Updated on 01.26.16

How to Organize a Cost-Effective and Fun Dinner Party

Trent Hamm

Roughly once a month, my wife and I host a dinner party with a guest list numbering between four and 10 other people. These dinner parties usually involve a meal, an evening of conversation, and sometimes a board game or two depending on the crowd. The post-dinner conversation (and sometimes drinks) last well into the late evening, with everyone usually going home happy.

We often invite other families with children to dinner, giving our children a chance to play together, as well as adults without children, too. Our kids put in appearances, but largely play together in the family room which leaves the adults to converse.

These events are among the highlights of our family’s social calendar. We look forward to these events, plan them carefully, and usually enjoy them deeply.

However, these events are not free. They come with costs – food costs, beverage costs, and occasional cleanup costs, just for starters. It is cheaper than a night out on the town, but not by too much.

So, as with most things that Sarah and I do, we look for ways to maximize the value of hosting these dinner parties. How can we host a dinner party that everyone is going to enjoy as much as possible while minimizing our costs?

After many years of nudging and shaping our plans, here’s the strategy we’ve come up with.

The Four Key Rules

If I had to boil down all of our strategies for a successful dinner party down to a very short list, I’d suggest these four things.

Rule #1: Choose people to invite that will be comfortable and that you will be comfortable with. If you’re inviting someone to your home that you are nervous or uncomfortable with, then the party is going to be nervous and uncomfortable, as much of the vibe feeds off of the hosts. Choose people who will be perfectly comfortable in your home and that you feel perfectly comfortable with. Don’t worry about the guests perfectly interacting – you can work on that when they’re all together.

Rule #2: The meal doesn’t have to be mind-blowingly amazing provided the conversation is good. The fun of a dinner party isn’t in a perfectly mind-blowing meal. Sure, you don’t want to serve dog food, but it doesn’t have to be the greatest meal ever presented. It just needs to be tasty and in appropriate quantities.

Rule #3: It is far better for the hosts to be out with the guests instead of working in the kitchen – as much as possible, anyway. Another challenge with a complex meal is that it requires one or both hosts to be in the kitchen working on the meal instead of out with the guests. It is far better for at least one – if not both – of the hosts to be hanging out with the guests. Some people solve this by having food delivered. We use other strategies.

Rule #4: Have lots of beverage options. If there’s one thing we don’t skimp on, it’s beverage choices. We usually try to make sure to have an array of beverage options on hand. I find that putting a beverage in a person’s hand that they happen to like tends to go a long way toward improving conversation, so having a variety of choices helps. Of course, we have tricks for managing the costs of this, too.

Who Should I Invite?

I usually start this off with the first rule, from above.

Rule #1: Choose people to invite that will be comfortable and that you will be comfortable with.

The thing is, some dinner parties can end up going poorly because of the people and the social interactions, but you can control that a lot by using some smart filtering in advance. I pick and choose my guests, and I not only think about the guests themselves but about the potential interactions.

For starters, I don’t invite people that will make me feel nervous or uncomfortable by their presence. I also don’t invite people who will be needlessly critical of my home or the food that I serve. If someone manages to do that, they do not get invited back, period.

Instead, I stick with people who don’t fill me with apprehension. I also stick with people that, even if they have a negative thought, keep it to themselves.

That simple strategy helps me to relax during dinner parties, as I know the guests will be comfortable and open to interacting well, and I believe conversation is the key to a good dinner party.

There are also a few additional criteria that I look for.

First, seek to invite people you know that have common interests. My favorite thing to do is to invite people who may not know each other well but who have a common interest. This unfortunately doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it almost always helps trigger a new friendship and an evening of conversation. The only trick is to subtly involve them both in a conversation about their shared interest – don’t make their mutual interest a big deal at all. You don’t have to carry it so far as to have a theme for the evening, but you can do so if you want.

Second, avoid inviting pairs of people that will loudly argue or butt heads. It’s not a problem to invite people who disagree on strongly-held issues, but be sure you know them well enough to know that they won’t cause a big conflict due to those issues. For example, I would avoid inviting loud and confrontational Tea Partiers and socialists to the same dinner party, as it just won’t end well.

