having a formal meal with courses and all that shit - tends to casual up the party some. Think like tapas, meze, dim sum, etc. - just have a wide selection so people can pick and choose. (This also helps you avoid the "food quirk" issue, because if someone's a vegetarian or gluten-free or whatever, or they just hate peas, they can just not eat whatever option you have that they don't want and will still have enough to choose from.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:11 AM on January 2, 2015

Oh yeah - along the lines of what SamMiller says, I should clarify that the cost per head I quoted was cost to me, not to my friends. I don't like taking money from people for stuff like that. Again YMMV.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:13 AM on January 2, 2015


You buy the pizza, they bring the beer.

Everyone brings one order of their favorite Chinese takeout dish, you provide beverages.

Mass email/mass text where you announce what main dish you're making, and invite everyone who plans to come to reply and let you know what side or beverage they are bringing.

Make something so incredibly cheap, you can afford to just be generous and feed everyone. For example, bean soup with homemade bread and tea.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 9:16 AM on January 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

The traditional signal to end a dinner party is coffee. After that it's "here's your hat, what's your hurry?" And the traditional number for a dinner party is six, maybe eight (smaller than that is two couples, which isn't a dinner party so much as friends for dinner; larger than eight is more than most tables can accommodate, and then you're buffet style, blah blah).

What you say you want to do sounds a lot like the Friday night meatballs thing that started going around the social medias a few months ago. That may be exactly what inspired you already, in which case, just follow those instructions and be ready to serve coffee when you want to kick people out, er, signal to the one guest it's maybe time to stop eating. Also spaghetti and meatballs are a relatively inexpensive dinner.

Cost per person isn't terrible if you avoid things like steak. You can do things like roast pork loin or whole roast chicken (both of which are mostly stick-them-in-the-oven-for-a-while things that allow you to cook sides on the stove and/or entertain your guests; both should cost $2/lb or less on sale). So think comfort food, homey, in-the-oven sorts of dishes, and you're already on the right track.
posted by fedward at 9:19 AM on January 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

I love hosting dinner parties!

Cost: I think you'll have a hard time getting people to cough up money for a home-cooked meal, honestly, so rotating the host is the best way to make sure the burden doesn't fall too heavily on one person. (Potluck can work too, but then you might end up with a bunch of salads, or two soups, or only dessert...etc. I find potlucks really hard to organize but ymmv.)

Number of guests: Anything more than 8 people ends up being a lot of work, IMO, as most recipes will need to be doubled or tripled to accommodate that many people. Plus you need a huge table and not everyone will get to talk to each other. 4-8 is kind of the sweet spot. (Four is so cozy!)

Keeping it casual: Whenever dinners are family-style (everybody serves themselves from dishes in the middle) it feels pretty casual. Pasta also seems casual, but maybe that's just me? Every year my friends and I talk about doing rotating dinner parties where each host picks a country to make food from, which would be really fun.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:20 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

My best tip is to plan to serve things that bake in the oven rather than cook on the stove top, and that don't have to be served immediately -- some kind of baked chicken, spanakopita, frittatas, enchiladas, home made pizza, roasted vegetables, etc. -- with a big salad and rice if that goes. It is so much easier for you as host to have fun if you've already done the prep, the stuff is in the oven, and you have time to clean the kitchen a little before folks arrive -- and if you don't have to make sure everyone rushes to the table or the dish will be ruined.
posted by third rail at 9:20 AM on January 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I learned to cook from my mom, who would have rather skewered herself with a pair of kitchen tongs than have a dinner party guest want seconds (or thirds or fourths...) and have run out of food. So I cook with this same mindset - make more than you think you'll need. I mentally tack a couple of imaginary guests on my list to accommodate this (invite 8, cook for 10 or 12). Starting with that, I adjust what I'm making to fit the budget or take guests up on their offers when they ask, "What can I bring?" So that friend who won't stop eating? Have enough and you won't care or will even be flattered that they like your cooking that much.
posted by cecic at 9:21 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I regularly host groups of 4-6 people at my apartment... and if you like food, you're overthinking this...

