Do you hate hosting dinner parties? You spend hours in the kitchen preparing food which always goes wrong then spend the evening trying to entertain your guests whilst getting the food to them before it’s gone stone cold and then finding out they forgot to mention they were vegetarian and had an allergy to wild strawberries. Well it doesn’t have to be that way. Parties are actually supposed to be fun so here is a guide to help you have a stress-free dinner party.
Plan your menu
- Plan and shop well in advance so you avoid the last minute panic when you realise the supermarket’s sold out of everything you needed
- Don’t try to cook anything you haven’t made before unless you’re sure you understand how to do it and know how long it will take
- Choose food which can be largely prepared in advance so you don’t have to spend ages in the kitchen
- When you invite your guests, ask if they have any particular dislikes or allergies and make sure you fully understand what this means. Don’t be afraid to ask them if you’re not sure
A really good idea for a starter is a sharing platter. This can be prepared in advance so you don’t need to be hidden in the kitchen when your guests arrive and sharing the food gets people talking and breaks the ice if your guests haven’t met each other before. It also allows people to eat as much or as little as they like as many people aren’t really that keen on starters and like to save their appetite for the main course.
A really good idea for a platter is:
- A selection of cold meats like chorizo and salami
- Pitted olives
- Chopped cucumber and peppers
- Warmed ciabatta bread with olive oil and balsamic sauce for dipping
- Mozarella balls
- A selection of sliced cheeses
If you don’t fancy doing a sharing platter, make sure your starter can be prepared ahead. Good choices are salads and other cold dishes like quiche, tart or prawn cocktail.
Remember you don’t have to serve a starter. Many people like to have a selection of nibbles available before the main course so guests can help themselves as they arrive. Good choices are:
- Mini quiches, pasties or sausage rolls
- Posh crisps, crackers or savoury snack mixes
- Vegetables or bread sticks and dips
- A selection of mini Indian snacks like pakora and samosas
The main course
This is often the most difficult dish to prepare ahead but try to pick a dish you are confident in cooking and serving. A traditional roast dinner often works well as the meat just needs to be carved straight from the oven and all the vegetables and trimmings can be cooked in advance and warmed through when you are ready.
Another good choice is salmon. You can serve it with vegetables, new potatoes and a sauce, all of which can be cooked earlier and warmed through.
The best dishes for pre-preparing are always going to be one-pots where you can serve them straight from the oven. A casserole can be made earlier on and left to simmer then served with crusty bread. Other dishes served straight from the oven include Shepherd’s pie, lasagne, pasta bake and biryani.
There are loads of desserts you can prepare. A cold dessert like tiramusu, cheesecake or panna cotta seems obvious, however hot desserts like crumble can just be put in the oven when you start the main course and will be ready and waiting when you need them.
Catering for special diets
This can really panic people but it doesn’t need to.
Vegetarians are really easy to cook for as the internet is full of recipes without meat. Salads make a good starter. Main courses could use a meat substitute like quorn or another protein sauce, such as beans or cheese. A bean crumble can work really well, as can many quiches and tarts. For desserts, be aware to check the label for gelatine, which is often a pork product and avoided by many vegetarians. It is often included in desserts with a jelly base and used to thicken creamy desserts.
Vegans are a bit more tricky. They don’t eat any animal products so milk, eggs and cheese are out. Beans and lentils are your perfect protein sauce. Why not try a roasted tomato tart for starters, making sure the pastry does not contain egg, or a salad? For a main course, a lentil curry can work really well. Desserts can be tricky and you might need to consult a specialist vegan recipe and use some substitute products, like soya versions of milk and cream.
Guests with celiac disease cannot eat gluten. This means you need to make sure all your food is gluten free. Food labels should tell you this. Always check as wheat products are often used as thickeners so found in foods where you would not expect them. Gluten free flours and breads are readily available, as are many recipes. Bear in mind gluten free cooking can be very difficult and often requires quite a lot of experimentation to perfect so, if you aren’t confident, don’t be afraid to use prepared items from the shops. There are loads of gluten free desserts available if you aren’t confident to prepare your own, or why not have a trial run the week before to check your recipe works?
If your guests don’t drink alcohol, make sure you have some nice alternatives so you don’t have to offer them the kids’ squash! Buy a posh fruit juice or make up some fruit punch so they don’t feel left out.
Always ask your guests if their children are fussy eaters and be prepared. Usually, try to give children the same food as the adults as it makes them feel included. If you treat children like babies, they will act like it, so let them sit with the adults, eat adult meals and use adult cutlery and plates. If you’re not sure the meal will go down well with the kids, try making a milder alternative. For example, you could split half your curry sauce and only add spices to one half, which is served to the adults. Be prepared with some bread and butter in case they don’t like the starter and some ice cream in case they don’t like the dessert. Remember children are fussy eaters so don’t be embarrassed if they don’t want to try your food!
To avoid having to prepare “child-friendly” meals, you could always produce a buffet.
This is a good way to cater for lots of people, especially if they don’t fit around your dinner table! In summer, it can be perfect if you can sit outside, but in winter just be prepared with lots of chairs dotted around. Children often enjoy sitting on a picnic mat on the floor so don’t panic if you don’t have enough chairs.
Prepare as much as possible in advance and lay it out on a large table. If you have a very large crowd you could hire a caterer but it’s so much cheaper to do it yourself. Lay out cutlery, wrapped in a napkin, and plates at one end of the table. This ensures everyone starts at the same end and they don’t all bump into each other in the middle.
Have a separate table laid out with cups and a selection of drinks. This ensures you don’t get spillages all over the food! If you don’t have enough glasses, enquire about hiring them at your local supermarket. The same goes for cutlery. You could also use this table for sauces, dressings and condiments.
The menu is completely up to you. Here are some ideas:
“English picnic” menu
Selection of sandwiches
Chopped vegetables and dips
Selection of crisps
Miniature Cornish pasties and sausage rolls
A large bowl of mixed salad and selection of dressings
Selection of curries – try to vary with chicken or turkey, meat, fish and vegetable
Vegetable side dishes such as daal and Bombay potato
Plain boiled rice
Ciabatta bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
Selection of cold meats and sliced cheeses
Roasted new potatoes
Corn on the cob
Salsa and other dips
Potato and pasta salads
These are just a few ideas. You can choose so many varieties of buffet to suit your preferences.
Get the guests to bring some food
Especially if there are lots of guests, why not ask everyone to bring something. You could say everyone with surnames starting with A-M brings a savoury dish and N-Z bring desserts, or just let people bring whatever they fancy. There’s always the risk you end up with 30 quiches but it does save you a lot of money and effort. Just make sure you provide the basics like some bread and butter and cream and custard for the desserts.
Make them leave!
If you feel the evening’s coming to a close but your guests aren’t going anywhere, help them along with a few hints. Try, “well it’s been lovely seeing you,” and similar suggestions. If they don’t take the hint, just start clearing up and hope they either join in and help or decide to make an exit.
Avoid the horrible cleaning up in the morning
Make sure you start the evening with an empty dishwasher and fill it as you go along. This means you can just set it and go to bed. It might not be fantastic for the environment, but as a one-off don’t be afraid to use disposable plates and serving platters. It’s not like you use them every day and it’s worth it to avoid spending your party dreading the washing up. Alternatively, why not offer your children some pocket money or a treat if they do it all for you?
Being the perfect guest
If the boot’s on the other foot and you’re a guest, remember how stressful being the hostess can become. Make sure you arrive when you said you would, not too early or late, and bring a small gift like some wine or chocolates.
I hope this guide has helped give you the confidence to host your own dinner party without the stressful lead up and panicky execution. Have fun!