Tuesday, April 30, 2013

5 Tips For a Great Dinner Party

I'm 32 and still confused.  Should we have kids? Not sure. Should we save for a house or do we want the freedom to travel and possibly live abroad again? Unclear. Is teaching my forever-calling, or should I be open to new challenges? Hmm. Being an adult is confusing business, but one thing I'm finally figuring out is how to host a great dinner party.

Eight years ago, Flavio and I hosted both of our families and some friends for Thanksgiving. Neither one of us had ever hosted a large dinner party, nor cooked a turkey, and in our ambitious, naive youth we figured "Hell, we make dinner every night. We got this! No sweat." Turns out there was sweat, and tears, and a very late turkey, and starving guests and just overall panic and frustration. While everyone did finally get fed, it was so overwhelming and miserable that at the end of the night I declared, "NEVER AGAIN!"

In the eight years since, there have been many more dinner parties and a few more definite flops.  In my older age, I've finally realized why dinner parties fail: I am a type-A planner and my inner party planner always wants to do something extravagant and over the top. THIS IS WHERE THINGS GO WRONG! Extravagant and over the top always equals stress and frustration. A stressed and frustrated host does not make for a fun party. To have a great dinner party, you gotta aim for simplicity with these 5 tips:

1. Before anything else, set the table.

My strangest tip, but one I learned from my mom. My mom always has the table set, whether anyone is coming to dinner, or not. There are chargers, cloth napkins, candles and fresh flowers. It's remarkable! Flavio used to ask who my parents were having over for dinner, until he realized the table at my parents' house is always set, whether guests are coming or not. So when I'm having people over, the first thing I do is set the table. It calms me, it sets the tone, gets one thing off my to-do list and makes everything feel more manageable. Try it! Set the table first.

2.  Stick to food you know.

Do not try to make paella if you've never made paella. I made this mistake. It was the Great Paella Fiasco of 2009 and it was ugly. "Paella?" I thought. "That's just seafood and rice!" Wrong. Paella, it turns out, is one of the most difficult dishes in the world to make, and stressing all day to make it perfect made me too anxious and exhausted to be a good host. The paella was dry, I was disappointed,  I totally missed the party part of the evening, and my guests could feel it. Do you make a killer lasagna or a fantastic roast chicken? Make it! Do not veer outside of your comfort zone in an effort to impress your guests. Stick to food you've made before and know how to do well.

3. Don't make too many things.

Your friends do not need an amuse bouche and an array of appetizers. Your friends need a cocktail immediately upon arrival and a happy host. Pick a one pot dish and do it well. I love to do these braised short ribs for a dinner party - they're amazing and you can't mess them up! If you love to bake like I do, bake something simple and that you've made before. Or, pick up a fantastic dessert at your favorite bakery. Do not even think about trying to do a three-course meal. Make a one-pot dish with protein and vegetables and serve bread and wine. Done and done.

4. Create a simple, cozy environment.

Turn down the lights, light some candles, use cloth napkins, create a simple centerpiece, put water on the table, and put on some music. For music, I like some kind of samba or relaxing tuneage for dinner, and then fun, upbeat music for dessert and after. Music really sets the tone and fills in any gaps in conversation.  (Note - Do not do place cards. I am always tempted to make them because they can be so cute, but then I regret it as I am always harried, angling for perfection at the last minute. They're an unnecessary hassle, and we want simplicity. Go for seasonal fruit or flowers on the napkins, if time.)

5. Wear slippers and relax!

Ina Garten famously said she wears slippers when hosting a dinner party. That way, the mood feels instantly relaxed, and so do the hosts and the guests. I've tried it and it totally works. But more importantly, make sure you've had some wine before guests arrive and that you're relaxed and present when it's time to kick things off. Remember, the whole point of the evening is to enjoy the simplicity of sharing food, your home and laughter with friends; there are few activities more special.

{Photos from last Friday's dinner party. Sunset, drinking wine, waiting for friends to arrive.}


  1. I'm curious. Are the lemons a part of the meal or just a part of the decor?

    1. Hi,

      We made whiskey lemonade that night, so I guess it was part of the meal? :) Mainly, we had a bunch of lemons hanging around for the cocktail and I wanted to brighten up the table. It was a last minute decor decision, but also themed in with the drink.

      Thanks for asking. :)


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