How to Host a Dinner Party so Everyone Enjoys It

Who knew that a post on a drunken dinner guest would garner so much attention — and elicit both hilarious horror stories and great tips?

Several readers, including regular Ruth Pennebaker, suggested that a host has responsibilities as well to ensure an enjoyable evening for all.

Below, find advice gleaned from regular dinner-party throwers, etiquette experts, and personal experience.

(Note: It’s never a good idea to put your hand in the blender while it’s still running, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in to make the pesto before the guests arrive.  Even if these guests are family, trained nurses, don’t mind staunching the blood flow, or checking to see if stitches are needed. I still have the scar as a memento from this night when I was, indeed, the high-maintenance host.)

Think of these suggestions as hints from Henry, not Heloise. And, as always, feel free to add your own. Here’s to stress-free entertaining.

1. Relax. Easier said than done, my anxious self knows, but no one really wants to spend an evening with a friend who is freaking out about what’s going wrong in the kitchen. Truth be told, it’s the pleasure of your good company — undistracted and attentive — your posse crave, not so much what you’ve got cooking.

2. Give the guest list careful consideration. Do we even need to go there? (See post on this subject for details.) I so appreciate Sean Timberlake’s sound advice on this score. Here’s what the man who writes a food blog called Hedonia, for heaven’s sake, and frequently flings open his doors to diners, has to say about a good guest mix:

For a dinner party of 8, we generally include one couple from our regular rotation (our “anchors,” we call them) who can help set a tone of familiarity; a second couple with whom we’ve socialized but perhaps not entertained frequently; and a final couple who are relative if not total newcomers, but whom we feel would be a good match. And we insist that couples not sit next to each other. This makes for a fun dynamic.

I would add: Think beyond couples; singletons like to eat too. And pay attention to balance. A dinner party consisting of work buddies talking shop all night may not induce yawning, but too many friends prattling on about one aspect of your life can get a wee bit tedious for those who don’t share your passion for stamp collecting. I’m just saying.

3. Plan ahead. Give some thought to menu, guests dietary constraints, shopping, and house tidying a day or two before your dinner. Then you can spend the day of focused on prepping and cooking, thus having a better chance of achieving #1 status. Commonsense, yes, but how many of us have waited until the last minute to figure out what to make, realized an ingredient isn’t on hand at the 11th hour, or recoiled in horror at what’s growing in the loo and run off in search of the toilet brush right before the guests are due to arrive?

4. Keep kitchen time to a minimum. That’s especially true if this room is cut off from the rest of your home and there’s nowhere for guests to hang out and chat with you while you whip up a souffle or whatever you’ve got going on.  Of course, completely ignore this advice if the whole point of your dinner party is to cook together with friends. In such cases, I appreciate having a job (anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an obsessive veggie chopper), if the host is the kind of casual soul who’s comfortable with her guests helping out.

5. Think simple. I’m the type who likes to prep and cook as much as I can before anyone even sets foot in my door. I like order, quiet, and concentration when I’m cooking. It helps me reach that #1 state. If you’re the sort who can whip up an eight-course meal while yakking away with your pals without getting flustered, good for you. And where’s my invite? For the rest of us, a couple of courses, one-pot dishes, even accepting an offer from a guest to bring salad or dessert is perfectly acceptable.

6. Save the experiments for later. As a general guide, a dinner party is usually not the time or place to try a new recipe. It can be hard to aspire to that #1 state when you start flirting with disaster with an unfamiliar dish. Know what I’m saying? Anyone?

7. Pace yourself. Learn from the pesto incident. Give yourself ample time to cook. Leave yourself a window in which to shower, dress, or even take a minute to chill before the doorbell rings. You don’t want to be worn out when your guests arrive.

8. Designate a wing (wo)man. No host need go it alone.  Solicit your partner or a fellow guest (save this task for close friends).  Check in ahead of time so this person knows it’s his/her job to freshen drinks, clear clutter, include an introvert in the banter, or whatever else you think you’ll need help with over the course of the evening.

9. Set the tone. Introduce guests, offer drinks and nibbles, and get the conversation started. Once things start flowing you can attend to last-minute details.  Hosts who fret about the food or the red wine stains on the white carpet don’t put guests at ease. Remember, it’s just stuff.

10. Have fun. No one wants tension over the table. The best thing you can do to ensure everyone has an enjoyable evening is to have fun yourself. Be your gracious, good self and people will have a good time, which, after all, is what throwing a dinner party is all about.

