On Hosting a Dinner Party

Dinner Party... by McFlossy on Flickr!After answering many reader emails and addressing the topic in multiple reader mailbags, I thought it would be worthwhile to write a comprehensive post on how to host an effective dinner party on a reasonable budget.

Why a Dinner Party?
A dinner party? you may be asking yourself. Why?

An evening dinner party is perhaps the best way possible to develop new relationships with people and strengthen ties to old friends at the same time. It provides an evening’s worth of entertainment, a good meal, quality time with interesting people, the basis for ongoing friendships, and the possibility of helping your friends establish new friendships, too.

It doesn’t have to be pretentious, either. It can be something as simple as a backyard barbecue or a very humble and simple meal or as complex as you’d like to make it. In fact, I tend to find that encouraging everyone to be as casual as they want is often a great way to get people to let their hair down – and to see respected members of the community in jeans and a beat-up tee shirt wolfing down a hamburger.

The real key, though, is building relationships. Not only should a dinner party help you build relationships with the other people there, it should also help those people build relationships with each other at least partially independent of you. It may come to pass that two people destined to meet met at your dinner party, or that the foundations of a business began when two people started talking over the pasta bowl in your dining room.

Such relationships and moments not only are the foundation of lasting friendships, but they can also develop into professional relationships and job opportunities as well. Not only that, it usually gets you on “the list” for other dinner parties in your community.

Selecting Invitees
The first question is who you should invite, which is the real key to dinner party success.

I usually encourage people to keep the invitation list between eight and fourteen people. Less than that and you limit the number of interactions that might happen. More than that and people will get lost in the shuffle.

I’d encourage you to mix and match the social groups you’re a part of. Don’t simply invite a string of people who are all previously connected to each other. It’s fine to invite some people who know each other previously, but there should be a mix of old and new faces for everyone who attends.

In particular, make sure that anyone you invite who is introverted has several familiar people in attendance. This is less important for an outgoing person, of course, but if you invite an introverted person, they’re likely to follow you around carefully instead of talking to others and building new relationships.

You should also look for any potential “matches” – people with aligned interests who don’t necessarily know each other, for instance. You’re not necessarily setting people up, but you are creating an environment where paths can cross.

Don’t overthink things, either. No list is perfect, and you’ll likely have a chance to have additional dinner parties in the future.

Selecting the Meal
If you’re unsure, go simple. Have a simple barbecue (with a vegetarian option) or a simple dinner (like salad and pasta). Meal preparation works best if the final preparation steps can be handled by one person, so that if you’re part of a couple, your partner can be mingling with guests.

To go along with the simplicity of the meal, you should inform the guests that the dinner party is very casual. This tends to put most people at ease and also means you’re not expected to produce pheasant under glass, either.

It can be useful to have a tray of simple appetizers out for guests when they arrive – something like dried pita chips with an interesting dip can be a very good choice. This will allow hungry guests to have something to much while they mingle before the meal.

I usually recommend having a bottle or two of wine that appropriately matches the meal on hand and perhaps a small assortment of craft beers. Don’t over-think either choice, though – choose something simple and relatively inexpensive.

Final Preparations
It’s a good idea to try to invite people with two weeks’ notice before the event, perhaps slightly more. I usually use email and ask them to let me know how many will attend, then follow up by phone a few days later. This way, I have a good estimation of attendance and might possibly invite another guest or two if there are multiple conflicts.

Make as much of the food ahead of time as you can and store it in the refrigerator. If there’s anything you can make in advance, do it – even if it’s something as simple as “mix these three ingredients together and then add to the other ingredients.” Get it done in advance because it will maximize your time to interact with your guests.

When guests arrive, give them some time to mingle first and use that time to make introductions if you think it’s appropriate. This is made easier, of course, if you have the meal under control.

Three Things to Remember
1. The food doesn’t really matter as long as it’s not awful. That’s why I encourage people to keep it simple. If the dinner conversation is good, a simple plate of pasta and a glass of red wine is wonderful.

2. The important part is people interacting with each other. Your party is successful if everyone else is talking to someone (obviously, you should be involved in some conversation, too). If you see someone left out, involve them in your conversation.

3. This is supposed to be fun. If you’re getting stressed out about it, let it go. It’s likely a detail that no one else is going to worry about at all, so don’t let it get you down. Instead, look forward to and enjoy your time with the people you’re inviting.

