Nothing says you have entered the world of adulthood like hosting your very own dinner party. Whether you are a seasoned pro or nervous first-timer, there are tried and tested ways to ensure success. The empress of entertaining, Martha Stewart, would have you believe it’s easy, but if you don’t register on the culinary goddess scale, then it might be best to heed the below advice and stick to a plan.
Restaurants have been essentially throwing large dinner parties’ night after night since the first pizza shop opened, and they all have one thing in common – preparation. They don’t wait for their first booking to walk through the door before they bust out the knives and get chopping. Everything is done, waiting to wow their guests from the minute they walk in, with intimate table settings, the right music and of course - amazing food.
From make-ahead desserts to selecting the right color for your table settings, there is a science behind creating a memorable event, one your guests will remember for all the right reasons. Remember that it is a dinner party, not a backyard rave and keep things intimate, or risk having the neighbours call the cops when the unruly crowd gets out of hand.
So, approach your dinner party with a solid Martha-approved plan and you are destined to be the toast of the night. And if planning is not your thing, an epic fail may await you, so have only good friends at the table and the local pizza delivery on standby.
20 Dessert and Dusted
For those of you imagining grandiose moments of flambéing crepes tableside or pulling a perfect pillowy soufflé out of the oven – forget it. Immediately. These circa 1970 desserts have been left in the past for good reason.
Nothing is sure to set you up for certain failure than getting in over your head before you even begin. With so many amazing desserts that lend themselves to being made ahead of time, forget being a show-off, make food people want to actually eat, and leave the stress behind. Check out this collection of simple no fuss recipes for inspiration.
19 Stylish Sips
If the mention of the word cocktail brings an image of a frozen marg to mind, you have some homework to do. Save the slurpees for the backyard BBQ, we are talking about classy drinks, served in nice glasses with a sprig of fresh mint, olives, or rosemary. These aren’t for sculling, rather sipping and awakening your guests' taste buds.
Stick to crowd pleasers that will elevate the taste of your food - no syrupy mocktails or disaster-waiting-to-happen self-serve punchbowls. Mix up a few pitchers of something simple and easy (stick to drinks that have no more than three ingredients as a rule of thumb whether they're spiked or juice-based) stash them in the fridge and pour as needed, and have plenty of ice on standby.
18 Stranger Danger
Just because you know everyone coming, doesn’t always guarantee everyone will be Facebook friends by the end of the night. The great thing about having a diverse group of friends is the personality differences they bring. Sometimes though, that might not work in an intimate setting. At the very least, try to have at least a couple of friends who know each other to reduce the potential for awkward silence, or worse still, Jerry Springer style cat fights.
Nothing will ruin your velvety smooth pea soup faster than a heated debate over who voted for who or why vegans are the worst thing to even happen to civilization when there's a devout vegan at the table.
17 Sharing is Caring
Guests rarely do as they are told. The ones that arrive early are the worst, the doorbell rings while you are running around trying to stuff the last of the dirty laundry into the hamper. The best way to combat these eager beavers is to serve starters on a sharing board. Don’t fuss making individual hors d'oeuvres, so 1990’s!
Serve a delicious mix of store-bought delicacies to keep the guests from getting tipsy before the appetizer is even served. Use savory, salty foods to get the taste buds fired up and ready for your culinary creations.
16 Tried and Tested
Of course, you want to impress your friends with your Top Chef prowess, but here’s the thing, if you haven’t made a dish before, what on earth would possess you to make it for people now? The pressure is already at breaking point, don’t add to it with delusions of successful forays into new and exotic cuisines. I am not saying you need to have a full practice run but pick some dishes that are already tried and tested winners within your repertoire and breathe a little easier. A curry might sound impressive but when you don’t get the spice mix right and everyone is gulping down every drop of milk in the house, it doesn’t exactly make for a great night.
15 Be Picky
Nothing will bring stress more than having a hoard of people over and trying to cook a sit-down dinner, timed perfectly and without any kitchen disasters. With that in mind, the perfect number of dinner party guests is six, including yourself and your partner. It allows for comfortable conversation and isn’t overwhelming in the kitchen.
Not sure who to invite? Line up your friends and imagine them sitting at a table together, if your crazy college mates are likely to embarrass you in front of your new fancy work colleagues with streaking stories from spring break, best leave those catch ups for the pub.
14 Behold the Braise
The ultimate in stress-free dinner party fare, the slow cooked braise. The positives of this style of dish are many. Firstly, they can be made days in advance, you could even whack it together in the slow cooker and go to work, it doesn’t get much easier than that. A few days in the fridge is great for improving flavors as they meld together and get tastier over time – all with no extra effort on your part.
You will also eliminate the fear of over-cooking a steak, trying to meet every individual’s preference. Whether you go classic Beef Bourguignon or a modern Chipotle Chili, simply put it back on the stove in a large pot and reheat; dinner party genius.
13 Set and Forget
This might seem obvious, but it never seems to happen. You have all the best intentions of being organized but with meringue flying across the kitchen and kids under your feet, the table is left until the last minute to be dressed.
Make it a part of your plan to set the table with everything including salt, pepper, water glasses and smiles as you walk past it the following morning waiting for your guests to arrive. One more thing, napkins folded into swans are out – just so you know.
12 Lighten Up
A successful menu will have the right balance of courses to leave the guests feeling satisfied, but not about to explode. No host wants to hear through the grapevine that a post party McDs run occurred due to lack of food, but that doesn’t mean you need to stuff your guests so full they can’t breathe.
Plan the menu and make sure you balance out a heavy entrée with a light fruit-based dessert, rather than an enormous slab of mud cake or cream pie. Less is more when it comes to presenting a meal people will remember; less high-quality ingredients is more satisfying than a menu that has the defibrillator on stand-by.
