Tips For Adulthood: Five Secrets To Dinner Parties

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Once, when I was just out of college and living with three friends in Washington, DC, I told one of my friend’s mothers that my roommates and I were going to throw a party.

“Oh?” she asked. “What will you serve?”

I paused, unsure how to answer.

“Um…beer?” I said, finally.

What a difference twenty five years makes.

While I still love beer, I do believe that one of the hallmarks of adulthood is leaving the phase where beer and (if you’re lucky) chips will do and stepping things up a notch to more grown-up fare.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy. Although I resolved earlier this year to have people over to our house more often (and made good on that promise), it’s taken me a while to figure out how to entertain without finding it stressful. Because even though I’m fairly far out there on the extrovert spectrum, it does make me anxious to have to organise a meal for anyone other than my family.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that things have gotten easier in that department. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Less is more. As with so many things in life, less proves to be more. Once upon a time – partly for efficiency reasons (“I’m cooking anyway“)  and partly because I’ve always subscribed to the “the more, the merrier” school of thought -I would routinely have dinner parties of eight or more. Among other things, it just seemed more sociable. These days, in contrast, six is my maximum. And increasingly, having just one couple over is becoming the norm in our household. Not only is it a lot less work, but when you keep a dinner party small, you can actually talk to your guests and…egads!…listen to what they have to say. Try it. It turns out that having fewer people over to dinner is actually more fun.

2. Clear the decks. For a long time, I thought that the reason I found entertaining stressful was because I hated to cook. Turns out, I don’t hate to cook. I even, on occasion, find it therapeutic. What I found stressful was not having enough counter space to prepare the dishes. So while I was getting ready for the dinner party, I’d constantly feel like the party itself was closing in on me. It helps to have a large kitchen if you want to feel less hemmed in. But let’s face it, I live in London so that’s not happening. But even if you don’t have a large kitchen, if you can somehow manage to clear the counters of clutter before you start cooking – so that your cookbook (see below) isn’t balanced precariously on top of your mixing bowl – you’ll find that the whole thing is much more enjoyable, if not artful!

3. Get a good cook book. I’ve always admired my friends who could just stare at a bunch of random ingredients and whip up something delicious. But that’s just not me. Nor will it ever be. I have learned, however, the value of a good cook book over time. Having a few recipes which you know are a. doable and b. tasty takes a ton of stress out of meal preparation. A few years back, a friend of mine gave me a cookbook called How To Cook For Food Allergies, because of my son’s multiple food allergies. I cracked this book open one day and realized that it was a gold mine – not so much for him (he really doesn’t care what he eats), but for me. It’s chock full of absolutely fantastic, healthy recipes and I’ve been using it as my staple ever since.

4. Practice meals in advance. This ought to be a no-brainer, but I’ve been burnt before on many an occasion so I thought I’d share it with you. Unless you’re super-confident in the kitchen (and I think I can safely say that I’m not), you do not want your dinner party to be the first time that you try out a new dish. Rather, once you identify a meal that sounds promising, try it out on your family and/or spouse first and see how it fares. Sometimes things that sound great are real duds. Trust me.

5. Don’t make dessert. I love dessert. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the meal. But when you’re pressed, it’s hard to find time to prepare appetizers, entrées and desserts for 4-6 people. So even though I don’t mind baking, I usually buy my desserts in advance so that I don’t have that extra task hanging over me before a dinner party. Takes the pressure off.


How about you? What are your secrets for making entertaining less stressful and more fun?


Image: The Dinner Party by mapgirl271 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

  • Reply Mei

    June 27, 2012, 12:17 pm

    Really great tips! I’ve just recently hosted my first ever dinner party and it was a lot of fun! I like to have one big platter of a dish so that everyone could share. Less plates to clean up and way more intimate too :)


  • Reply eleanor

    June 27, 2012, 3:04 pm

    i love hosting dinner parties! but, now that i have small kids (and lots of my friends do too), brunch is the new dinner. a lazy saturday morning with friends is great fun.
    i also now try to include make-ahead items. whether it’s lasagna, chilli, dessert (which i usually include!) or a strata, something you can make the night before and put in the fridge really eases the pressure on the day of the party.
    and, finally, for dinner, i almost always make a soup. for pretty low time investment, a soup makes a simple meal feel more substantial and sophisticated, and also buys you some time for the main course to finish cooking.