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29 thoughts on “On Hosting a Dinner Party

  1. It’s definately more fun and more productive than sitting around watching TV. I have been trying to set up a weekly dinner night with friends for a while. Thanks.

    -Dan Malone-

  2. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    As rule of practice, I always invite about twice as many people as I would like to attend. Because of various comittments and such, I rarely get the entire group of invitees to show up.

    How do you feel about using evite.com for these kinds of things?

  3. liv says:

    I LOVE hosting dinner parties. I do that several times a year and I have a Wii that gets good usage when friends come over.

    2 words: Pot Luck :) Works every time.

  4. Jackie says:

    I love dinner parties! Another good option is making it a potluck, or even just asking people to bring apps and desserts while you provide drinks. I also like having brunches– waffles, pancakes, muffins, bacon, sausage, OJ, coffee and you’re done!

    I think evite.com is perfectly fine for these kinds of things, and it makes it easy to keep track of RSVPS and even invite more guests.

  5. Battra92 says:

    I was brought up with hermits for parents. Literally I never had friends over to my house since my parents weren’t really into the whole “outsiders” inside the house. More likely they were embarrassed that with five kids, our house was never all that clean. ;)

    I do like to have things like pizza nights and such, though. If you have a Little Caesars or you make it yourself it can also be pretty darn cheap too.

  6. leslie says:

    For a first-timer, I would suggest a dinner party of 6-10 people.

    Also, pasta is an extremely versatile and budget-friendly dinner-party meal. You can offer different sauces and have everything customizable (meat, veggies, cheese).

    It is common to want to go out and buy a huge variety of drinks and food to accomodate everyone, but that is not necessary. Offering water, 1 flavored beverage and 1 alcoholic beverage will suffice. Also, if you don’t normally drink, your friends will not expect to be served alcohol.

    I also recommend having everything done and cleaned up by the time guests arrive. By “done” I mean, there will be no more additions to the food while it is cooked, no more cutting, no more prep – the food should be within 5-10 minutes of being ready.

    I know this may sound silly, but be sure that you have enough plates, glasses and silverware!

    Like Trent said, it is supposed to be fun! If someone offers to help, let them.

    In general, I like dinner parties better for a group of friends that already know each other. I prefer to have game nights when I’m meshing different groups of friends together. It is a lot more comfortable and gets people interacting collectively first, which then leads into small talk and conversations.

  7. Lurker Carl says:

    Great topic for the upcoming holidays.

    Leslie has a good point about having all the heavy lifting finished before guests arrive, everyone hangs out in the kitchen until the meal is served. No shortage of help but the crowd really hampers preparation!

  8. cv says:

    I think this is a good primer, but I’d advise beginners to start out slowly if you’re not an experienced cook or host. At first have 4-6 people over who are all part of the same group of friends, then gradually add more people and mix up the groups a bit. Starting small helps you learn how much food you need for a group, how to time the cooking properly, how many people your home can comfortably hold, etc.

    One meal I like for groups is burritos and tacos. If you have tortillas, meat, beans, rice, veggies, cheese, salsa, etc. and set it up as a buffet for people to make their own, it’s easy to deal with dietary restrictions and picky eaters.

  9. Dollar Dream$ says:

    Hi Trent

    I am also a big fan of pot-luck / dinner parties. Instead of eating out and spending $$, stay at home ( or friend’s place) and enjoy home cooked food! My wife and I love hosting dinner parties and she is an excellent cook. She likes to try new dishes so that comes in handy for us. Throw in pictonary or poker into the night and we are golden! This is probably the best time-killer, money saver socializing you can do in the winter!

    Thanks

  10. Lisa says:

    Great article Trent!
    Having people over is so stressful for me!

    …Lisa

    PS “….something to much while they mingle before the meal.” Did you mean “munch”?

  11. Shanel Yang says:

    Great post and topic! And, for those of you who want tips on a slightly more formal dinner party, I’ve shared some great tips from The Entertaining Survival Guide by Lora Brody at http://shanelyang.com/2008/11/17/how-to-entertain-for-the-holidays/

  12. Brett says:

    I agree that simple if fine for dinner, but please make at least something homemade when you host friends or co-workers. If you need help preparing, ask people to bring a particular dish. Usually people are more than willing to bring a dessert or side dish.

