As we are allowed to invite guests into our house again, it’s time to dust off those cookbooks and get planning some foodie gatherings.
There is so much to say, so I’ve broken it down into a handy three-part guide. This is our starter. What to plot and plan before we even get thinking about the actual menu (covered in part two).
In the final part of my guide, we will finish our dinner party with a flourish. We tackle the booze, some cheats, and most importantly how to enjoy yourself.
Here are my 7 tips for planning the best dinner party:
How are you feeling about your forthcoming dinner party? Really on it and ready to show off, or feeling a little rusty in the dinner party cooking department? Be honest with yourself and devise a menu that might push you a little out of your comfort zone, but not too much. If you are worried, then keep it simple (but not too simple, see tip 3 below).
It’s not a Competition
My best friend is one of the best cooks I know. Whenever I go to hers for dinner it is amazing. She’s ambitious in her choice of menu. She creates outstanding food, and she is such a natural at it. I’m not as good as her in the kitchen. I’m more than fine and I do a fab job, but she is just better at it than me. I can find myself worrying about what to serve her when she comes to us. We are not in competition. I have to do my thing, my way.
Remember it’s not just about the food. It’s the fact that you have been invited out, the ambiance of the evening and blimey, someone is cooking your dinner. Don’t try and be something you are not, your guests will be delighted to have been invited!
Banish the Spag Bol
If it’s something you serve up all the time for family dinners, don’t put it on the menu. It’s likely your guests will be eating the same at home too. Let’s change it up a bit. Be a little bit more ambitious in your food choices. Your guests won’t want to come out to eat something they have at home every week. You don’t have to do something super-complicated, but you can try something new(ish), trendy, fresh, and still keep it fairly simple.
What’s for dinner?
This is my absolute favourite bit (as well as seeing friends of course on the big night). Getting out the cookbooks, pouring over recipes, and coming up with the menu is as much fun as the big night for me. I can spend hours pouring over stuff. When I’m happy with the whole thing, I just know. I have to tweak and fiddle until I get that feeling that it’s just right.
Don’t panic, help on menu planning is at hand. I’m going into more detail on the specifics of your menu in part two. You want to aim for balance, texture, interest, variety, colour. For example, you don’t want to serve a monster pie for the main course, followed by a pastry pudding. Think about what accompaniments you can add to the main course to ensure you are not serving up 50 shades of beige!
Most important, and key to the success of the whole thing, is my next tip…….
They came to see you
You have to decide how much time you are willing to be in the kitchen at your dinner party. Maybe you are hosting the outlaws, or your partners’ colleagues and the kitchen is feeling rather appealing!
For me, planning a menu that gives me maximum time with my guests is imperative. I will often not add a dish to the menu if there is too much last-minute faffing. If I’m set on serving up something which does require some effort in the moment, then I will ensure that my other dishes are make-ahead or minimum effort so that I minimise my time in the kitchen overall. It can hamper your choices a bit. That will be your call, however, the more you can do ahead, the more you will feel in control on the big night.
The table plan
Who are the people you are inviting? Will they get along? Are you aiming to mix in some new friends? This element can be a little out of your control (yes, we’ve all had that awkward experience). You may have every good intention of mixing new people, but you can’t guarantee the chemistry. If you want to ensure a good atmosphere, make sure you mix in some good friends who will come to your aid should the conversation dry up a little.
Formal/informal on where people are to sit – it’s up to you. You will want to be closest to the kitchen with easy access to and from the table.
You may wish to mix couples up, so they get to talk to different people.
Use name places if you want to be more formal about it – there are some lovely and fun options around.
I have a set with names on like ‘stud’, ‘flirt’ etc, so if you know them well enough that can be a bit of a giggle to get started!
Timed to perfection
Many years ago, I went to a lovely Sunday lunch, hosted by a London socialite friend who had got a great bunch of interesting people together. It was a lovely summery lunch, with a whole salmon and all the trimmings – but she got her timings so wrong. I don’t know if she forgot to switch the oven on, or if the oven wasn’t working properly. She had oodles of gin of offer and everyone was completely plastered well before lunch was served. We even got sent to the pub for an hour while she got back on track. Needless to say, most of us couldn’t remember the lunch.
We did have a fabulous time and a real laugh about it and here I am still talking about it today.
You need to decide when you wish to eat your main course and work backward from there.
How long will you allow for drinks/nibbles?
Are you serving a starter?
Factor in the time required for this, plus a little rest time between courses.
Bear in mind you usually eat later, and people have saved themselves for a bigger meal. You may find you don’t want too many drinks before you eat. I love a pre-dinner drink, nothing tastes quite as lovely. I am conscious I’ve still got to get the meal out!
Once you have served your main course, you can relax and take things a little slower. I sometimes pop the rest on the table all at once. It may not be quite the done thing? If I put the puddings and cheese on together, I can sit back and take a deep breath – all the hard work is done!
In summary, my 7 tips for planning the best dinner party are:
- How are you feeling?
- Who are you going to ask along?
- How much showing off are you going to want to do?
- What are you not going to serve (maybe you done it before and want something new)?
- Work out how much time away from your guests is involved.
- Think about your timings for the night.
- Get a long list together of potential menu options
In part two of my handy guide to hosting the best dinner parties, we shall be looking at the main event – the menu – in more detail.