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27 Responses to “How to Host a Dinner Party so Everyone Enjoys It”

  1. Sean Says:

    Brava. And fair point about the singletons — though we have sometimes struggled to keep the balance right when mixing singles and couples. If there’s only one or two singletons, they may feel like seventh or eighth wheels with all the couples action going on. Others don’t care, of course. Know your audience.

    Planning is key. A few years ago we threw a grand Iberian-themed dinner party, multiple courses, high-concept, lots of work. The weekend before the party, DPaul fell and broke his elbow. Thanks to fastidious planning, I was able to execute almost everything on my own, with one-handed assistance from him, and the guests were none the wiser. But if you’re not organized, you’ll spend the entire evening in the kitchen sweating, stressing and swearing. :)

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Sean, I am truly humbled by what you and your hubbie cook up. An Iberian-themed dinner party with a handicapped host no less.

      You intimidate the rest of us, you know that, right?

      • Sean Says:

        Intimidation, pshaw. We’re just a couple of average guys who have just enough OCD to pull off the occasional dinner party. :)

  2. sam Says:

    Do you have any tips for alcohol free dinner parties? I was a prolific and popular dinner party hostess until our household became dry. I am now at a loss – I feel bereft of one of my favorite leisure pastimes, but I really think that even my bestest and most understanding friends really would prefer not to dine with us now, even if I were to create the most delicious edible morsels known to the universe. Am I resigned to a lifetime of lunch parties from hereon in?

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Great question Sam. And, no, I don’t think you have to serve brunch for the rest of your life. And I certainly hope your real friends will come to dinner even if there’s not an ounce of liquor in the house.

      There are lots of ways to set a festive mood without popping a cork. Since you were once a prolific & popular host I’m sure you have some of these covered.

      Scene setters like lighting, music, and candles help to create a warm, cozy space. You don’t have to break out the alcohol to bring on the ambiance.

      If the concern is having activities other than quaffing on the agenda, knowing your audience is key. Maybe some of your crowd would like rocking out to The Beatles Rock Band post dinner. (Guilty as charged. Try it. It’s a blast. Unleash your inner Lennon I tell you.)

      I’m also a huge fan of — no eye rolling, please — board games, card games, charades and the like. I know some of you hardcore dinner party people, where the focus is solely on the food, are gagging right about now, but some folks enjoy a competitive game or two to keep an evening lively.

      Then there are peeps who want to play, you know, actual music or have a dance. Got any of those in your group? Maybe an extrovert could help get things kick-started.

      And if all else fails, there’s always the placebo effect. Serve up interesting and unusual, or just downright delicious drinks sans the strong stuff in fancy flutes or martini stems or other fun glasses and let everyone pretend they’re imbibing. I’m a fan of Navarro Vineyards non-alcoholic grape juice for grown ups, as Kerry Trueman calls it. Find details here: http://www.lime.com/food/story/1615/a_grape_juice_for_grown_ups

      I hope this helps. Readers: any other ideas? Do tell.

  3. marthaandme Says:

    Great tips. Something else to discuss – my personal preference is I do not do the dishes while the guests are here. I would rather do them later or the next day and enjoy my time with guests. I don’t know anyone else who does that though. Every place I go for dinner the dishes get done immediately while we’re there and I help.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Yes, marthaandme, the whole dish-washing dilemma is handled differently in every house and, judging from comments on a previous post, people have strong opinions about who does them and when they get done!

      I guess as a guest it’s best to go with the flow. As a host, I really don’t expect my friends to toil away in the kitchen but I can’t say I’m sorry if they do;)

  4. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart Says:

    One of my writer friends has two great dinner party traditions that I adore.

    1) She uses little soy/wasabi plates to put lovely chocolates at each place setting.

    2) Her husband invites everyone to join him on a quick walk with their dog around their mid-century modern neighborhood, while she quickly does the dishes and gets dessert and coffee ready.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Re #2: Brilliant, Roxanne. Love it! And sometimes it’s good to shake things up a bit — or just get some fresh air and a stretch between courses.

  5. Claudine M Jalajas Says:

    Very good friends of ours are from Denmark. The number one rule is couples not sit next to each other–but there is a system. The hosts sit on either side of the “head” of the table. Then the seating is always boy/girl however the people who are newest to the group sit near the hosts. The more familiar you are, the closer to the center of the table (or away from the hosts). I love it and we do it all the time now for dinner parties. Makes for very lively and entertaining discussions.