I start sometime midweek by figuring out whom we haven't seen in a while, and invite them over for either brunch or dinner. Then I do nothing until the weekend... usually we head out on saturday with say $50 in cash, and then between farmers markets and whatever is on sale at the supermarket we create a meal.

Cheap meals can be had by making stews, pots of chili, pies... usually I use my friends to experiment with new flavors/recipies, and if it goes bust, well, we order a pizza. Often times the $50bucks gets us enough food that we have leftovers for a few lunches during the week. We provide the food, guests provide booze or dessert.

You can feed 8 people on pasta with good butter and some chopped herbs and a good crusty bread. ($20 total- bottle of $10 wine, $4 bucks for pasta, $2 bucks thyme, $4 bucks cheese)

Note: my household has two good cooks, who think absolutely nothing of spending a few hours doing food prep- your mileage may vary if you hate cooking.
posted by larthegreat at 9:22 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Having a price per head with friends seems fraught with problems.

We have a standing dinner invite with friends (they have a kid so it isn't always easy to get out). There are usually three groups of people attend with others rotating in when available.

The food tends to be dishes that can easily be shared. For the non-hosts, we typically bring things like, wine, dessert and appetizers.
posted by mmascolino at 9:33 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

We did dinner for 9 last night which was really at least 1 more than the table would ideally fit and one less proper chair than we had. Check both of these things and organise around them before finalising invites, if you plan a sit down effort. Also do you have enough plates, knives, forks, glasses.

The more people you ask the more chance that someone will have issues with one food or another. Check for vegetarian, allergies, fussy buggers, etc before finalising a menu (and long before buying anything to cook).

Don't worry too much about a starter, or certainly not the first time you do a decent sized dinner party. They can be fiddly, time consuming and create lots of dishes. If you do decide to do a starter, bear in mind whether you will need more plates and cutlery.

We did slow roast shoulder of pork yesterday and that keeps the costs per person low. Something like that may mean being around for most of the afternoon to look after it. You will need other time to prep veggies etc. We have also done a few of these with a selection of homemade curries. Doing a veggie dal is very cheap and cuts down the average cost - see my recipe here. Combine this with a chicken curry and maybe a beef one along with big bowl of rice and you have a good diversity of flavours. You can bash out a couple of basic chapatis per person pretty easily. This takes time of course, I'd say you are looking at a half day of prep whatever route you choose. Sort out recipes well ahead of time and pick up everything you will need ahead of time. Avoid buying on the same day so you don't have to run around finding one essential ingredient that your local supermarket happens to run out of that day.

Dessert options can cover a lot of ground. If you are going to prep something yourself then pick something that can be prepped ahead of the event and left in the fridge or stuck in the oven to cook while everyone is on the main course.

Personally I find running this sort of thing pretty stressful and I struggle to relax and enjoy myself, either as the cook or the host.
posted by biffa at 9:40 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you're hosting you can do something like make a big batch of chilli and get each guest to bring something: beer; sour cream and shredded cheese; beer; chips and dip; beer; brownies. That's a fun, inexpensive dinner for eight right there.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:45 AM on January 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

My friends are doing this. Ever since we enjoyed eating Thanksgiving as a big group, we started a Sunday Family Dinner. We try to aim for every week with rotating hosts. I'm not able to make many of them because of a conflict but it's super informal. If there isn't enough room at the table you eat on the couch. While over a dozen people are invited, between 6-10 show up each week. Anything like this is hard to maintain, but even if our only had 6 successful weeks, it was worth it!
posted by Gor-ella at 9:47 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really like cooking for people, so if that's something you enjoy then dinner parties are an excellent idea. I agree that anything you can prepare ahead or throw in the oven will work best. Around this time of year my favorite group dinners are a large roast (leg of lamb especially) with roasted vegetables and potatoes. Not a whole lot of prep work and it can cook while you entertain if that's what you want to do.

