How to Become a Cook Who Throws Dinner Parties (Post-COVID, of Course) Fearlessly and with Joy
While we unfortunately can’t gather around the able with family and friends right now, we all have something to look forward to post-COVID: the dinner party. Cooking for others is the cook’s payoff. To cook delightful food and serve it and share it around a big table is just a joy. But cooking for others can feel hard: Everything you know as a cook gets tested. Can you choose things that taste great, but that also finish cooking at the same time? Can you cook a big dinner, on a weekend or a holiday, without getting too flustered and feeling like you can’t enjoy your own party? Today: our ultimate lesson in what is really important about cooking for others, and throwing parties fearlessly and with joy. (Hint: There’s no such thing as a stress-free dinner party, but our five steps will help you enjoy it all.)
Planning a Dinner Party: Your Cooking School Test
- Today’s Lesson: Plan & Cook a Meal
- Enroll & See All Lessons So Far
Today we will teach you about planning a dinner party, and we even have a couple of menus that we think demonstrate the way to think about pulling off a big meal.
On the phrase “dinner party”: For the sake of simplicity, we are going to use the phrase “dinner party” a lot, but we realize it’s a bit worn. Having people over, cooking a meal, and creating a lovely environment to spend time together — that can happen in many ways, not just the 1950s hostess-style implied by “dinner party.”
The First Rule of Dinner Parties: There’s No Such Thing as No-Stress
There are zillions of magazine and web stories floating around telling you how to have a “stress-free” entertaining experience. We have even written some ourselves, so we can confidently tell you now that they are absolute bollocks. Having people over to dinner is stressful. We don’t care how experienced and polished you are as a cook. You could hire a caterer and a house-cleaner and a butler and still be nervous. Even our queen, Ina Garten, says she feels a little stressed before guests arrive. Surely we can give ourselves some grace and say Hey, nerves happen. Don’t stress about the stress!
The key to making dinner parties and entertaining fun does not lie in straining for a stress-free experience. The key is understanding what is stressful and heading it off as much as possible so that your stress turns into the delightful fizz of adrenaline, instead of dread.
The 5 Steps of Planning a Fun, Fearless Dinner Party
Okay, so how to manage stress, juggle cooking, and come to the table feeling like you’re part of the party? Here are the five steps we find really key.
1. Choose food you absolutely love.
Dinner parties are often the moment when we stiffen up. What is okay to serve to people? What if I really just want to serve hot dogs? Do I need to make something special? But the worry about how we appear is contrary to the spirit of hospitality. People just want to feel well-fed and taken care of. One of the best dinner parties our Editor-in-Chief, Faith, ever went to finished with store-bought donuts. They were a total treat! People love homey food that comforts them. And if you really, really love a dish, then your guests probably will too.
The first rule is to think about the dishes you just absolutely love. Build a menu with those. This might sound a little obvious, but when you really dig into this idea, you’ll see how much more fun dinner parties can be.
2. Choose one dish for each of these categories: Something old, something new, something bought, something brought, something yesterday … and only one thing today.
Once you have a sense of what you really love to eat and want to serve people, build your full menu, and go by this little checklist.
This checklist assumes that you will cook something new to you. The traditional advice is to never cook something new at a dinner party, but honestly isn’t that the most boring and dull advice? Really. Isn’t that the thrill of a dinner party? Cooking something you usually wouldn’t? But still: Don’t make any more than ONE new dish. (No, we don’t follow this advice either, but it sounds good, yeah?)
- Something old: This should be your main event, perhaps that is a dessert or the main dish itself. This is the food you LOVE from step one, something you have on lock, that you know inside and out and think is just ACES. This is the cornerstone of your menu.
- Something new: Something new! An interesting side dish, or a new cake recipe, or a pitcher drink you’ve never tried. Often dinner parties are the excuse to try something new like this. (What, that’s just us?)
