How to Throw a No-Stress, Casual Dinner Party
We’ll show you all the rules to break, plus 4 menus to have at the ready
There’s probably no task more stressful to a home cook than the kind of large-scale entertaining packed into two seemingly innocuous words—I’m talking about the dinner party.
And in many ways, it is a rational fear: you’re cooking up larger batches, you might have planned an overly aspirational menu, there’s the distraction of arrivals—not to mention the struggle to plate up beautiful food while also trying to tune in to the conversation. Plus, once seated at the table, never does the quality of your cooking seem to hold so much importance.
I have people over for food most weeks. My trick? It’s not a dinner party, it’s just dinner—not a restaurant-service, table-waiting, high-pressure affair. They are not without hiccups, and yes, I’m often still cooking when the guests arrive, but when everyone leaves satisfied and sleepy, I know it was a success.
Cooking for guests should not be limited to big occasions. In fact, I think the age of hyper-organized dinner parties—the kind with invitations, name cards, canapés and courses—is dwindling. It might sound simplistic, but even just thinking about it as having people ‘over for dinner’ eases the pressure to pull out a showstopper every time. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to make an effort. To quote Nigella Lawson, whose first book on all things home-cooked, How to Eat, was inspired by an uncomfortable dinner party where the host burst tears when elaborate dinner menu went awry—“You’re making people feel welcome in your house; you’re not putting on a show.” This means cooking food for everyone to enjoy—including yourself—not hosting an improvisational performance that leaves everyone feeling awkward, hungry, and exhausted.
There are many ways to entertain—whether it’s a simple weeknight supper, festive occasion, or something more expansive on the weekend. With practicality—and of course ease—in mind, here are the dinner party rules that you should feel free to break, plus menu ideas for different eaters, timings, and occasions. Now go—eat, drink, and be merry!
The Do’s and Don’ts of Dinners
1. Don’t be cooking when your guests arrive
This piece of advice has always felt unrealistic to me—as if food can be conjured out of the kitchen with no effort at all. You’re not running a restaurant service here. Whether you’ve prepared the always-advisable make-ahead dishes—or not—you will inevitably have to spend some time in the kitchen on the finishing touches.
If you’re having a large group over, sitting down to jot down a rough schedule will help you to estimate how long you’ll need—prioritizing more finicky procedures for earlier that day, or the day before, and narrowing down which finishing touches can happen last minute. If it’s a smaller group, no one will mind chatting idly in the kitchen with some drinks and nibbles.
2. Make everything ahead
There are some things that simply need to be served fresh—especially dishes whose texture is paramount, like vegetable-based sides. For example, it pays to wash, dry, and prep salad ingredients ahead of time (but leave produce that tends to discolor, apple we’re looking at you, till the last minute) and place them in the fridge with a damp paper towel on top to keep them crisp. Shake up your marinade in a jar so you can simply pour it over and toss the salad just before serving.
It might sound obvious, but try and save yourself from flitting around the kitchen, tasting and adjusting, once the crowd has arrived. Our suggested menus below are the place to start!
3. Have everyone bring a dish
Believe it or not, no one likes to turn up empty handed, but unless you’re purposefully hosting a pot-luck dinner, this could well mean you end up with two wheels of camembert, two tubs of hummus, and four bags of chips on the table—undoubtedly all good things, but in moderation.
The most helpful advice I’ve ever read on the topic of dinner parties also appeals to my not-so-inner dinner control freak: delegate! Send out ideas for what you need to help quality control your spread and keep it on track and on theme: a bottle of Prosecco, a loaf of bread, sparkling mixers, or just the one wheel of camembert. It’s not demanding, it’s practical.
4. You need to serve at least three courses
It’s this kind of structure that will leave you chained to your stove for the majority of the evening. I like to do a mezze style spread and blend the grazing phase into the main—the marinated feta you had on the table when guests arrive probably pairs well with the endive salad you made, which in turn is bolstered by charred chicken and spelt—so dot the mains around the starters before they are finished. This way of eating means you end up with a more relaxed evening of endless grazing and all the passing around of dishes fosters conversation among your guests, too. The variety also helps cater to different diets so that no one feels that they’re missing out.
Remember to stick to how you like to cook and, since this is after all, an expression of you. I like to focus on my starters and mains instead of a full-blown dessert, so I’ll break up some good quality chocolate and offer liqueurs at the end of the meal. No complaints yet.
5. Don’t let everyone fill up on bread
Nothing is as inviting as arriving to a dressed table with a few nibbles out to graze on—think fat green olives (Nocellara are my favorite), a couple of cheeses,a dip, crackers, or some small fingers of good bread. These bites will keep everyone usefully entertained and prevent any empty stomach drinking—you don’t want everyone quaffing the drinks before you’ve even made it out of the kitchen.
6. Cook only show-stopping dishes
I had a lemon meringue pie phase—some of them turned out excellently and I began to consider myself a master. Trouble was, I was cocky and dabbled with a slightly different recipe each time. Then, when it came to taking it along to a dinner as a dessert, I panicked, realized I didn’t remember which method worked best, and just like that I ended up with embarrassing gooey leakage from what had otherwise looked like a perfect meringue topping.