As far as asking for money or contributions, the only thing I'll really let people bring is wine. I'll have the menu planned out, I don't really want someone bringing food that doesn't fit in. My only exception to this is if we don't have time to make dessert, so if we're inviting friends that enjoy making desserts I'll let them bring it - but only if they offer. Same with wine or anything else, really; I don't feel comfortable asking for any kind of "fee" for attending dinner. If someone tells me that they're bringing wine or dessert I'll graciously accept it, but I won't ask for it outright.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:51 AM on January 2, 2015

Response by poster: just to clarify on the "price per head" - what I meant by that was, when you cook for other people, how much does it cost? I would never charge people to come over and eat, but I also want to hit a good balance between being super frugal, and being a little cheaper than eating out.
posted by rebent at 9:51 AM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

Depending on your time and tolerance, one way my friends and I have gotten around the cost issue is having a "wine night" (beer night) where it's eat first, come by for appetizer/dessert type stuff and a glass of something. We rotate houses so the host is responsible that time. The only issue with that is it does tend to go late 'cause we get started at 8:30, usually wrap up around midnight. Not tying it to a whole meal lowered the pressure. My parents did similar in their youth but with a kind of drop-in dry brunch.

That said here are some meal tips. Simpler is better IMO, unless you want to be fancy.
- I don't know about your friends, but for me, pretty much anything my friends make tastes better because a) I didn't have to make it and b) company of friends. So don't feel like it has to be something you wouldn't make every day. Your every day differs from mine. A great big pasta casserole made with love plus a salad plus fruit is yummy. Roast anything + baked potatoes + veg is great too.
- crockpot stew/curry/chili/soup/pulled pork if everyone eats pork/pasta sauce + noodles or rice if necessary + two salads (one hearty if serving soup) = easiest ever because it cooks all day. Bonus: If you have a breadmaker, make a soup and use a timer to make a fresh loaf of bread...awesome combo. Basically think of what large peasant families serve themselves historically and you'll be on the right track.
- having one side dish/salad you make ahead the day before makes it easier - think pasta or bean or quinoa salad.
- YMMV but we usually downplay dessert, so we do something like a lemon loaf or cookies. If not, my money-saving tip is make it yourself the day ahead.

If your friends are into sharing:
- regular potlucks get easier as you all figure out who's good at what
- something where you provide the base and they provide the toppings can be lots of fun, like you have tortillas and a meat base and a bean base and they bring the fixings, or you have the chocolate fondue and they bring the fruit and marshmallows
- rotating houses is also a great way to do it

- I don't think I've ever had the one friend that keeps eating issue but for timing I'm kind of blunt about it like "hey guys, I have to kick you out at 11:45." Traditionally though as people have said, offering coffee 'before you have to head out' is the signal.
- 6-8 max for us, otherwise it's a big party and that's a different thing

When I do all the cooking myself based on sales and stuff, it comes in around $40 total (in Toronto), plus alcohol. I always give myself permission to abort and go get a couple of rotisserie chickens from the grocery story.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:56 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I came to suggest Friday Night Meatballs, and you can delegate all the sides to attendees when people inevitably ask what they can bring - 2 bring a bag of salad each, 1 brings a baguette, 2 bring dessert.

You can pass a hat to cover a box or jug of red wine and a 12-pack of beer, or you can buy them, or you can let people offer.

The article fedward linked makes the case for why this works - it puts the focus on the fellowship rather than the food, most picky eaters will eat it, it's relatively adaptable for Joe's low carb (steamer bag of cauliflower), Jane's vegetarian (meatballs passed separately, and she can have some cauliflower too), kids (noodles with butter). Everyone knows what to expect.

