How to Plan a Dinner Party

dinner partyA colleague recently asked me what my favorite wine and dessert are. As if I could pick only one of either. But when pressed, I realized something: most food and drink is about as good as the company with whom you share it. My answer surprised my friend, but it’s true. Coors light can be okay if you drink it on a hot summer night while playing guitar on the porch with your friends. Who hasn’t enjoyed a slice of pizza straight out of the box with no plate or napkin? Remember eating cold, leftover Chinese straight out of the fridge with your roommates when you were 22? I do, and it was good. The common denominator? Fun.

Therefore, the number one rule of party planning is to invite fun people. It doesn’t matter if your fun people all know each other or not because you will introduce them if they don’t. Furthermore, everyone has you in common, and if you’re having a party to begin with, you’re probably at least a little bit fun yourself. The next consideration is how many people to invite. If you’re having a sit-down dinner, invite only the number of people who fit comfortably at your dining room table. If it’s an informal gathering, then you can invite as many people as there are seats in your home (or more, if it’s an indoor/outdoor party). View your party as a gift to your guests. You have wonderful people in your life, and you’re showing them that you treasure them by creating a fun experience.

Is your party for a particular occasion? Or is the goal to simply be together and have fun? Let your guests know what to expect. For example, after ringing in my 40th birthday with my family, I hosted a Ladies Night to take the edge off the encroaching decade. The invitation read, No presents. No men. No kids. Please bring an appetizer and a bottle of wine. My friends all said that I should turn 40 more often.

Food and drink do matter to the extent that you are responsible for providing them. In order for this to go well, you must be honest with yourself about your culinary abilities. Do not push your limits in this regard by attempting to cook something for the party you have never made before. Serve items for which you are well-known or at least respected. They may be old news to you if you make them often, but they aren’t old news to your guests.  Your family may be used to your signature spaghetti and meatballs because they have the pleasure and privilege of living with you. Your guests do not and will, therefore, be wowed.

Do not expect the days leading up to your party to be restful. You are the hostess, and you have things to do: Clean the house, but not too soon, or someone will mess it up again before party time. The bathrooms should be spotless and the floors should be swept and vacuumed. Don’t bother mopping. You’ll have to do it again the day after the party (assuming that you had enough fun and at least a few drinks were spilled). Plan your table arrangement. Iron linens a few days ahead of time, pull out serving dishes and utensils, fill and wipe the salt and pepper shakers. Wine and drinks can and should be purchased days or even weeks ahead of time, but anything that needs to be served cold needs to be in the fridge for at least 24 hours prior. Decide what you are going to wear days in advance. Try things on if you must. You should look fresh and pulled together for your party. Do not wear anything that gets in the way of the cooking. Long necklaces and bell sleeves are out. Your outfit needs to look great on you and be completely functional; same for your hair. If you don’t have one already, get a great apron that you can wear while cooking. Mine is black and fitted. It says T.G.I.F. in red rhinestones and matches my kitchen. That’s right. Don’t clash with your kitchen. Take the apron off as soon as it’s safe.

When to begin cooking is tricky. It all depends on what you’re serving. You should do everything you can the day before. Most veggies can be chopped in advance. Throw them in a sealed container and put it in the fridge, and then they’re ready when you need them. But, take them out about 15 minutes before you want to cook them, so that they will be closer to room temperature before cooking. Meat should be cut and marinated the day before. Again, allow some time for it to come up to room temp – 20 to 30 minutes, depending on cut and quantity. The more you can do ahead of time, the more you will be able to enjoy your own party.

Finally, when planning a party, make sure you have the day after the party off from work. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s a big deal. A one-night party is an active two-day deal for you: day one is execution and day two is clean up. Don’t clean up while your guests are there, other than the essentials. Your friends came over because they like you, and if you spend the whole time doing dishes, they will wonder why you bothered. So will you. Clean up tomorrow and have fun now. If only we could apply that principle to the rest of our lives.

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