  6. Jennifer Margulis Says:

    Oh god, I so agree with this list. The one I am guilty of, though is NOT keeping kitchen time to a minimum. I LOVE having people over but I have 4 kids — one is a newborn — and am often changing a diaper when I should be flipping the scallion pancakes. So I end up being in the kitchen WAY more than I should be once guests arrive!

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Jennifer, Let me get this straight: You have four kids — including a baby — and you ALSO entertain? I think you’re to be commended for hosting folks for dinner — and I so hope they reciprocate so you can put your feet up!

  7. Alexandra Says:

    #4 is the really important one, for me. When I was a younger woman in France, I would spend so much time in the kitchen trying to create the perfect meal that often I did not enjoy the party as much as I should have. I also like the idea of having a wing woman. When my daughters were in their twenties, they were often willing to take this on at my really big parties …

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Yes, Alexandra, that’s a great job for adult children (or even teens) who may prefer to have something constructive to do instead of having to make small talk with, you know, old people;)

  8. Sheryl Kraft Says:

    I love this follow-up post, Sarah. Made me realize that so many times I get all flustered by throwing dinner parties and end up making sure everyone else is having fun, without having fun myself. That is, until the dinner is served and I know I can sit and relax (for a while, anyway). If it were up to me, I’d leave the dishes for the next day but my OCD hubbie is up and at ‘em the minute we’re done…so I can REALLY sit and relax.

  9. MyKidsEatSquid Says:

    Dinner parties can be stressful–this is a great list. I love the idea of a wing woman! I’ve found that what I cook depends on the guests. We like to host parties where guests help us “finish” meals. We do a pasta rolling get-together that’s fun.

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      I agree that some of the most fun dinners we’ve had are ones where we chat as we all assemble what we’re going to eat. As with many things in life, it so depends on “reading” the crowd; some folks happy to make a meal together, others don’t want to have to give any thought to the food — other than eating it.

  10. Susan Says:

    Great suggestions, Sarah! One suggestion that I got from a party planner friend is to have lots of sparkling water on hand. She reasoned that people are more likely to drink water between glasses of wine if you offer them fancy water to sip. That way you end up spending less money on alcohol and you don’t have to worry about sloppy drunks in your home!

    • Sarah Henry Says:

      Funny, how something as simple as water can make everyone happy. Here’s a tip I learned from traveling as a plus-1 with my travel-spa writing buddy (hi melanie):

      I serve chilled, plain ol’ tap water in a pretty ceramic jug (thanks mel x2) and I add thin slices of meyer lemon, from my tree, and persian cucumber (they’re the small ones, and look nice cut into thin rounds), which i successfully grew last summer.

      The lemon and cuc add a subtle taste and fragrance to the water and transport me to spaland; my brains thinks I’m about to get a massage, so it helps me relax!

  11. Jesaka Long Says:

    Thanks for posting all these great tips! I’m printing this one out to keep with my cookbooks. The first time we ever hosted a dinner party, it was Thanksgiving. No pressure, right? We had a great time, complete with strategic seating to avoid inciting jealous girlfriends. We’ll be using some of your tips next time!

  12. Alisa Bowman Says:

    Yeah, I’ve always found that most of the secret lies in cooking the right thing for dinner, and the right thing is something that you can mostly make ahead so you are not stressed and stuck in the kitchen when your guests arrive. I also try to only go all out on one thing–and not every single thing. That way I can feel sort of smug and proud of my cooking, but not overly stressed either. And heck, that one thing is sometimes the wine or a store bought dessert. But as long as everyone is happy….

  13. Almost Slowfood Says:

    Loved the terrible dinner guest post and think this is such a great follow up!!

    I have to say I follow all of those rules except for the don’t experiment one!! We hosted a lovely party a few weeks ago.

    Everything was great — except for the food and I’m a food blogger. Now that my reputation’s on the line, maybe I better test a dish a few times before I serve it up – yikes!

  14. Sarah Henry Says:

    It’s hard isn’t it, almost slowfood, to host people for dinner when you write about food for a living. Sometimes the expectations — on all sides — are so high.

    But as you point out, even though the food flopped (in your mind anyway) it was a lovely night. That’s what folks will remember.

    I say serve up one of your tried-and-true dinner dishes next time to keep your reputation on track (not that it’s likely derailed after just one meal) but, perhaps more importantly, to boost your confidence about your culinary abilities.

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