I want to do FNM so bad, but getting an Angeleno to come out to the Valley is apparently impossible, even if I switched it to Sunday mid-afternoons.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:59 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

About that one friend who will not stop eating: I have found that a grain salad is a good thing to have on hand, because if you cook about 1.5 cups of wheatberries and then add about another 1.5 C of nuts, dried fruit, vegetables, etc, you have a rather large thing of which most people will take small portions. I really like this recipe for a dried fig/onion/raisin wheatberry salad. I've made it without the celery and with only 1/2 C almonds; it's pretty flexible. I think you could easily substitute another dried fruit for the figs, for instance. Just googling "grain salad" should get you some pretty good results. (I had a recent dinner party where, seriously, I think one person has a tapeworm or a metabolic problem, because that very skinny person packed away perhaps twice what I could eat in a day and I'm no small eater....and having the giant bowl of grain salad really helped.)

I also find that having little snacks on the table before dinner helps blunt people's hunger - the trick is to put out some crackers and spreads or cheese (which can be quite inexpensive) and then a big bowl of fancy popcorn - use sriracha or sumac or parmesan or whatever you like. Also, around here you can get a big jar of oil cured black olives (which are inelectably delicious and seem more expensive than they are) at Cub for about $3.99.
posted by Frowner at 10:02 AM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

(Oh, I was thinking of "will not stop eating" as "eats way more than everyone else and throws your portion planning off")
posted by Frowner at 10:04 AM on January 2, 2015

Crock pots make dinner parties quite easy. I have a 3-pot crock pot (not one of the fancy ones that snaps together, you have to carry all 3 at once), and it makes me seem like a better planner than I am. Beef stew in one pot, macaroni and cheese in another, and a dessert dip in the third? That's a party!

It works in a "Semi Homemade" (sorry for those who are triggered by Sandra Lee) way. Make some sauce and add store-bought meatballs! Buy some chili at the market and make some cornbread! It takes a ton of the hassle out of timing everything.
posted by xingcat at 10:05 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

just to clarify on the "price per head" - what I meant by that was, when you cook for other people, how much does it cost?

Well, this all depends on what you're serving. Pressed duck and endive salad for 4 is going to be more expensive than "I do up a big-ass batch of chili and get a six-pack" for 4.

Which actually reminds me - the "DIY/customization" approach can be festive and fun - "build your own pizza" or "build your own burritos" or even "make your own sandwiches". I used to work for a company that randomly gave all its employees a ten-pound ham every Christmas, and since I lived alone I turned it into an awesome annual New Years' party where I'd do up the ham and just get a few different kinds of bread, various condiments (or I just got out the mayo and mustard and pickles I already had in the fridge anyway), tomatoes, lettuce, a couple kinds of cheese, etc. and put it all out on a table with a couple of different bags of chips and some cookies, and people could fix themselves a ham sandwich exactly the way they liked it. Fairly cheap, and pretty awesome. A "DIY Pizza" approach could also work - a couple packages of frozen pizza dough, a jar of pizza sauce (or just get a can of pureed tomatoes and cook that down a little so it's a tiny bit thicker), a couple bags of shredded mozzarella and maybe a package of pepperoni or some fresh basil or whatever kind of random other pizza stuff you wanna round up and people can have a blast coming up with their own personal pizzas and throwing them in your oven.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:05 AM on January 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

I throw dinner parties for 4-6 adults and 4-6 kids on a regular basis, and am part of a rotating dinner party group that consists of 8 adults and children. Six adults is perfect for my time management skills, my house and my table (it's not that large).

I'm not sure about price per head. I almost always make pasta because it's inexpensive and easy. For Italian nights, I buy a loaf of Italian bread the bakery and use bagged Cesar salad kits. Believe it or not, the regular Cesar salad kit from Walmart (Marketplace brand) is delicious. My foodie friends love it. It has quality dressing and big fresh croutons. My local grocery store has a great bakery and I usually buy a Key Lime Pie or some other dessert for less than ten dollars. If it's casual, you can ask your guests to bring their own wine or beer. I have iced tea, bottled water, and Coke and Diet Coke. If it's casual and if people offer, you can have someone bring the salad, the dessert, the appetizer.