- Something bought: Then, add something that you have to do pretty much zero work for. This is often an appetizer (or a dessert, if you don’t like to show off in that arena). Chips and fancy salsa, a Costco cheesecake — something that crosses a menu item off in about two minutes. Bread is a great thing to buy (or have someone bring).
- Something brought: And yes, ask your guest or guests to bring something. Drinks are a classic choice, but bread, dessert, or appetizers are all extremely good options to shove off your to-do list and onto someone else’s.
- Something yesterday: One of the three dishes above should be completely cooked the day before you have your dinner party. Maybe it’s short ribs that will warm in the oven while prepping salad. Maybe it’s the dessert. But knock something off your list a day or even two before. You’ll be glad you did.
- Only one thing today: Try not to have more than one thing on your full to-do list on the day of your dinner party — especially if it is on a weeknight and you’ll have a small amount of time between work and dinner.
But wait, you say — what should I actually make? That is the fun part. Start with your absolute favorite dish to make, that you can bring to the table with a proud and confident strut. Then work around it with contrast and complements. Think about the tastes (bitter, salty, sour, spicy, sweet, umami) and textures (chewy, creamy, crispy, crunchy, firm, tender, soft) you already have in your meal and try to add something different. If you have a hot main dish, add a cool dessert or a room-temperature salad. If you are serving ice cream for dessert, add a bread or something chewy with dinner.
Less is more. Focus on preparing one good main, one app, and one sweet thing. You don’t need a full menu with multiple courses.
3. You should make a timeline. But work backwards from the end of the meal, not the beginning.
Lots of entertaining experts give the well-worn advice that you should make a timeline for your cooking and dinner-making. But most people start from the moment you sit down to dinner and work backwards from there. This is not quite right. You should start from the end of dinner — think about how you want dinner to end. Do you need coffee set out and set up? Do you want to pull out some dessert plates and make sure there are enough forks? Do you want to move into the living room and play games after dinner; should you put some beers in the fridge for that? How (and when) do you want the evening to end?
Start there, then work backwards in a timeline, leaving generous amounts of time for each thing you need to do (including cleanup and, ahem, a shower before your guests arrive, if you think you’ll need one). Need examples? Here are two sample menus, one for an omnivore and one for a vegetarian dinner party, with game plans you can adjust to your preferences.
4. Set the table (and the vibe) as far ahead of time as you can.
This is another common piece of advice, and it’s right! Create the environment you want as far in advance as you can. Some things we like to do are as follows:
- Set the table.
- Set out serving dishes and utensils for the food.
- Figure out the music (and turn it on).
- Light candles.
- Make sure there is water on the table as well as any other drinks.
- Make sure the bathroom is neatened-up and light a candle in there.
- Adjust the lighting.
5. Decide what your guests will do when they arrive.
What will you and your guests be doing when they show up? Do you have an appetizer ready? Or would you like them to help you in the kitchen? Spend two minutes thinking about this and visualizing how you want the dinner to feel. If kids are coming over too, is there something for them to do? Can you usher them out of the kitchen to play? Is there something for them to munch?
And what will guests be drinking? We love mixing pitcher cocktails ahead of time — pull it out of the fridge and let guests serve themselves. Or designate your partner or a roommate to answer the door, take coats, and get people a drink.
If You Learn Just One Thing Today …
If you learned just one thing from us about dinner parties it’s this: Dinner parties are primarily about making people feel comfortable, not impressed. Cook for people, cook often, cook food you like, turn the lights down low instead of cleaning in your corners, and don’t hesitate to ask people to bring things. Also on dinner parties: You should just have them, and you shouldn’t let fear or a small home or a perceived lack of skills stand in your way. We don’t go to nearly enough dinner parties and gatherings, and honestly, all you need is a pitcher drink, a great cheese board, and some store-bought chicken and dessert to make people feel like they’ve had a great time.
