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.
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.
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.