Does the phrase “dinner party” strike fear into your heart as a host? If so, know that you’re not alone. While traditional dinner parties can be beautiful and rewarding, big, special-occasion affairs can also cause stress — and they’re not the only way to host. Imperfect, casual gatherings are what we will focus on here, and these eight tips should help keep the pressure off.
Prepare as Much of the Meal in Advance
Some recipes can be made entirely in advance and reheated before guests arrive; most can at least be partially prepped in advance such as the veggies washed and chopped. You can even fill the coffeepot and teakettle so they’re ready to go after dinner. Getting as much done before guests arrive as you can is greatly calming. If something goes awry, you’ll have time to make something else or grab a store-bought substitute.
Find Low-Cost Ways to Enhance the Gathering
A dinner with friends can be special without your spending much. It’s all about making an effort … and that effort doesn’t need to be big! Here are a few ideas:
Use Recycled glass jars of various sizes to hold cutlery, flowers, votive candles and beverages.
Serve “fancy” water with slices of lemon and sprigs of fresh mint.
Warm some bread and serve it wrapped in a tea towel.
Cover the table with whatever you have on hand, whether that’s kraft paper, an old sheet with a fun print or a picnic tablecloth.
Snip flowers and pretty foliage from outside. In winter use pine branches and pinecones to decorate the table.
Use inexpensive cotton bandanas as napkins.
Cut up a yard of inexpensive fabric with pinking shears to make napkins.
Borrow party supplies from friends (and offer to return the favor).
Keep Special Diets in Mind
Especially with a small gathering of close friends and family, it’s kind to inquire about dietary needs and do what you can to accommodate them, but that doesn’t mean you need to drive yourself bonkers doing so. Making a few veggie-only and whole-grain side dishes that are naturally gluten free, like quinoa or wild rice, will give your vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free guests some options, if your main dish doesn’t work for all. Knowing you’ve tried to take their needs into account will make your guests feel welcome and respected. If you are facing a group with lots of dietary restrictions, one great strategy is to do a potluck, as each person can bring something they want to eat.
Master the Art of the Quick Cleanup
Focus on the areas where guests will be: the entry, bathroom, living room, dining room and kitchen.
Clear some room in the coat closet or on hallway hooks for guests.
Clean the toilet and sink.
Vacuum the main thoroughfares.
Plump up the couch cushions and put a small vase of flowers on the coffee table.
Make sure the bathroom is stocked with extra TP, fresh hand towels, hand soap, a candle and a small vase of flowers.
Set the Table in Advance
This is one of those things that will make you feel really accomplished, and it hardly takes any time at all. Set the table with cloth napkins, a tablecloth (or runner or placemats), candles, fresh flowers and a few carafes of water. If you are hosting a big group, setting up a buffet is an easy way to accommodate lots of guests.
Offer Guests a Festive Drink
Being offered something festive to drink as they walk through the door puts guests in a good mood. Always offer a nonalcoholic drink option, as there may be guests who do not drink, or who are pregnant but haven’t announced it yet. And don’t assume that all of your friends will want wine or a cocktail, even if you know them well. Good booze-free options include fruit juice with sparkling water, iced tea, or (if you want to get fancy) a homemade soda using fruit- or herb-infused simple syrup.
Set the Mood with Music & Lights
Think about the music in advance if you can, but if you run out of time, not to worry. Pass on the task to a music-savvy friend or cue up a free Internet radio station, like Pandora. If you have a record player, choose a few records to start with and set out a stack for friends to flip through. Just before guests are due to arrive, turn down the lights. If you can, shut off any overhead lights entirely and boost the glow with candles and lamps.
Have a Story to Tell
If you worry about awkward lulls in conversation, take a moment while chopping veggies to think up a story to share. It could be an anecdote about a family recipe you are using and what it means to you, a book you’ve read recently and loved, or a funny or dramatic experience you’ve recently had. Hearing a story never fails to get people talking about their own stories.