Ever since I was a little girl living in the deep South, I remember watching my mother entertain effortlessly. At least it appeared that way to me! She was never stressed or frazzled. She was simply a natural hostess. Without realizing it at the time, I learned so much from her. Today, my friends are often amazed at how relaxed I appear during parties my husband and I frequently host. After all, my goal is to have fun at the party too!
The most important step is to “plan ahead”. I know that sounds like such a no-brainer, but it needs to be reiterated. Having a party should be as fun for you, the host, as it is for your guests.
To plan for your dinner party, start with the ‘event date’, then work backwards, as follows:
(1-2) Weeks in Advance:
Decide on a Cuisine Type (Mexican, Italian, Comfort Food, etc.) and Plan your Menu. This is always the hardest step for me as I aim to please the entire group from a culinary and creative standpoint! I read a long time ago in one of Ina Garten’s cookbooks, however, that you should never experiment with new recipes as part of your dinner party menu (which I am always so tempted to do). Instead, perfect a few recipes and use those!
Of course, you should also be aware of likes, dislikes and potential allergies of your guests as well. It would not bode well to serve Filet Mignon to your vegetarian guests. Major faux paux!
On a brighter note, having a festive cocktail to match your menu is always kicks off your party on a fun note.
Be Creative! Plan your table design…. deciding which plates, napkins, tablecloth, etc. best suits your menu and atmosphere you want to create (casual, formal, funky, rustic, etc). The use of candles (tea light, votive, tapered, whatever!) always makes a table look warm and inviting and makes your guests feel special too. If you want to incorporate flowers, consider using short vases in various shapes and sizes scattered casually down the center of your table. Please make sure each guest can have visual contact with each other without a large vase obstructing their view. You could also use wheat grass, kale, or lucky bamboo for a unique twist.
Depending on your group, you may want to have a couple of “conversation starters” at the ready. One idea is to create and randomly place a light-hearted question card under each dinner plate. For example, “What was your favorite vacation?”, “What is your favorite movie from the ‘80’s?”, “If you could have dinner with any famous person who is now deceased, who would it be?” If there is a lull in your dinner table conversation, simply ask a guest to look under his plate and answer the question. This generally sparks great conversation and you will probably not have time for every guest to ask their question!
You can also check out any one of these books at Barnes and Noble for more ideas: Conversation Starters.
(1) Week in Advance:
Time to Shop! From your menu, create your shopping list. You can most likely shop for beverages, appetizers, sides and dessert ingredients which don’t require being “fresh”. Make whatever you can “make ahead” and store in airtight containers and/or freeze.
(2) Days in Advance:
Select Serving Pieces. This might seem a bit silly to you, but trust me, it can take time to figure out what dishes you need for specific recipes. You might also realize you need to purchase or borrow that perfect bowl to complement your dip. It’s better to realize this in advance! Set these serving pieces out and label with a sticky note.
(1) Day before Party:
Pick-up Flowers and Remaining Groceries, Continue Cooking, Set Table, and Tidy House… This is my favorite day in the dinner party planning process! Run to the market for the last of your special ingredients. Again, “make ahead” what you can, getting as much done as possible today!
Once the cooking and prepping is done, freshen your house, including your guest bathroom by adding a special candle or small flower bouquet and nice guest hand towels. If you have kids, close the door and deem this bathroom “off limits” until the party!
Take your time and have fun setting and decorating your dinner table. If you prefer to purchase your fresh flowers on the day of the party, that’s totally manageable. In any case, you will be so glad this step is done in advance!
Final Touches! When you wake up to your clean house and see your beautiful table already set for your special guests arriving that evening, you will surely bask in the glory of your accomplishments thus far. Depending on your menu selections, you will likely not have much to do until closer to the time your guests are due to arrive. Use this time to set up your designated bar area and possibly a dessert table.
At least two (2) hours before your guests arrive, begin getting yourself ready for the evening. Now, you’ll have about an hour or so to start prepping your appetizers and putting the final touches on your main course. Light your candles, fill the ice bucket, turn on the music and you are ready to greet your guests and get the party started.
It’s more important, at least in my book, that you are ready when the guests arrive, than having every appetizer completed. Most folks feel quite comfortable in the kitchen, so you can always finish-up in there with your company nearby.
After dinner, unless your guests are close friends that insist on helping with clean-up (by all means, let them), simply stack the dirty dishes, store the leftovers appropriately, and enjoy your party to the bitter end. Save clean-up for after your guests are gone!
Remember, it’s a party for you too, so don't forget to enjoy it…… Cheers!