How To: Host a Proper Dinner Party

Now that my friends and I have graduated from our respective colleges, the thing to do is have a dinner party to show off the new apartment and general hostessing skills. However, the big trick to throwing these parties is not looking like you’ve been cooking, cleaning, and, in general, running around like a chicken with its head cut off for the past day and a half. You want it seem effortless and like you just threw this little thing together. The key to this is timing. If you have things planned out then you’ll be just fine, and you can sit back, relax and have fun with your guests. Here’s my recipe for a seemingly effortless yet kind of refined dinner party:

The week before. Plan your menu as early in advance as you can. The menu is the star of the show. Don’t kid yourself–people are mostly coming over for the food, so you want it to be good because from good food flows good fun. When planning a menu here are some things to consider.

1. The weather: The first thing I do before starting the menu-planning process is check the weather for the day of my party because that will really dictate what people will be in the mood to eat. For instance, if its going to be hot and humid then you’ll want to make something light that won’t weigh people down, but if it’s going to be cold and rainy then you’ll want to make something warm and comforting.

2. Who’s coming: Make sure you know everybody’s eating preferences. Are there any vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, celiacs, lactose intolerants, etc. coming? That way everybody will go home satisfied and hopefully nobody will end up in the hospital.

3. Your plate: According to nutritionists when you have dinner, half your plate should be vegetables, one quarter protein, and the other quarter can be for carbohydrates. Thus you’ll want to have at least a protein and two side dishes for your guests to choose from. There should also be dessert and an appetizer. When people arrive you should immediately get them something to drink and something to munch on. Hungry people aren’t happy people.

4. Cooking Length: Pay close attention to how long it will take to make all the items on your menu. Don’t pick a bunch of things that you’ll need to finish cooking all at the same time. Have an item or two that you can make a day maybe even two or three in advance, an item that you can buy already done, another that you finish right before serving, and another that can sort of hang out.

5. Booze: Once you know what you are cooking then you can decide what kind of drinks you want to have. Don’t give people too many options. Pick one kind of booze and stick with it.

Three days before: Make a list of all the ingredients you’ll need for the food, booze, and decorations and then go out and get it. This way if you forget ANYTHING you’ll have plenty of time to run out and grab it in the next two days.

The day before. Do as much prep work as you can.

1. Clean up: While these people may be your friends, and they might have seen you at your worst, that doesn’t mean they need to see your apartment at its worst. Clean up! (Also, check the bathrooms to make sure there is enough toilet paper.)

2. Set the table: My mother taught me this one: set the table as early as you can. Now this doesn’t mean having elaborate Sandra Lee style table-scape, but it should look like you’ve put some thought into it. This may just be the Southern girl in me, but the easiest way to achieve this is to put out a vase of fresh flowers. Make sure the vase isn’t so high that your guests can’t see each other from across the table. If that isn’t in the budget then you could forgo the flowers and put out some candles instead. The silverware, plates and glasses don’t have to match, but I would try to bring some kind of cohesion to the table by adding a table runner and/or matching napkins.

3. Make any food that will keep well.

The big day. Finish everything up, and when you serve the food do it either family style or in a buffet. That way your guests can take as much or as little as they want.

Emily is a recent grad of Colgate University, where she studied International Relations and Art History and volunteered at the Friendship Inn and with the Colgate Hunger Outreach Program. She loves to bake cookies.

Originally posted on Sunday, February 27th, 2011

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