Pre-dinner (and post-dinner for your friend that likes to nibble) I set out celery, carrots, cucumber slices, sugar snap peas with the Hidden Valley Ranch dip that you mix with sour cream. That's always a winner. Pepperidge Farm or Carr crackers with store bought cheese cubes and grapes is easy and inexpensive. Bowls of nuts and olives are another option. I tend not to serve cheese and crackers if I'm serving a cheesy pasta.

To save money and keep it easy, I like Lasagna and Baked Ziti. I've made big family style taco bar a couple times. This meat recipe is a winner. I also make chicken stew with biscuits. I like casserole type entrees because you can assemble ahead of time. You didn't ask about recipes but I'll mention if if you're interested. I use Ina Garten's Lasagna with Turkey Italian Sausage but eliminate the goat cheese, use regular italian sausage and cut back on the salt significantly. I don't add salt to the ricotta mixture (parmesan has enough salt) and I cut way back on the salt added to the sauce. I love salt, and it is necessary, but if you try this recipe, cut back. This recipe for Baked Ziti is a winner. You can save a little money and use basil only. People love it and always compliment the sauce. Boil your ziti pasta by half the time required for al dente. The oven will cook it perfectly and it won't be mushy. For lasagna noodles I undercook and simmer in hot water until just pliable enough to handle. I use Ina's chicken stew with biscuits and use store bought biscuits, cut back on salt big time, and eliminate pearl onions because not everyone likes them.

Individual nachos are also a hit and are cheap and easy. Make rectangular "plates" with edges with heavy duty aluminum foil Tortilla chips, taco meat, cheese goes in the oven to melt. Guests top with salsa, sour cream, green onions, fresh jalapeƱo, etc.

If I'm making a casserole I usually plate the entree myself (salad and bread is on the table) or guests come up to plate themselves.

You can spend a lot of money if you're not careful. I had a habit of buying flowers, new hand towels for the bathroom, a couple new platters here and there, new wine glasses because a couple got broken last time, wine, etc. It can add up. Keep your nicer hand towels for guests only. Skip the flowers. Use mismatched plates. Use paper cups or mismatched glasses. A clean, welcoming house goes a long way. Order pizza and make your own salad and buy dessert when you don't have time or energy to cook.
posted by Fairchild at 10:23 AM on January 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I don't have dinner parties but prefer to have people over rather than go out; there are probably 6 or so friends who I host and who host me for meals. This is very, very casual, unmatched dishware and paper napkins style hanging out, not a formal meal. I also like to cook so the costs are more amortized over time-- I spend $10 on some fancy spice but then I'll use it in 25 dishes over the next 6 months; I buy $20 of ingredients to make a giant batch of chili and feed 6 people plus have leftovers for my lunch for the next 2 days; etc. We definitely do potluck-- tonight i am making chili and my friend is bringing salad.

I do have a few specific friends who will not stop eating and eat faster than others, so they'll be on their third plate by the time others finish their first servings. All of these people are adults and aware of their tendency to inhale everything on the table, and don't have medical conditions or issues that require special food; they just seem compelled to continue eating until all the food on the table is gone. I manage this as a host by having snacks before the meal, making a lot more of one cheap food (mashed or roasted potatoes; salads of any kind; soup; bready things. seriously, for thanksgiving, I make 5 lbs of potatoes for 6 people) and keeping water glasses full at table to help people feel more full.

Since we have food together often, their tendency to snarf everything is known by the whole group because we have watched them finish All. The. Foods., and has become something we can just call each other on: when they are serving themselves thirds/fourths/fifths, anyone can say, nicely, "Hey Laurel, I didn't get a second serving of soup, and I don't think Raj did either-- can you leave some for us?" If you are already friends who bust each other's chops sometimes, this is an easy thing to start, just next time make a joke about how they are having ninths while you're still working on plate 1.

