During the early years of our marriage, my husband, Brian, and I decided to host a dinner party for a few of our friends. I didn’t have much experience in entertaining and neither did he. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan my menu very well and decided to serve something I had never cooked before — beef tenderloin. I asked Brian how long he thought it would take to partially sear it on the grill and then finish baking it in the oven. “It shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes,” he said assuredly as he stood there with one hand on his hip examining the slab of raw meat with a fork.
Today I know better than to ask my husband for cooking advice, and here’s why. Our guests arrived and the tenderloin was still rare. It needed at least another hour to cook. I really hadn’t planned on serving any hors d’oeuvres, but I found myself frantically scrounging around in my pantry until I found a half-eaten bag of chips and some stale nuts. Out of necessity, I served these humble munchies to my guests while plying them with a few extra cocktails until the meal was finally ready to serve.
All in all, everyone had a great time and I learned a few lessons in the process: When a culinary catastrophe happens, it’s important to keep your cool and your guests will never notice. Furthermore, let go of the need to be perfect, laugh at yourself, and don’t take your stress out on your spouse or partner if you want to keep your relationship intact. (I’m still practicing this one!)
It’s not necessary to be a gourmet chef or a professional party planner to coordinate a casual or elegant event. All you need is a little bit of preparation, an adventurous spirit, and a good sense of humor. Brian and I have gotten more skilled at entertaining over the years so here are some of my top tips for throwing a successful dinner party.
1. Do your homework. Find out ahead of time if any of your guests have food allergies or other dietary restrictions and plan your menu accordingly or prepare a buffet with a variety of items from which to choose.
2. Keep a list. Just as you would with a business plan, write down all of the items you need to make your meal complete. It’s especially frustrating when you think you have all of your ingredients and then discover in the midst of cooking that you don’t have enough salt, sugar, or butter.
3. Have a variety of beverages on hand. The mark of a good host is to have a few bottles of red and white wine along with plenty of nonalcoholic beverages for the teetotalers in the group.
4. Stock up on snacks. This includes nuts, chips, salsa or dip, one or two different cheeses, crackers, and one or two kinds of frozen appetizers. Choose hors d’oeuvres that are easy to eat and require only one bite. This will ensure that no one gets crumbs on his or her nice outfit or on your floor.
5. Do as much as possible the day before. I like to set my table the night before. I also prefer to clean and polish my serving pieces and fill my salt and pepper shakers a few days before the party to avoid last-minute flurries.
6. Iron your linens. When you are serving cocktails, provide linen cocktail napkins or, at the very least, decorative paper cocktail napkins. For dinners, I prefer linen napkins because they’re more elegant than paper ones.
7. Set the mood. Candles are an easy, inexpensive, quick way to make any home more inviting. And we all know that everyone and everything looks better by candlelight. Buy as many candles as you can and place them throughout your house.
8. Choose your tunes. Music is a vital element in the staging of a good dinner party, as it sets the tone for the evening. Create a dinner party playlist on your iPod or iPhone or preset your CD player so there’s music in the air when your guests arrive and keep it playing throughout the evening.
9. Preset your coffee and tea service. About an hour before your party, set up your coffeemaker and put cream, milk, sugar, and sweetener in decorative containers. Put condiments in attractive bowls or containers rather than placing bottles directly on the table. Put your coffee cups, saucers, teaspoons, and assorted teas on a tray on a side table.
10. Keep fragrant items off the table. Scented candles and flowers can compete with and even overpower food aromas. I say this on behalf of anyone who’s ever been overwhelmed by the scent of stargazer lilies or a scented pine candle while attempting to enjoy dinner.
Bonus tip: Make time for yourself. Allow plenty of time to shower, get dressed, and look your best for your party. You’ll want to greet your guests at the door with a relaxed smile on your face. The more prepared you are, the more comfortable you will feel, and the better time you’ll have at your own party.
I’d love to hear from you. What steps do you take to ensure a successful dinner party?