11 Garnishing Greatness
Bust out the pro moves and finish meals with a flourish of color or a special garnish. It doesn’t take much to make a simple meal look smashing with a complementing garnish. Use contrasting colors to make things pop; bright red raspberries atop a yellow lemon tart, or flashes of green herb through a heavy stew.
Even simple store-bought foods can come to life with a bit of jazzing up. A sprinkle of toasted nuts or a drizzle of sauce on the plate takes you from a seven to a 10 on the professional scale.
10 Roll With The Punches
Things are going well, everyone is getting along, and the sharing platter was a hit. You escape back to the kitchen to find you have left the hot plate on, and the salmon is so dry you could floss your teeth with it. It happens, no one is perfect, at some time or another we have all had a fail.
The most important thing to remember as you look down at the remains of what was to be your crowning glory is that these people are your friends, not restaurant critics. If you stuffed up, own it. Have a laugh and just think what a great story it will be in years to come.
9 Get in the mood
Nothing screams school canteen more than the blazing overhead dining room lights. Dim the lights if you have one of those fancy switches in your house. If not, candles and lamps (borrow them from other rooms in the house) around the corners of the room will do the trick and create a relaxed atmosphere.
It might be tempting to fill the room with incense or cinnamon scented candles, refrain. Nothing is more off-putting to diners than overwhelming smells while they are trying to eat. The same applies for floral arrangements, keep it scent free and everyone will be drooling over the smells coming from the kitchen.
8 Keep It Simple
One low-lying center piece in the middle brings it all together. It might look more impressive as guests come in to take their seats to have a towering vase of palm fronds, but nothing is more frustrating than trying to talk to your fellow diners through an indoor rainforest. Keep it low and out of people’s faces to ensure the banter is free flowing.
It looks so impressive at Wheel and Barrow to see all those perfect dinner settings, plates and all. But seriously, don’t bother putting plates out if you actually need them in the kitchen! Make sure you have enough cutlery for each course without having to wash them in between. Ikea and Target have great, cheap, home-wares if you need a top up.
7 Ditch The Sea Theme
Ever noticed how all the big brand fast-food chains all use similar colors in their signs and logos? Red and yellow spring to mind. This is no coincidence. Science has known for a long time that color has the ability to impact our appetite, not surprisingly our fat-serving friends have gone straight for the big hitters, ensuring you can’t resist the triple cheese burger combo when driving past.
In contrast to these winning colors, blue is on the opposite end of the scale. Its association with the sea has a calming effect on people, which actually suppresses the appetite. There are also no naturally occurring blue foods in nature so that doesn’t set the tone for a chow down. Keep things understated and natural, soft hues of green and beige are always winners.
6 Give Them The Cold Side
Chilled sides are not only refreshing, they are a great way of mitigating limp green beans after you forgot about them on the stove. If timing in the kitchen isn’t your thing, a cold side dish is a great way to ensure all the parts of the meal are served altogether, without the fear of lumpy mash or burnt sweet potato fries. Think crispy salads, coleslaw or home-made pickles, here are 60 of Martha’s best chilled recipes to get you started.
5 Prep Prep Prep
I cannot stress this one enough. Unless you have the knife skills of a ninja, cooking for a group can be more time consuming than the dreaded weekly phone call from your mother. Even the smallest task can take three times longer than you expect when you are doing it en masse. Peel, chop, cut and organize your ingredients ahead of time. Soak vegetables that are prone to browning in a little lemon water to keep them looking fresh.
Most things can be prepped the night before, ensuring an easy dinner party the following day and making sure you aren’t exhausted and wishing everyone would just eat and get the hell out so you can collapse on the lounge and sleep in your clothes!
4 Tuning In
If you are serving salmon and asparagus, a playlist of Metallica’s greatest hits probably isn’t appropriate. Setting the mood with great background music not only makes your guests feel comfortable, it can also cover up those awkward silences when everyone is eating at once and all you can hear is your husbands’ bosses jaw clicking every time he chews.
Think gentle background music, not nightclub. No need to wait for your favorite songs to come on the radio and hit record, there are loads of cool lists you can use from music sharing apps, so get your groove on.
3 Clean up
You're ultra-prepared and the table looks great, but if the guests are treated to a display of dirty socks in the bathroom it really dampens the sophisticated mood you have broken a sweat trying to create. Set aside time to clean the house and put things away.
Clutter makes people uncomfortable, you might think you collection of pizza menus are impressive, but reality is they make your apartment look like a fire hazard, your nervous guests will be keeping an eye on the fire escape. Pet hair on furniture could ruin people’s nice clothes and make them uncomfortable, worse still it could end up in the salad - yes, that has actually happened to me, AND I ate it.
2 Read the Recipe
We already know that the plan is to make dishes you are comfortable with, but when stress creeps in anything can happen. I recently went to a gathering where the cupcakes were accidentally baked with salt not sugar, much to the horror of the poor host who went from superstar to super red-faced in seconds.
It can happen to the best of us, so be extra vigilant and double check not only what you are putting in is correct, but also the quantities. Doubling or even tripling a recipe to serve more people than you are used to can lead to disaster – check your maths!
1 Less is more
Nothing is worse than wanting to explode while you are sitting in your Sunday best. Large protein portions coupled with rich appetizers and too much bread will have guests hiding in the bathroom, loosening their belts and letting out a few sneaky burps to make room for dessert.
Keep it small and high quality, serve plenty of light sides and have bread on the table for those who might still feel hungry. I am not saying to be the grinch who stole dinner, just appropriate, a 5oz portion of meat or fish per person is perfect. Remember you still have dessert to go.