Entertaining at home has gotten a lot more complicated in my house lately. And while I love my sweet baby girl to pieces and would gladly snuggle her all evening long, there are times when I need a meal with friends — without toddlers or babies to wrangle — for my emotional well-being.
So I recently attempted a night when I did both and invited friends over for an after-bedtime dinner party. The result? I realized that entertaining doesn't have to be a big deal to be fun and delicious. And prepping for a dinner party can actually be fast — as in, it takes just an hour!
The After-Bedtime Dinner Party
The beauty of this sort of quick-prep dinner is that you can enjoy adult time without spending all day in the kitchen. In fact, the prep work can take less than an hour, which means you don't even have to plan very far ahead.
This type of prep works even if you have a jam-packed day or an afternoon that goes slightly off the rails. (Because you know that the day you plan to do this, your toddler will decide to skip her nap and act like a crazy person all evening!) And, there's plenty of time to get the kids into bed and deal with the inevitable calls for a drink of water or another story before you need to start cooking.
There's also the added bonus of not eating dinner at 5:30 p.m., which is a surprisingly wonderful thing.
The reality of being a mom with two little kids (with both sets of grandparents living a plane ride away) is that there's just no way that a fancy, multi-course dinner party is going to happen right now. So for me, embracing this fuss-free form of feeding friends ensures that I spend time with friends at all. And I don't have to worry about how a babysitter will handle it if the baby wakes up screaming because I'm right downstairs.
Pick the Right Recipes
To pull this off, I like to choose recipes that are either lightning-fast to make or ones that basically cook themselves. Think: simple pasta dishes with flavorful ingredients, slow-cooker roasts with lots of aromatics, or big salads with an easy side or appetizer. Simple desserts are a must as well. (No one will complain if Talenti Mediterranean Mint Gelato makes an appearance — promise!)
And since we live in the Midwest, where every event is assumed to be a potluck, I ask the guests to bring the drinks.
The One-Hour Dinner Party Menu
This is a favorite menu that's easy to adjust for food restrictions — and to scale up or down depending on how many friends are coming over.
- Drinks: Local IPA and/or hard cider
- Starters: Tortilla chips and restaurant-style salsa
- Main: Upside-down taco bowl
- Dessert: Apple yogurt cake with freshly made whipped cream
The One-Hour Game Plan
- Make the salsa and stash it in the fridge in a nice serving bowl so the flavors can mix. (Or, save yourself a step and buy fresh salsa at the store.)
- Mix up the cake and get it into the oven so the house smells heavenly when your guests arrive at the door. Speaking of which, if you have kids in bed, leave the door slightly ajar or put a Post-It over the doorknob so no one rings the bell and wakes them up.
- Set out the beer glasses and opener so everyone can serve themselves.
- Pour the chips into a serving bowl. Grab the salsa from the fridge and place it nearby.
- Set the table with real placemats or a tablecloth, cloth napkins, the good dishes, and maybe even a vase or jar of simple flowers. No one will care if the table linens are wrinkled, though, so don't waste any time worrying about whether you should iron them. (You can also skip this all together and go the paper plate route.)
- Prep the taco salad ingredients and the dressing. Add little bowls of extra toppings including shredded cheese and sliced avocado if you'd like. Plan to let everyone dress their own salad to save you a step. (I'd like to make a case for using a store-bought rotisserie chicken here, shredded, rather than making the meat from scratch. Or just double the amount of beans and call it good.)
- Drink! Eat!
- Whip the cream — an immersion blender makes quick work of this — and serve the cake topped with fresh cream and berries. (If there are any leftover slices of cake, plan to have it for breakfast with strong coffee. You deserve it.)
Voila! The one-hour dinner party. Well, a one-hour menu; you'll start the evening so refreshed, the party can go on for hours.