How to enjoy your own dinner party

 
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at around 7 pm the guests started to knock on the door. 

Greeted first by my parents, they filtered into the bar adjacent our kitchen, where bowls and platters of appetizers were laid out. The dining area started to hum with conversation. Some guests asked about the food while others took the time to catch up, shake hands, and introduce themselves. All the while people sipped on drinks and nibbled on finger food. 

I smiled, observing the scene from afar. At the time, I was only fourteen and it was exciting, and more than a little stressful, to be serving my parent's friends food I had cooked myself.

 This olive oil cake, featured in the menu below, is rich in moisture and has a beautiful, crackling crust. Though pulling both off might sound daunting, I promise this recipe is just as simple to execute as that cake I made all those years ago.

This olive oil cake, featured in the menu below, is rich in moisture and has a beautiful, crackling crust. Though pulling both off might sound daunting, I promise this recipe is just as simple to execute as that cake I made all those years ago.

Later that night, after dinner had been served in the formal dining room, I came in to present the dessert: a chocolate peppermint layer cake I had concocted all on my own. It looked impressive - four layers of thin chocolate cake slathered with a creamy mint buttercream. The guests turned to look my way, their eyes widening in surprise. I resisted the urge to tell them how simple it had been to prepare.

At the edge of the table, I nervously cut and served the cake. “My daughter made this from scratch,” my dad said as everyone took their first bite. I tried to keep my cheeks from flushing pink as praise for the food flowed across the dinner table and slices of cake disappeared from plates. I left the room glowing.

I know the idea of hosting a dinner party is more stressful than most of us are willing to take on. But each dinner I've hosted since that first somewhat terrifying one for my parents has taught me something new, and made the next one a little simpler and a lot more fun. These days I use dinners to introduce people to the deliciousness of plant-based food. But I also love an excuse to bring people together. And when something you've made is at the center of it all, it becomes even more rewarding. Trust me.
 

how to host a dinner party you enjoy

Plan the menu. This can be the most daunting part of a dinner party. I tend to begin by visiting a farmers market for ideas or seeing what looks good at my local grocery store, and then building my menu around seasonal produce. Fresh ingredients really do make a difference. As a good rule of thumb, a dinner party menu should include one or two appetizers or snacks, a salad, a side, a main dish, and a dessert. These seasonal dinner party menus can give you a place to start. 

Bring in tried and true dishes. When I host people, I like to use recipes I’ve made before. Dinner parties are stressful enough without introducing a dish that may or may not come together at the last minute. If you’d like to try something new, consider limiting it to a side dish or appetizer - something that be center stage.

Delegate. Most guests ask what they can bring to the party. Take them up on it! Hosting a dinner party is a lot of work and being able to count on another bottle of wine or a dessert, which I admit I don’t always find time to make, makes it much more relaxing. I find it also allows guests to contribute to the energy of the party. Often they'll choose to bring something personal, like their favorite chocolate cake or a great local cider, an item they can tell stories about at the table. 

Get your shopping out of the way. I do most of my grocery shopping at least a few days ahead of time. This relieves stress big time! Not only can you check off your list of ingredients, it allows you to do food prep ahead of the party so you don't spend the entire day in the kitchen. Speaking of which...

 Prepping your food a couple days ahead of your party will give you more confidence on the day.

Prepping your food a couple days ahead of your party will give you more confidence on the day.

Prep food efficiently. Unless you cook effortlessly in front of a crowd, I recommend making as many dishes as you can ahead of time. Again, you'll feel more relaxed plus get to spend more time with your guests. They'll be happier, too, I mean, who wants stand over a hot stove with you while you're making a sauce? Break down your menu so you can time your prep. Need to toast nuts and make a vinaigrette for a salad? That can also be done a couple days ahead. Want to make a green bean dish? Blanch the beans the day before so completing the dish takes one less step the day of. Include foods, like hummus or bean dip, that can be refrigerated right up until they're served. These may seem like petty details but they end up making a big difference the night of the party.

Set the table and lay out snacks before guests arrive. Make sure you have your dining table set with plates, napkins, candles, and silverware before guests arrive. It looks welcoming and gets that task out of the way. I like to set snacks just outside the kitchen so people can congregate there without getting in the way of my final preparations. It also gives your guests another place to gather and meet each other.  Be sure to offer drinks as soon as people come through the door, and make sure you have a few choices, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, on hand.

Games and table topics can be a nice add. Depending on the size of the group and how well everyone knows each other, it can be helpful to throw an easy game into the mix. I've played "Guess who I am," which involves taping the names of famous people on everyone's backs and asking them to figure out who they are. I've left Bananagrams and puzzles on coffee tables and counters. My favorite game, however, is to leave cards with questions under dinner plates and let guests take turns answering them. (If you're stumped for questions you find them at Table Topics.) This takes some of the pressure off of you to keep the conversation going, and make the party so much fun you'll want to go ahead and throw another one.


Get started with this simple five-course menu

 Every good dinner party begins with a trip to your local farmer's market - fresh ingredients almost never do you wrong.

Every good dinner party begins with a trip to your local farmer's market - fresh ingredients almost never do you wrong.

Full of greens and vibrant hues, this meal is perfect for introducing friends to the beauty of plant-based eating. I built this menu around citrus, squash, and carrots. The hummus, lemon vinaigrette, pie dough, roasted squash, and chocolate cake are all easy to prepare ahead of time, which means you'll have less to worry about the day of your party. Happy to share this with you! Have fun.


Addy Cummings is a News Fellow at Stone Pier Press and a recipe developer for our Good Food Recipes Archive.