What You Don’t Need to Learn
Oh, a million things. How to arrange flowers like Martha Stewart (unless you want to!), how to fold napkins, how to course out a meal and plate each thing perfectly. Don’t stress if your plates don’t match or you have zero inclination to figure out what a tablescape is. All of those things are fun if you like them, but in the end the food you love to cook is what most of your friends will (and should) want to eat.
Level Up! Dinner Party Pro Tips
If you’re looking for more ways to plan in advance, lower stress, or make things a bit fancier, try any of the following tips:
- Start with an empty sink and dishwasher: True level-up material. If your sink and dishwasher are empty and ready to be filled by the time your guests arrive, you are absolutely sailing.
- Label serving dishes: This is a little extra step that is really helpful for a much bigger or more elaborate meal, like Thanksgiving. Make sure you have all the serving dishes you need, and place a serving utensil with each.
- Use cloth napkins and a runner or tablecloth: This is truly not necessary but is so nice.
- Turn the lights OFF! Light candles: The biggest way you can make dinner feel more like a party is to truly turn off the lights and use a dimmer or light a ton of candles. Pull out every mismatched candle you have in your house (unscented only!) and line them up on your table.
- Warm things up: For a really pro touch, place the plates in the oven on its lowest temperature (or heat the oven then turn it off) to gently warm them. Also warm the bread and don’t forget to pull the butter out of the fridge a couple hours before to soften.
- Keep a journal (or, you know, a note on your phone) of what you cook for dinner parties: So you can remember when you hosted, what you made, what you loved, and what you’d make again. (Here’s one of Faith’s old journals.)
What other tips do you have to make a dinner party feel easy, special, and fun? We’d love to hear below!
Our Favorite Gear
We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more little things specifically for dinner parties that we love.
- Thin glasses for water or wine: These inexpensive extra-thin tumblers make even water seem extra-elegant.
- The best candles: Do you ever burn beeswax candles? They have an amazing light honey scent and warmth that seems to make a dinner party seem so luxe and special. Here’s a great selection at good prices.
- Linen napkins: The ultimate pretty, practical goodie for you and your table. Add just a touch of inexpensive color and softness with these napkins we love.
5 Perfect Dinner Party Recipes
These are a few recipes we love and that are particularly good right now in autumn.
- The ultimate dinner party main: Ottolenghi’s Roasted Chicken with Clementines and Arak
- The ultimate vegetarian dinner party main: Ina Garten’s Eggplant Parmesan
- The ultimate dinner party salad: 5-Ingredient Kale Caesar Salad
- The ultimate make-ahead dessert: Butterscotch Pudding (and practice your whipped cream lesson from a couple of days ago)
- The ultimate prep-ahead dinner party appetizer: Sausage Stuffed Mushrooms
- The ultimate dinner party pitcher cocktail: Spiced Rye & Honey Cocktail
All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!
15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read
Watch the video and read this whole post. Meditate on your own biggest stress points in entertaining. If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read the whole post and follow it with the supplemental reading below. Then think: What are your biggest stress points? What holds you back from having people over more?
30-Minute Assignment: Practice!
Practice by writing out your menu and game plan for your next dinner party. Take 30 minutes and think about your next party or gathering. Do a little research on recipes, and follow our checklist above to make your menu, then a game plan. (Here are some sample menus as an example.)
60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself
Bonus! Throw a dinner party when it’s safe to do so. Pick a few recipes, invite a couple of friends, and just gather. Start by making your menu and timeline, then go for it! Need some sample menus and game plans as examples? Start with these.
What It Takes to Be a Dinner Party Expert
Anyone can be a dinner party expert. You know your own style better than anyone. However, it takes time to get comfortable with timing and things going wrong and how to get it all to the table at once. Post-COVID, do it over and over; a year or two of monthly parties will shock you with how comfortable and pro you feel you are, suddenly.
Celebrate with Your Classmates!
You can also join your Kitchn Cooking School cohort in our Kitchn Facebook group, which is devoted to all things Cooking School this month.