When it comes to socializing, dinner parties have always been my favorite way to catch up with friends. Over good wine and good food, everyone relaxes and the stories — and jokes — come tumbling out. I like to host dinner parties as often as I can, and since I lead a busy life, I discovered long ago that there's only one way for me to hold true to being a frequent hostess.
What's a crappy dinner party? It's the solution to seeing friends more and stressing out less.
My Dinner Party Strategy
Necessity is the mother of invention, and I adopted my dinner party strategy long ago, when I was a dirt-broke recent college grad teaching English abroad in the south of France. I arrived in the city of Toulouse knowing no one, but quickly made friends among the group of fellow expats also there on teaching contracts.
Young and eager to socialize and with lots of free time on our hands, we formed a bi-weekly dinner club in which we rotated hosting duties. Because none of us had any money, our dinner parties were freewheeling affairs characterized by thrown-together meals and plenty of the bottom-shelf (but wonderful) red wine that is so blessedly bountiful in France.
Over simple quiches and ratatouille made from bruised and therefore deeply discounted vegetables, my friends and I shared our stories and experiences and grew incredibly close within a short period of time.
Faith's story on a Toulouse dinner party experience (sitting on the floor!) How the French Make the Best No-Cook Summer Meals
When I got back to New York a year later, I realized how integral that social ritual had become to my life and resolved to re-form the dinner club with my friends at home. With the pace of city life, bi-weekly meals would be impossible here, but my pals were eager to try out a once-a-week commitment.
It's worked beautifully, and the key is that I'm not fancy. I go lowbrow, ditching elaborate, fiddly recipes in favor of simple but delicious ones, and setting out disposable plates and inexpensive wine.
What France Taught Me About Crappy Dinner Parties
Here are my best tips on what to skip at your next dinner party, thanks to what I learned in France about staying hands-off about gathering. I'm betting your guests won't even notice the difference.
1. Embrace the one-pot meal.
Ban overly complicated dishes from your next dinner party — they're just too much work and create too much stress. Opt for simple one-bowl or one-pot meals such as fried rice, loaded orzo, and creamy mustard-braised chicken.
2. Buy your dessert.
There's no skipping out on dessert at a dinner party — your guests will be looking forward to one — but there's no reason to break out the mixer every time. A plate of cookies from your local bakery, plus a pint or two of ice cream, will satisfy everyone's sweet tooth with minimal fuss.
3. Everyone loves cheap wine — really!
A casual weeknight affair with friends is no time to uncork that cellar-aged Montrachet. Instead, use our tips to score a wonderful, but inexpensive bottle (or two or three). Or stir together an easy pitcher cocktail instead.
4. Sparkling water is nice, but unnecessary.
Those bubbles are nice, but it'll just add to your budget unnecessarily. Set out a pitcher of cold ice water instead.
5. Paper plates are fun!
There's no need to dust off Grandma's china for a dinner party — in fact, you don't even need to put out real plates. Keep cleanup easy (and maintain your sanity) by serving your meal on eco-friendly disposable plates that you can toss in the compost bin after dinner.
6. Be casual with your seating.
This isn't a wedding we're talking about — it's a casual dinner among friends. Go school cafeteria-style and let your pals plop down where they will.
7. Tablescape? What tablescape?
Don't go elaborate with your table decorations. The night is about catching up with your friends — not impressing them. If anything, set out a bright bouquet of flowers, add some colorful paper napkins, and call it a day.
8. Give up control and enjoy your friends.
There's no need to take on every task. You're hosting your friends — not your boss. Accept their offers to assist you in setting the table, pouring the wine, and divvying up the dessert.
What are your best tips for hosting an easy dinner party? Share with us in the comments.