Third, familiarity with each other is a good thing, but so are unknowns. Not everyone needs to know each other in advance. In fact, inviting people that don’t know each other can result in a particularly fun evening, especially if at least some of them are outgoing or you’re willing to help serve as an icebreaker. I would avoid inviting several people that know each other and one or two people who don’t know anyone, though, as that can end up awkwardly.

Finally, we touch base with everyone we expect to be coming a few days before the event, making sure that they are coming. We don’t send out an invite, hope for RSVPs, and then be baffled/upset when not everyone comes. We usually contact the people we’ve invited about two or three days before the event and just make sure that they can make it. The real reason for this is for meal planning, and so we share that reason when we make contact. We don’t ever rely on an RSVP system.

What Kind of Meal Should I Plan?

This is where Rules #2 and #3 come into play.

Rule #2: The meal doesn’t have to be mind-blowingly amazing provided the conversation is good.

and

Rule #3: It is far better for the hosts to be out with the guests instead of working in the kitchen – as much as possible, anyway.

For our meal planning, we strive to prepare something simple and tasty. It does not have to be an amazing culinary treat, just something that will make most of our guests smile and enjoy the meal. We make our meal plans as simple as possible and prefer meals where we can do as much of the prep work as humanly possible before guests arrive. This not only gives us more time with the guests, it also usually makes the cost of the meal significantly lower.

Here are some additional tactics to make this easier.

First, use a slow cooker to your advantage. This is the perfect place to prepare a soup and let it slowly cook while you entertain guests. A few hearty soups (along with some sandwiches) make for a great simple meal that pretty much everyone enjoys, especially in the winter months, and you can do virtually all of the prep work before anyone arrives and basically just serve the meal whenever it works.

Second, during warmer months, grilling tends to work well. This gives guests an excuse to be outside and the person manning the grill (usually me) can continue to be part of conversations. Check the weather before relying on this, though, and have backup plans if there’s any chance of inclement weather.

Third, if you’re going to try something complicated, treat it like a restaurant meal. Do almost everything in advance so that you’re basically just warming up the food when people arrive. This is effectively what happens in many restaurant kitchens because it minimizes the prep time once the meal is actually ordered.

Finally, set the dinner table in advance, too. Have all plates, silverware, glasses, and other dishes already out and ready to be used. We almost always set the table before the guests arrive unless we intend to use the dinner table for a game or something, in which case we set all of the dishes out on the counter to make setting the table very easy.

Should the Guests Bring Anything?

Let me point you to the last rule.

Rule #4: Have lots of beverage options.

We encourage anyone who comes to our dinner parties to bring a beverage with them with more than enough to share. This allows us to have a wide variety of beverages on hand for our guests to choose from and removes much of the beverage cost from our meal.

Sometimes, we even have potluck dinners and encourage people to bring side dishes, but this also depends on the crowd. Suggesting beverages is usually a much easier approach.

Here are a few other tactical points to consider.

First, know what your crowd will drink. Some of our parties involve alcohol consumption, while others do not. This helps shape what kind of beverages we suggest that guests bring. Sometimes, we’ll tell people to bring sodas; at other times, a six-pack of craft beer is appropriate; at yet other times, a bottle of wine hits the spot. This depends entirely on the invited guests.

Second, fill up a pitcher of water with ice, toss in a sliced lemon or lime, and leave it out on the table with some cups beside it. Many people will simply want this for a beverage. I usually slice a lemon, put it in first, put some ice on top, and then fill up the pitcher with water. This means that the ice holds the lemon near the bottom and the water becomes really suffused with a touch of lemon flavor.

Third, add an option or two of your own, but use what you have on hand. We always include options like coffee and orange juice and milk if we happen to have those things available. You’d be surprised as to what beverages people actually want, and if you say the right thing, they’re pleased. There’s no harm in offering all kinds of things, and a person with a beverage they like in their hand is always going to make good conversation.

Finally, keep the coffee flowing. This may be an Iowa thing, but there are many people who seem to live on a continuous flow of coffee throughout the day. We always grind some coffee and keep a pot of it available for guests during dinner parties. We usually just leave it out so people can refill as desired (which is something we do with most beverages, simply putting the ones that need to be chilled on ice).

