Dining Table: Part of Dinner Party PlanningCredit: dieraecherin @ morgueFileIn middle-class America, the joy of throwing dinner parties seems all but dead, despite several fine cooking magazines available on the market.  Whether you want to show off your cooking skills, your new home or just want to treat to friends, throwing a dinner party is a good way to accomplish one or all three of these goals.  There is an art to throwing a great dinner party and a success may leave you hungry for more.  Although your first dinner party may be as basic as this quick guide, keep in mind a calm and confident hostess who is able to spend time with her guests is what it is all about.

Developing a Guest List

The number of people you can invite depends largely on how many people you can accommodate.  If your dining room table seats 8 comfortably (or even 6), start there.  If you can extend as far as your dinner service allows, then pick your best set of plates and aim to serve that number of people.  A dinner party is not just a meal, it is an evening you are providing.  So it is always better to start small.

Once you know how many people you can invite, start thinking about who.  Consider mixing people from different areas of your life who you believe would get along well.  Also consider any dietary requirements you know of in advance.  If there is a co-worker you wish to invite but you know she is strictly kosher - and you are not - it is better to wait until you are able to prepare something for her that will make her feel at ease in your home.

Before calling to invite your guests, you will need to decide the time and date of your dinner party, whether guests will be responsible for bringing anything (such as a bottle of wine or their favorite drink) and what the dress code is.  Although this may seem terribly old-fashioned, remember that your main job as a host is to make your guests feel comfortable.  Letting them know what is expected of them will mean they won't feel uncomfortable by arriving in formal wear while everyone else is in jeans.

When calling your guests, enquire not only about their availability on the date, but also about anything they don't eat.  You may find you have a guest who is allergic to shellfish and another who just doesn't like cheese and you will need to design a menu around these limits after confirming your guests, not before.  Make sure you let your guests know what the dress code is and whether they should bring something.

Developing a MenuThe Food: Part of Dinner Party PlanningCredit: beglib @ morgueFile

Once all your guests have confirmed and you know all their food preferences, you can begin planning your dinner party menu.  Although not set in stone, the amount of courses to serve corresponds roughly to the evening's formality.  For example, a strictly casual dress code calls for two to three courses and no more.  A smart casual evening is no less than three courses and a semi-formal dinner party should have four courses.  A smart casual menu will typically include an appetizer, main dish with sides and a dessert.  

Regardless of the amount of courses you plan to serve, start with something you know you do well.  Unless of course, what you do well is inventing new dishes.  If you are stuck for ideas, browse your cookbooks and cooking magazines for inspiration.  You want to look for recipes that you can prepare, at least in part, in advance.  For example pâté with warm fruit sauce makes a sophisticated start to many main meals.  It is inexpensive to make and needs to be done at least a day before.  Leaving you more time on the day of your dinner to prepare other things.

Some basic rules to follow when deciding which recipes to pair up for a menu are:

  • If your main meal is very rich or filling, then the appetizer should be lighter, and vice versa.
  • Flavours between appetizers and mains should blend well, but not overlap.  For example, a main dish with ham, should not be paired with a bacon-based appetizer.  A little bacon crumble on the top doesn't detract from the main dish, but candied bacon and a few stalks of asparagus will detract from the main dish.
  • If you are serving a spicy main, a light dessert such as sorbet or fruit is usually a better choice than a cheese platter.

Just keep in mind that the more work you can do in the days before, the more time you have to prepare yourself, your table and spend with your guests when they arrive.  Plan a schedule and shopping list and allow for plenty of time for both.

Splash of Color: Part of Dinner Party PlanningCredit: clem @ morgueFileSetting the Table and the Room

It is always a good feeling to walk into a room with a beautifully laid table.  Your table and, where possible, the room should have a color scheme or theme.  Tablecloths, plates, napkins and decorations should blend and compliment each other.  If everything you have is plain white, consider buying a table runner to give a small splash of color, even a dash of silver can help.

Besides plates and silverware, your table should have:

  • Salt and pepper shakers - if your table is especially long, then more than one set is a good idea.
  • Napkins - elegantly folded napkins or those rolled and secured with napkin rings add to your overall table setting.
  • Toothpicks - this is important if serving steaks or similar.
  • Small decorations - small (un-scented) candles are a good idea, especially if you plan to dim the lights in your dining room.  Large centerpieces often take up valuable table space and anything too tall will interfere with conversation.

Once you have your table planned, turn your attention to the rest of the room.  It should be clean and organized.  You may want to clear items out the room for your dinner, even if they normally live there.  The room should be uncluttered and there should be surfaces available to allow for bottles of wine or any flowers you may receive.

Music is another way to set the mood in your room.  Create a play list or bring a couple CDs and a small player.  Volume should be just high enough to add to your setting, but low enough so people don't need to raise their voices over it.

A Couple of Extras to Keep in Mind

If you are hosting this dinner party on your own, without the help of a partner or roommate, ask one of your guests to help you on the night.   While they may offer to help with preparations or clearing up, what you need is someone to answer the door, pour drinks and make sure everyone is at ease while you are away from the table.

Even if you have asked everyone to bring a bottle of wine or something to drink, make sure you have a couple extra bottles on hand, as well as extra Coca-cola and Sprite, as well as plenty of bottled water.  Some of your guests may forget to stop at the store, while others may have a glass or two more than they expected.  If this does happen, it is your responsibility to make sure they have a driver or a guest bed.

Many guests will bring a small gift for their hostess to show their appreciation.  Usual gifts are wine, chocolates or flowers.  Make sure you have a couple of clean, empty vases on hand.  You will most likely have a very tight schedule and will not have time to search for and clean a vase.  However, it would be rude not to put the flowers in a vase and display them somewhere.

This quick guide should get you through your first dinner party.  Hopefully these tips will make it a success.  Consider creating a notebook just for dinner party ideas and recipes to use.  Writing a review of what worked in your notebook will help you to prepare for your next dinner party.   And no matter what you serve - enjoy!