Yesterday, I admitted that I know absolutely nothing about hosting a dinner party. And since I know so little, I enlisted the help of the incredibly gracious blogger/designer, Helen Young. When I emailed her with my bizarre request, she responded back with an emphatic, “I do love to host parties!”
So friends, I give you Helen Young. Now go forth and learn from the master herself.
I was so excited when Katie O. asked me to write a guest post on how to host a dinner party. I have loved parties since I was a little girl. I grew up with a mother and grandmother who love to entertain (and they both do it beautifully) and all that I know about entertaining I learned from them. As a child, both my mother and grandmother would let me help when getting ready for a dinner party – I got to set the table, pick out china, get out the cocktail napkins, put nuts in a bowl etc. My mom also let me be involved in the food selection too, a great learning experience. How I loved the anticipation before the party – and then all of the pretty dressed up grown ups would arrive! My brother and I would sneak around the party eating cashews and drinking the last sips in the glasses (we loved the taste of tonic water -still do!)
The most important thing to keep in mind is – HAVE FUN! Setting the stage and planning the party can be as much fun as the event itself. Give yourself plenty of time and make lists. A host or hostess who is having fun will have a relaxing, entertaining party. A stressed out host or hostess will have guests who can’t wait to go home. Hosting parties well takes practice. So if you start off small and work your way up to a big shindig, success will be yours. The old expression “Don’t bite off more than you can chew” is appropriate here.
When I am preparing to host a dinner party the first thing I do is set the tone for the party. Is this a casual dinner party, a Sunday dinner with family or an elegant meal where I pull out all the best china and silver? Setting the tone makes all of the other decisions flow easily.
Once the tone has been set the next decision is whether or not to have the party be a sit down affair or is it walk around with plates? This is usually dictated by the number of guests and how much seating you have at the table. If you have room to seat everyone, they will be more comfortable and don’t forget that you can always rearrange your living room, add a card table or two covered with table cloths and you have doubled your seating. For this post let’s assume we are hosting a seated dinner party for eight. Eight guests for dinner is a wonderful number – lots of recipes work for eight, eight guests fit at most tables, eight guests work for multiple conversations or one at the dinner table. Let’s also assume that we are hosting an informal affair. Guests will dress festively, but not coat and tie – so the table will be pretty, but we won’t pull out the best china, silver and crystal (a formal dinner party is a whole other post – and so are invitations – which BTW let’s assume the invitation was by phone).
At this point I also decide where to set up the bar. My parents’ parties always had bartenders (but everyone drank the hard stuff back then so it was more necessary). If I am hosting a big cocktail party or really formal dinner party then I will hire a bartender and someone to help me in the kitchen, but for an informal dinner party I usually set up the bar in an area we designed specifically for this in our house -it’s my office when not being used for a bar. For a party, I take away all of the office paraphernalia and bring in the glasses, trays, cocktail napkins, wine buckets, and bowls for the nuts (I always have a bowl of nuts on the bar).
If you don’t have a designated bar area, then pick one that is in the middle of the party if possible, and also has at least two ways to access the area ( that way you have less of a traffic jam). At my Christmas party last year I set up two bars to keep people moving – congestion at the bar does not make people merry and bright!
The next step is to plan the menu. If you don’t know the guests well, when inviting them on the phone be sure to ask if they have any allergies. If there are no allergies, then the next thing to consider when planning the menu is weather and time of year. You wouldn’t want to serve a big Beef Wellington, no matter how delicious, on a 100 degree summer night. In Summer I tend to keep the menu light and flavorful and in the Fall and Winter the food can be heavier and more filling. A word of caution – do not cook a new recipe for the first time at a dinner party. I have done this – and it doesn’t always turn out so well. For dinner parties I tend to cook recipes that I am comfortable with and that appeal to many people. If you must try a new recipe, then test run it the week before the party to make sure you know it will be successful. Once you have picked the main course then pick complimentary side dishes and appetizers. Also, remember to factor in how much oven space you have when planning the menu(if you have two ovens this should not be a problem). You will want to think through the cooking times and recipes at this stage to make sure you can have all of the dishes ready at the same time. I will frequently make side dishes that can be made ahead and popped in the oven if I make a stove top main dish. Unless you are a very accomplished chef, managing three or four stove top recipes at a dinner party will make your blood pressure go up.
Next decide on table decorations. Think about the occasion and what is appropriate and then pick your place mats,napkins, china, flat wear and flowers. I think fresh flowers, herbs or plants are a must on a dinner table. They don’t have to be fancy, just fresh and simple will work fine. I like to arrange flowers, so the floral component of a party is one of my favorites.
Make a list of everything you need for the party from the grocery store to Party City. Shop for paper goods or table setting components early so you don’t forget anything. I usually set the table two days before the party to make sure I like the way it looks and so if I have forgotten anything there is plenty of time to correct that. I shop for the food the day before the party so everything is fresh, including buying fresh flowers.
It’s important for your house to be clean and fresh for a party, so don’t forget to plan a cleaning day or two within a few days of the party. Make sure the powder room is sparkling and stocked with hand towels and soap for your guests.
The day of the party I first arrange the flowers early in the morning. Then I set up the bar and get all of the bar items in order. Next, I cook anything that can be done ahead so I can be relaxed later in the day (hardly ever happens though – I am always adding finishing touches right up to the first guest’s arrival). Any other food prep that can be done should be done now too. Mid-afternoon you should get off of your feet and rest for half an hour or take a short nap. It will pay off later.
An hour before the party get appetizers ready (heat in oven or take cheese out of frig) and make sure bar is stocked. When your guests arrive you should be ready to greet them and pay attention to them and not have to take care of anything in the kitchen for awhile. If you have a husband, wife, partner, better half, be sure to ask him or her to help you handle drinks and be available to help. If you know you have a willing helper you will be more relaxed. A few minutes after the first guests arrive I immediately offer them a drink and have the appetizers ready to go.
For a casual dinner party, I have begun to mostly serve the food in the kitchen on my island (I let the guests serve themselves). Growing up we never did this, and at parties guests were always seated and then served at the table. But since casual entertaining is the norm these days (and most of us don’t have serving help), the serve yourself mode seems to work best. You can also serve off of a side board or console in the dining room if you don’t want people in the kitchen. I do still like to clear the table for guests between dinner and dessert and will enlist the help of one guest to help me. If you can, keep the other guests at the table while clearing, it will be much smoother. Get the same guest who cleared to help you serve dessert and coffee. (Remember serve from the guest’s left and clear from the guest’s right).
Mostly, remember a relaxed host or hostess makes a party fun – so enjoy yourself (and plan ahead)!