If I am hosting, I pay attention to what people are eating and how much and offer food to make sure people have enough/can turn it down so the eaters can have it. Like you notice Laurel has had 3 servings of potatoes and is still looking at the serving bowl. You can ask if anyone wants more potatoes, so they can take a second serving of potatoes even though they still have soup/salad/bread on their plate and probably wouldn't have considered getting more potatoes for another 20 minutes, and then Laurel can have her fourth portion of the night. You can also start to remove serving dishes from the table as the meal nears its end: "Oh, looks like we're all finishing up. I'll start getting dessert and coffee ready. Laurel, would you like some soup before I put it away?" These strategies have helped to train our all-the-food-eaters to wait until everyone else has had their fill.
posted by holyrood at 11:02 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do smallish dinners once a week or so, usually just five people, but up to eight or so sometimes.

Mine are very much casual, so I always serve buffet style, often straight from the pots on the stove. (I have no earthly idea what it costs. I've been doing it for so long, it's just a regular part of our grocery costs.)

Like biffa said, dietary restrictions and fussinesses are an issue, and they increase exponentially as you add people. So even with a small group with minor restrictions, you can end up with a pretty limited menu to work with. If I were to try to come up with a universally acceptable meal even for a small group, I'm afraid I'd end up having gluten-free cream of wheat substitute parties or something.

My solution to this sort of problem is sometimes assemble your own type meals, where there's a bland, universally OK base like beans or meat with rice, and then everyone adds their own vegetables and things as they choose. I sometimes make aglio olio that I serve with little chicken medallions and vegetables that can be mixed in, too. Or something like a mild curry, maybe, with add-in or ons, like in the style of rijsttafel or banchan.

And I frequently just make a big pot of soup or stew with optional salad and bread or something, too.

As long as everyone is reasonably mature, this usually works out well. If there are fussy children or teenagers, or anyone who acts like one, I would advise you just not to do it. One fussy or unpredictable guest can throw off the proportions for everyone else, and you end up having to make way more than you need just in case they decide to eat disproportionate amounts of one thing. I mean, if someone just eats twice as much as everyone else, you can just make more. If they're capricious about it, you either have to rehabilitate them or not invite them in the first place.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:21 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've hosted a family Sunday dinner every week for the past two years or so. We have between 5 and 9 guests, depending on work schedules, and I often don't know until dinnertime how many will be there. I can always count on one bottomless-pit teenage boy and usually prepare "to go" plates for a couple of those who are working. So I have a good history and understanding of the costs involved in feeding my crew.

I budget between $40 and $65 a week for this dinner, with the average right about $50. I shop on Saturday and build the menu around what's on sale. Fewer convenience foods translate into a lower budget, but I'll often splurge on a couple boxes of scalloped potatoes, for instance, rather than spend time peeling and slicing.

Each higher-end meal typically includes a bread, soup or salad, protein, side veggie and starch dishes, and dessert. Lower cost meals are built around a one-pot dish, like chili, casserole, sloppy joes or lasagna. The slow cooker is my favorite tool -- I can start a roast or some chicken pieces early in the day and never give it another thought. I select produce in season, then usually invest most of my prep time on side dishes and dessert.

Because I need to be prepared for a large group but may only have a smaller one, I have one solid rule -- don't cook ANYTHING that you aren't willing to eat for the rest of the week. Last week's leftovers often appear in next week's soup.
posted by peakcomm at 11:34 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would do an evite/email thing where you do the main dish (chili, jambalaya, stew). Ask everyone to pick an item from a category to pick from (bread, salad, beverage, dessert,napkins, whatever). Therefore, people know what to bring and feel useful. It also reduces your stress!
posted by heathrowga at 1:07 PM on January 2, 2015

Not a dinner party, but for years I've hosted monthly potlucks with an open guest list. Not knowing how many would show up is less of a big deal because more guests mean more food. I find that telling people what category of food to bring generates unnecessary stress for all parties; 99% of the time it all works out on its own, and on the rare occasions it hasn't, someone has run out for pizza/ ice cream or other takeout to fill in. I always make a big vat of beans and a big vat of brown rice so at least one filling (if boring) main dish will be there. People graze throughout the evening and there is no formal seating at a table.