If you’re the kind of person who can shrug off a less than stellar dish with company, and not apologetically agonize to them about it, then go ahead and dream big. But I think it pays here to know thyself and remember that practice makes perfect. You’ll feel so much more comfortable serving a dish you know you can nail—one you’ve cooked a handful of times before—instead of straying out of your comfort zone with seemingly impressive dishes that cause you to scramble. Remember it’s often the simplest dishes that please most. When the cook’s satisfied, so are the guests.
7. You need enough furniture and tableware
The long, laden tables of glossy magazines are not a dinner party pre-requisite. Instead of setting a table, I like to stack plates next pre-dinner nibbles, arrange glasses around bottles of wine, and place cutlery in a jar for people to pluck from—in my mind, the more movement, the less stiff the evening.
As for furniture or lack-thereof, I’ve hosted dinner at my sister’s apartment on a picnic blanket in lieu of a kitchen table, had friends dive into an enamel baking dish of tiramisu on the coffee table when I had neither dessert plates nor enough chairs, and turned a side-table into a very effective buffet set-up. The novelty is all part of the fun, right? As long as there is food, the merriment will follow—we are, after all, simple creatures.
8. Keep the wine flowing
We all know the first thing a gracious host should do after the hello’s is to offer something to drink—but to avoid any premature exits, always have a bottle of water (no plastic please, I’m talking the re-fillable glass kind) on the table. Be accommodating to guests who don’t drink, are driving, or don’t want to over-indulge, and plan on having the ingredients for one, good quality non-alcoholic drink on hand.
9. Don’t let your guests lift a finger
Letting everyone be involved eases any stiffness and puts everyone at ease while the food is coming. If you aren’t the world’s expert chicken carver—crowdsource the guest who is, ask your friend to help dress and toss the salad (noting the jar trick mentioned above), or if you know you’ll need more time in the kitchen, set up a mini bar with aperitif ingredients, ice, and a cocktail shaker and have your guests entertain each other by testing out their mixology skills.
10. Think you’re too old for games
Many a dinner at my house has ended with what has now become a classic—The Saucepan Game. It goes like this: Everybody writes a word down a word on small piece of paper—it could be anything that springs to mind, from truffle salami to beginner ski slopes, Ron Weasley to existentialism (if you’re cruel)—folds it up, and places it in a large vessel, like a saucepan or bowl. Now get out a timer: Going around in a circle, each person has 30 seconds to pick out one piece of paper and try to describe the word. Hold on to the successful guesses as you’ll count them at the end of a round to keep a tally of who’s in the lead. For the second round, all the words return to the saucepan and the process is repeated, only this time the words must be acted out, like in charades. In the final round, you can describe the word using another single word.
The game is best played after dinner, and your contributions can riff on the conversations of that night. If you’re in a smaller group, I’d suggest a digestive game of Bananagrams, particularly if you’re painfully full.
How to plan your dinner party menu
Unless you’re hosting dinner as a duo or more—where one person can take over entertaining while the other preps in the kitchen—stick to a menu that will keep your kitchen time to a minimum.
Your mental checklist for menu planning
1. Check your tools: How many people can you feasibly cook for? Is there a side dish or other course you can outsource?
2. Consider your guest list: What are the dietary requirements? Will there be non-drinkers, vegan, vegetarian, gluten- or dairy-free eaters in the mix? Be sure to have options so your guests don’t feel left out.
3. Balance your dishes: Don’t repeat ingredients and make sure you have a selection of lighter dishes to balance anything heavy and refresh the palate.
4. Do a drinks stock-take: If you’re not planning on any cocktails, start the evening with a glassful of something sparkling as guests arrive, say 1 – 2 bottles. The usual rule of thumb is one bottle of wine per person—which seems like a recipe for a migraine, but it’s always better to over cater than have to dash to the store mid-meal.
5. Write a rough schedule: Do this the day before you begin cooking (take note slow cookers) or at the very latest the morning of. This will give you time to pick up any last bits and pieces from the store and figure out how much time you can delegate to cleaning and primping up your space.
4 menu ideas for 4 different dinners
Take inspiration from these 4 menus and mix match to suit your palate—and, of course, your guests!
The weeknight dinner:
Time is of the essence on a weeknight, so put small nibbles out as an appetizer to save on time and head straight to what we’re really waiting for—the main event. A super easy dessert and refreshing side salad with burrata rounds out the menu.
The last-minute menu:
A straight-forward, but impressive menu to pull out when you need to plan a dinner—quickly! Serve the chickpea pancakes as an appetizer while the main braises and finish up with a simple, yet elegant walnut cake.
The vegetarian or vegan-friendly menu:
Here’s a sample menu for a delicious dinner that everyone can enjoy! Start with the cauliflower, then move on to the hearty lasagna with a simple side salad, and finish up the meal with a decadent slice of something chocolatey.
The Saturday night sharing menu:
No courses here, so just dive in and mix and match mezze style.
The Sundays are for slow-cooking menu:
This menu takes it slow with an unexpected starter, stunning main source, simple sides, and a no-bake dessert that will serve to cleanse the palate for a new week.
Our top dinner-party drinks:
Get the mini bar ready!
What are your dinner party do’s and don’ts? Share your tips with us in the comments!
Published on December 15, 2018