  • Reply Lisa

    June 27, 2012, 4:01 pm

    I so agree about the good cookbook. Find one you can count on. Nigel Slater’s work, for example:). Or Nina Simonds, if you like Chinese food. Takes so much worry out of the process. Then, of course, practice, practice, practice. Like anything:).

  • Reply GingerR

    June 28, 2012, 2:16 am

    #4 deserves all caps: PRACTICE MEALS IN ADVANCE.

    Your cookbook may be wonderful, but you forgot to read the instructions below the photo, or your oven is a little hotter than it should be, or you don’t have the proper pan – any of those things will result in a disaster.

  • Reply BigLittleWolf

    June 28, 2012, 4:27 pm

    I love this piece… And I find myself 100% behind the “Less is More” guideline, which it took me years to figure out, much as I love my beautiful china and a few pretty silver pieces handed down from my mother and grandmother.

    While I won’t say I give many dinner parties these days (raising teenagers these past years has something to do with it) – I have entertained a bit again in the past year, around the holidays. the most critical thing was to put my guests at ease – introductions, flow of conversation, a sense of informality that suits us.

    That and good food – and it all seems to come together!

  • Reply C.M. Mayo

    June 30, 2012, 9:08 pm

    Re desserts. I once thought the easiest was sorbet… not so. Try finding the counter space after the main course to scoop out 8-12 non-messy servings n individual dishes!! So now I buy a pie or a cake or better yet, a fruit tart, bring it out on a pretty cake stand, and serve it at the table. If I am feeling very ambitious, I might add a dollop of whipped cream. Ice cream, no, same problem as sorbet, unless you allow cartons at the dinner table which I do not.

    I suspect that too many people don’t give dinner parties because they worry what people will think of them… mosly, that their guests will notice the … gasp… clutter. Um, that is what paperbags and closets are for.

    • Reply delialloyd

      July 3, 2012, 9:26 pm

      @cm-too true. For a long time I let what people would think get in the way of entertaining and it was just foolish. interesting observation about sorbet – would never be that adventuresome but thanks for the tip!

  • Reply C.M. Mayo

    July 1, 2012, 3:58 am

    It’s tough to avoid typos typing on an iPad, ayyyy.

  • Reply Susanna Grace

    July 2, 2012, 10:58 pm

    I, too, am obsessed with those make-ahead items because I know I’ll be a basket case if I don’t have everything ready before people arrive. The Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten) has some fabulous recipes that I’ve made with great success (including her tabbouleh, which you can find on the food network website.) Another great resource for impressive, yet easy, dinner party recipes are in the recipe book “Perfect Recipes for Having People Over.” I’ve made a few of these for parties and each was a hit!

  • Reply Joanne

    July 3, 2012, 5:47 pm

    My husband cooks the main course. I make the desserts. We make appetizers together and I make the salad. It’s fun when we both cook and since he’s a better cook and I am a better baker, that’s the division of labour in our house. Since we live in Mexico now, meals are much simpler and often outdoors on the patio, so its a very relaxed time.

  • Reply jenny

    July 5, 2012, 2:54 pm

    Off the topic… the picture for this post really gives me the creeps! Have you heard of Trypophobia? I first read about it on Anna’s blog, Door Sixteen. That platter is a trypo’s nightmare!

  • Reply Elizabeth

    July 6, 2012, 4:34 pm

    I love this list! I practice almost all of them, except limiting to 6. Probably a wise choice and I’ll have to try it out.

    I am big on test runs with recipes, and glad to know I’m not alone! For some reason I always felt like “rehearsal” was sort of a wimpy way to go about it, but have regretted it when I haven’t prepared and planned well. It makes me really admire the friends I have who whip up great impromptu meals for many, all while carrying on a conversation with their guests.

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