So this isn't an answer to your dinner party question, but another lower-stress way to have inexpensive at-home get togethers.
posted by metasarah at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2015

The best way to do this is Potluck. It spreads the cost among your friends, and it's a lot easier than doing all the work yourself.

That said, I'm nuts about having my friends over for dinner. 4-6 six folks total is ideal, but I can have as many as 10 if I bring in the table from the patio and use the coffee table.

What you make isn't hugely important, it's about getting together with your friends.

This is what I do:

1. Nibblies. These are things on the coffee table when people arrive. Some cheese, or dips, or finger foods. This can be as easy as opening a tub of hummus and chips, or a hunk of cheddar and crackers. Olives and almonds. Stuffed grape leaves. Just something to munch while waiting for everyone to arrive.

2. Dinner. Main dish. Easiest is a roast. Big bird, hunk o'beast, leg o'sumthin, ham. Throw meat in oven, turn on. You can also throw potatoes and veggies in there to roast too. Other options are lasagna or a stew or chili. I try to have veg and a salad. A loaf of bread and you're done. Cheap alternatives are spaghetti, chili, tacos.

3. Dessert. This is something you can ask someone to bring. Buy it at a bakery. Or make brownies or cookies.

4. After dinner nibblies. A bowl of M&Ms or some Andes mints on the coffee table.

Don't make yourself nuts on the drinks. Offer beer, wine and soda. Or make it a BYOB, where people bring what they want to drink.

I find that having after dinner entertainment is helpful. RiffTrax, or Eurovision, or a particular movie. Then, when that's done, turn up the lights and start clearing the table. (actually I do the cleaning while Husbunny handles dessert, but you get the idea.) Another thing to do to get people to leave is to say, "It's been great having you all here, I've got to get up early, but we must do this again soon."

And there you have it.

FWIW, I do theme parties. But I really LOVE planning these things and going nuts sourcing recipes and ingredients.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:47 PM on January 2, 2015

I've done this a lot over the years. Back when I was young, and sharing an apartment with a good friend, each weekend we'd do a huge pot of cous cous with a stew where the vegetable content was very high. We never knew how many we'd end up being, but from 6 people upwards.. This was student-budget cheap. People would bring drinks, or volunteer to go pick some up. There was a freedom in always serving the same dish - focus was on friendship and having a good time.

Later, a smaller group of friends decided to meet every five-six weeks at my house (my house because I am a single parent and couldn't easily get out at night back then). We were six people, though sometimes we invited others in. Part of the fun was cooking a lot, and everyone brought 10 dollars. Those with better jobs might also bring a bottle of wine. Usually there was a theme to the evening, but not always. A theme could be that someone had been abroad and had promised to tell us about his/her experiences there. The meal would then be inspired by that country. Or we would have pork on election day.
Typically, there would be several appetizers with a lot of bread first, then a big pot of stew with the relevant starch.
This would always be on a weekday, people would come over after work and go home at about 10 PM.
posted by mumimor at 4:39 PM on January 2, 2015

Another option, if your desire is simply to have time together but get the "work-free" benefit of going out to a restaurant, is catering in. You'll need to talk to people about what their idea of a reasonable price point is - I mean, going out to dinner is probably going to run minimum $20/person, but that starts to rack up for a couple or a couple with kids.

You'd be surprised what you can get for $10 or $12 per person - check around your local restaurants, family chains, and actual caterers. I used to belong to a bunco group that did potluck some months, paid in $10 to the kitty for the hostess to shop and cook, or catered in for $10pp. It mostly depended on the mood of the hostess, and then in December we'd go $20 each and get a huge meal from Honeybaked Ham plus wines.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:55 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

When we were poor students we had a standing Friday night dinner party at our house to save money. It was potluck, and because of savings on bulk food, it worked out cheaper than not eating together. Everyone we knew knew about it, and some times we'd get only one or two couples show up, and other times, 25 people. Potluck means it doesn't matter.