The Question of Children

Sometimes, we have full-family dinner parties where we encourage people to bring their children and serve foods that children generally won’t mind. At other times, we discourage the presence of children because it allows us to invite people who are less comfortable around children and often reduces conversational inhibitions.

Our usual strategy for our children during dinner parties is to set them up with a variety of entertainment options in the family room, which is on the lower level of our home. We usually dig out some movies, give them permission to play more video games than usual, get out some board games, and so on.

Our children usually do a very good job of staying in the family room except for meal times. They understand that we’re giving them a bunch of entertainment options, particularly the movies and video game options (as we restrict their screen time outside of these events), and they have fun taking advantage of them. Providing the children with some exceptional entertainment almost always keeps them happy. Sometimes, when we have guests who bring their children, those children will wander out of the family room and interact with the guests, and that’s okay.

Thus, we usually have little problem having minimal child time during a dinner party if that’s what is desired. On occasion, we have even had our children visit friends or neighbors (we do a lot of babysitting exchanges) during dinner parties, but that’s usually unnecessary.

Following Up

Once the dinner party is over and the mess is cleaned up, it’s worth following up in the next day or two.

I have a simple rule when it comes to social encounters. I try very hard to remember something with which I need to follow up with each person that comes. Usually, I need to send them a link or a piece of information. I even jot this down sometimes in my pocket notebook during the dinner party.

That way, a day or two later, they get an email that reminds them of the party and includes some piece of information that they were interested in. That puts a final positive cap on the night.

This is important because of the “peak-end rule.” If you’re unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it simply states that when people reflect back on their feelings on an event, they draw those feelings from two sources: the “peak” of the event and the end of the event. By sending a friendly follow-up email or phone call or other communication, you can cement a positive “end” on the event, which will make people reflect on it more positively down the road. This opens the door to more dinner parties, both those hosted by yourself and those hosted by others.

How Does This Save Money?

How does all of this planning really save money, then?

Well, if you’re comparing a dinner party to a quiet family dinner at home, it doesn’t save money. Where it does save money is in comparison to eating out or other out-of-the-house social events.

However, having a plan like this for a dinner party cuts the cost of hosting one in several ways.

You save money by having a simple meal. The more complex the meal, the more time you spend in the kitchen and the more money you spend on ingredients. Make the meal simple and spend more time with the guests while also keeping money in your pocket.

You save money by having guests bring beverages. When guests bring their own beverages, that means you aren’t buying those beverages. At many dinner parties, the only beverage we provide is a big pitcher of water with some lemon in it that we refill a few times. That’s basically free.

You save money by simply staying at home. Even with guests, it is still cheaper to make a meal at home for us than to take our family out to dinner at even a low cost restaurant. If we went to a decent restaurant… ouch. This may not be as true if you don’t have children or you are single, but restaurant meals are always going to be pricier.

You save money by reciprocal invitation. One of the best perks of hosting a dinner party, particularly a good one, is that you often end up receiving a few invitations to other dinner parties. In those situations, you essentially get a free meal and an evening of entertainment provided by someone else, maybe for the cost of a bottle of wine.

You also build much stronger social connections. Social events like this build social connections among the guests, yourself included. Those stronger social connections tend to pay off over time in lots of little ways, from a helping hand when you have a problem to insight into difficult subjects, from information about good sales and offers to social companionship and friendship.

A dinner party is really worth it.

Final Thoughts

As I said, Sarah and I love hosting dinner parties. In fact, we will probably make it a weekly affair when our children are a bit older and we can de-kidify our house a little more, as preparing for guests can be a bit of a challenge sometimes.

We view it as extremely low cost entertainment and socializing, not just because the dinner party itself is pretty inexpensive, but because it leads into additional social connections and social events.

Plus, they’re fun. It’s just fun to have people visit you whose company you enjoy, and when they leave the event with a smile on their face you know that you both got a lot of joy out of the evening.

Given that it doesn’t cost too much to pull the evening off, it’s something that I recommend to almost everyone. If you’re interested in this idea but a little apprehensive about it, do it. Just jump in feet first and give it a shot. You’ll be incredibly glad that you did it.

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