At your next dinner party, try these ideas to keep a fun night really rolling.
I can’t tell you how many different dinner parties I’ve attended. Maybe almost as many as I hosted? I’ve been invited to some that were absolutely fabulous events, many were really enjoyable and memorable, and everyone had a good time. Thankfully, I’ve only been to a handful that stood out for the wrong reasons. But as it turns out, those are the ones that taught me the most about what dinner party guests really care about most.
First off, dinner parties are all about the gathering—who you invited, be they friends, family, or colleagues, and why. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing. Perhaps it’s a birthday, anniversary, or another type of celebration. But whatever it is, and whoever comes, don’t forget that it’s all about the sharing: food, beverages, and conversation.
If you put on a perfect night, your guests will come away with an excellent food memory. And, if you’re fortunate, they’ll remember that one night for years. This leads me to my second point: don’t stress about making the evening a complete standout. More on this later.
The fact is, you may be surprised by what your guests remember most about your dinner party. The usual “playbook” for parties causes us to focus on details, like the food. You want to be concerned with how you present the beautiful dishes that you’ve so lovingly prepared. But, what you may not realize is that, although guests may be awed by fancy and elaborate food you cook yourself, you really don’t need to cook to have a great party.
Let’s say you know this really great take-out place. Make it fabulous, make it fun, but don’t leave the food in the ‘to go’ containers they came in – replate everything! Seriously. Why struggle with a recipe that you’re not comfortable with? If you really want to cook, make something you can prepare in your sleep, like that delicious soup or casserole you’ve been perfecting for years.
When I can, I prepare all or most of the food the day before the party. Soups, stews and casseroles are always better the second day. Go to your favorite bakery and pick up a few fresh crusty baguettes. Add your favorite wine to go with the meal, and there you are—the start of a great dinner party! One you can really enjoy with your guests because you’re not stuck in the kitchen.
Just a little aside about food: remember all of your guests. Be aware if there are dietary restrictions. But, if a guest is really particular about what they will and won’t eat it’s OK to suggest they bring something they’ll be comfortable eating.
I repeat: the whole point of having friends and family over is the sharing. We love the food and drink, but—speaking for myself in particular—I live for the conversation. I love great stories, the little factoids, and snippets from people’s lives. Sometimes it’s quite a surprise what someone will share, but everyone is talking—and that’s the life of the party.
There’s nothing more uncomfortable than going to a dinner party where no one wants to talk. I have learned a few tricks to get things going. I always know a bit about everyone I’ve invited so that knowledge gives me the opportunity to add something in common each time I introduce guests that don’t know each other. For instance, I may put two or three people together and mention that they all love dogs. I may pair two up because they work in similar industries, or maybe they’ve traveled somewhere recently.
My best conversation starter strategy is my collection of cool little items I’ve picked up on my travels or at the local flea market. I learn a story or two about everything I collect so I can share it at a gathering. You never know the great conversations you may trigger with that approach.
Here are some other strategies I use for my dinner parties:
Of course, I never forget to line up music to complement the feel I want for the evening. Parties sometimes change as the evening progresses. I have different “playlists” that matches the mood of the party—or to improve a mood.
I always avoid especially strong smells so I stay away from perfumed candles except for a small one in the powder room. This way, the first smell to welcome my guests is the delicious aromas that float in from my kitchen.
Guests definitely notice the table settings but, that doesn’t mean everything has to match. Show some creativity. I often talk about mixing patterns and pieces at the table – things I’ve picked up at flea markets and second-hand shops. A mismatched place setting of silver, china, and glassware can really be a lot of fun.
Finally, the big centerpiece for your gathering: is you. Your guests will see the effort you’ve put into the evening—even if you’ve picked most of it up from the market already made. The biggest trigger for fun is how you present yourself. Guests notice if you’re stressed. Stuff happens—there will be hiccups. Let it go and so will your guests. Kick back and relax. Enjoy the evening, and your guests will follow.
One last big tip for your evening: don’t clean the whole time guests are there. If you need help, ask them. People are always happy to help, and with the right approach, clean-up can be part of the fun.
Check out my video for even more home entertaining tips. Enjoy!