    Tips on Children and Dinner Parties
    If your friends have children, make it clear in the invitation if kids are invited. Personally, we always allow the kids to come. So that the parents feel comfortable and can enjoy the dinner, we hire a babysitter to entertain the kids while the parents talk and eat. If you have your own kids, invite the babysitter over an hour or two before the party to entertain your own kids while you make the final preparations.

    We have had multiple people tell us that following that tip that they learned from us has made their next event go much smoother and more relaxed.

  13. This can be an opportunity to meet and network with new people.
    Cheers,
    A Dawn Journal
    http://www.adawnjournal.com

  14. Gretchen says:

    Great ideas, thanks! I always go way overboard on the food preparations. I spend too much money and WAY too much time cooking. I am usually exhausted by the time it is all over. On the flip side, the food is great! But I think it does make sense to cook easier things (especially make-ahead stuff) so you can actually converse during your own dinner party.

  15. moneyclip says:

    I like how you point out the issue with introverted guests. I think it’d be a riot to invite all introverts for a introvert gathering and see how it turns out. I wonder what sort of dinner party would occur with introverts only?

  16. Sharon says:

    Curry makes a wonderful menu when you have a bunch of people with different food allergies, vegetarian, Kosher, etc. We had one party where we made turkey curry (post Thanksgiving) and a firm fruit curry, and provided toppings like coconut, hard boiled eggs, bacon, mango chutney, etc. Everyone made what they wanted without fuss, the whole thing was made in advance and tasted better for sitting overnight, nobody with food allergies had to bring their own and a grand time was had by all. Including us!

    P.S. We did learn that if you have 30 boxes of tea to pick out three herbal and three regular flavors and put them out. We found a few guests standing mesmerized before the assortment for over ten minutes when they went to get tea! Had to help them out.

  17. quatrefoil says:

    Great post. I used to have dinner parties regularly when I lived in a house – now I live in a tiny flat and can only fit two or three people at a time, but it’s still worth doing.

    In my view the best number for a sit down dinner party is seven – it’s small enough for everyone to be in the same conversation, but it means that when the conversation splits it does so into uneven and shifting groups. I find that with eight people there’s a tendency to form two groups of four.

    My other suggestion would be that if you’re single it’s best to make food that can be entirely pre-prepared so that you can spend time with your guests when they arrive.

  18. Anne K says:

    I’m planning on inviting our neighbors over for an open house for a couple of hours on a weekend day in mid December. We just moved here and haven’t met all the neighbors yet. Coffee, munchies and cookies during an ‘open house’ sort of thing should be easy and we’ll get to meet people. Thought about turning it into a ‘cookie swap’ but I don’t think many people bake their own cookies from scratch anymore, which is a shame. It’s very difficult meeting people when you’re new to the neighborhood with no kids to help break the ice. Thanks for the post, Trent!

  19. Gig says:

    It’s great to have simple get togethers, but don’t overlook the idea of gourmet dinners. We belong to a “gourmet” group. We meet about every 3 months. A theme is picked by the hosting couple and each other couple (4 total) brings a course. Granted, we’re all very interested in gourmet cooking, but we’ve had some amazing meals and really increased our cooking skills. To provide a course for 8 (including decent, if not terribly expensive wines, remember that a restaurant wine that costs maybe $30-40 at the restaurant is about $10-15 at a liquor store) is about the same amount of $$ or actually much less than going to a midscale restaurant. But with the group you get a truly unique experience as everyone is really doing their cooking “A” game and you have a festive group to eat with. Even when a course isn’t perfect it’s still usually really good. With this group we’ve explored cuisines we maybe wouldn’t have tried. If you’re not really cooks, just start small, Gourmet magazine and Bon Appetite often have simple, but elegant recipes/meals to follow and it’s actually a great way of learning how easy it is to cook great meals and not be tied to the expense and hassle (and not always such great food) of a restaurant for celebrationary meals.

  20. KC says:

    My friends and I started doing potlucks at various homes/apartments. We always enjoyed getting together. Now we’re in much nicer homes and you’d think the parties would get more upscale, but they haven’t. Now we eat off of china instead of paper plates, but other than that the food is pretty much the same and so are the beverages. We’re there for the conversation, which is always politics or money.

  21. I usually prefer to do smaller groups, and include the kids…so we usually have another family over. Of course, since we have four kids and the other families usually have a couple, it ends up being as large as a dinner party!