As an alternative model, a friend of ours does monthly roast dinners for all his friends. He buys huge amounts of meat and potatoes (like sometimes a whole pig) and if there's leftovers, he freezes them and has extra dinners for the rest of the month. Because people realise that must get expensive for him (although he's a generous guy and would never complain) they often slip him a 20 and say "to help pay for the meat".
posted by lollusc at 6:01 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

My friends and I have periodic (say, twice a year) potlucks. They're always a hit, and you don't have to dictate what people bring - just let everyone bring what sounds good to them and what they'd like to eat. We usually do a google doc just to help everyone be confident about what they're bringing, since our social group is prone to neurosis; it makes sure we're not going to end up with two types of mac-n-cheese (and then one gets eaten voraciously and one gets picked at and someone feels sad) or four kinds of brownies. This is for 8-15 people, low key, cheap (you're basically making 'enough food to feed me').

If you're doing dinner parties where you do all the cooking, the trick for the person who eats a ton of food is to make a ton of food. Extra pasta, tortellini straight from the bag into the boiling water, bread, something simple and cheap like that. The other thing is actual talking, feedback, "Hey, where'd all the potatoes go?" etc. If it's a consistent group of people you can actually train them, teach them new social norms. (I have had to point out to a few people that, you know, everyone else who comes to the monthly get-togethers brings a drink or a snack, and they don't have to do it every time but once in a while would be nice. None of these people were insulted. In general if you're proud enough of your social abilities to be affronted by the assumption that you need to be told things, you're paying enough attention not to need to be told things.)

Price per head, I would expect around $5/pp for a decent meal. I don't cook with a lot of meat and I have a great cheap produce market near me for vegetables, so that helps, but a cheap dinner out (e.g. Thai which is our go-to) only runs you $12-15/pp anyway. If you're going cheap, chili and bread or pasta and salad, you could easily be much less than $5/person. If you're feeling price-sensitive, skip the fancy olives and expensive cheeses and get a $5 bottle of wine or skip wine entirely. If you're feeling like a special treat, throw in the special things even though it makes it another $15 of groceries. There's a range of options available to you here, is what I'm saying.

As far as a low-key dinner party that doesn't suck to throw, we basically said a few years ago that if we can live with it, our friends can live with it. We clean up before having people over - got to make room on the tables if nothing else - but it doesn't put us anywhere near, say, my parents' standards (or some of my friends' standards; so, they can host next time if it bugs 'em. never seems to bug 'em that much in the long run). It's, you know, having friends over for some food and drinks. No need to stress. Getting together more often is worth it to us all, compared to how rarely we'd be able to get together if we expected a polished presentation.
posted by Lady Li at 1:55 AM on January 3, 2015

You could also do themed potlucks and have everyone draw from a hat which course to bring. Example: Italian night for 10 people you could simply draw for 3 apps, 5 Entrees, 2 desserts (or whatever spread you like) within the theme and those who draw choose what to make specific to the theme.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:04 AM on January 3, 2015

For a number of years, I hosted my book group's holiday dinner. It was potluck, but several group members are bad at potluck, so I made sure I covered the basics. Things I made included pot roast, chicken curry, lasagne, potatoes au gratin, rice noodles with peanut sauce. If money is an issue, spaghetti and chili are standards for a reason. I went to a great potluck where the hosts baked a lot of potatoes & everyone brought toppings & sides.

The food should be easy to serve and ready to go. If this becomes a regular thing, can you afford to supply everything? Maybe get a big bottle of cheap white and big bottle of cheap red, and hope that your guests figure out bringing wine/ beer. People will ask if they can bring anything; suggest salad and dessert. Budget depends on you; you can make chili, cornbread and coleslaw for a few bucks per person.

Buy a bunch of inexpensive wine glasses, pick up some extra flatware and dishes, and get a bunch of cotton napkins. Be prepared for spills. have some conversation starters in mind, in case of to many lulls, or maybe some games.
posted by theora55 at 2:11 PM on January 3, 2015

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