  22. Peggy says:

    We just had a dinner party last night, and it reminded me of my best tips:

    If you have a dishwasher, run it before the party so you have it empty and ready to receive the night’s dishes. And then run it the night after the party — we turn ours on just before we go to bed (but our floor plan makes that workable so it doesn’t disturb us sleeping).

    Same thing for the trash — empty it as soon as the bulk of your cooking is underway, and then after the party if you’ve scraped solid food waste into it before putting dishes in the dishwasher.

    Those two tips make the clean-up quick and easy, and you (well, I) don’t feel exhausted the day after.

  23. Jillian says:

    @ moneyclip – I can tell you exactly how the introvert party would go – nobody would show up!

    I agree with Trent’s recommendation for introverts and I’d even expand it to make sure they KNOW there are going to be several people there they can talk to, otherwise they will probably decline the invite. If you’re not an introvert yourself you won’t understand, but believe me, that can make a big difference.

  24. Elizabeth says:

    My husband and I argue regularly about whether or not to invite people who don’t know each other to parties. I think it works better in smaller groups, where people are more or less forced to interact. For example, we have big groups of friends from church, and from our neighborhood, and then some random connections to people who don’t know any of our other friends. The strategy we seem to have settled on has been to invite a “random” friend to dinner with one other couple, maybe, but not with a bunch of people who already know each other — otherwise they feel like the odd one out. What does seem to work for us is where people already belong to the same group but don’t yet know each other — so a nice party might be a bunch of people we know from the neighborhood who might not necessarily know each other. I guess this is expanding on Trent’s suggestion to try to find people who have something in common — our strategy is to have the whole guest list have the same thing in common.

    I guess 8-14 is a good number to invite if you assume some won’t come. I agree with other commenters who say to start smaller with actual numbers of guests. Because my husband and I are both introverts, I will often start with one or two outgoing friends that I call directly and pick a date that works for them, then invite other people. Otherwise we do risk the “all introvert” dynamic!

  25. Dawn says:

    I love taco parties because the ingredients are cheap and people can customize the food for themselves.

    Another one we did recently that was fun, we had a chili party. Each person brought one ingredient for chili. As host, I supplied beans and meat, and we put it together and let it sit for about an hour while we played games. We served it with bread. It was relaxing.

  26. Good topic. Having dinner parties does a couple of things for the individual hosting the event: it builds and strengthens his/her social network and positions the person as a kind and giving person.

    On the social network side, there’s been a bunch of original research published recently on how happiness is not a byproduct of money, but rather quality of friendships and meaningful life experiences.

    So, yes, go ahead and plan those dinner parties and enjoy! One thing I will disagree with you on, however, is the food. While you don’t want to go over the top with dinner, high quality food and wine is essential (just think about how you would feel if your dinner party host only made a bowl of pasta for dinner!). Great post!

    http://www.scordo.com/blog/blog – a practical living blog

    Vince

  27. Lee says:

    Potlucks are the way to go, in my opinion. My friends and I are in our twenties and none of us have tons of money, so it would be a bit of a burden (financially and time-wise) on the host to prepare all of the food. But with potlucks, people can bring whatever they want (sometimes we do themed parties – Italian, home-cooking, appetizers, etc) and then we have a lot of fun trying everyone’s contribution. The host provides the space, chairs, and real plates/silverware, as well as refrigerator space and use of an oven/stove if needed.

  28. Sara says:

    My group of friends has instituted Tuesday Night Communal Dinners. Every tuesday everyone comes over my house, kids and all. Everyone who can (sometimes time or budget constraints pop up)contributes something to the meal, which we try to coordinate the weekend before. So, it’s not quite as random as a potluck. Usually one person will be inspired to make something, and then everyone else will choose things that fit that theme. We let the kids loose. It’s so much easier for us to relax, because we don’t have to constantly try to monitor the kids like we would in a restaraunt. Not to mention the fact that even if the food is odd sometimes, or things arrive late, or the meal is kind of mismatched – we always bet far more value for our dollar than we would going out to eat. Sometimes we play games, or watch a movie too. And we have found that having it on a weeknight insures that it always happens. If we had tried to do it on a weekend, there are just too many things that come up. We usually have about 10 adults and 5 or 6 kids (ages 6-1yr). And we add new people into the mix every once in a while. Luckily I have a big house, so I know we can continue expanding the group a bit more. And I manage to do all this despite the fact that most of the appliances in my kitchen don’t work! (Including the dishwasher…but everyone takes a turn helping so it works out beautifully.)

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