How to throw a dinner party for 20 people and not go out of your mind

September 8 | Guest post by Hannah1cestmoi
Happy New Year (#1/365)
Photo by Sebastian Anthony. Used under Creative Commons license.
Cooking for a large group can be daunting, especially if you don't have a dishwasher and just one oven, stove, and fridge. Fear not! You do not have to be a superhuman — you'll just have to give the party a bit of thought and planning.

For my 25th birthday, I wanted a party. The last couple of years my birthday had silently passed and now I was going to be a quarter of a century old: I wanted a real party! A nice party! I like cooking and baking and I like parties, so what better way to celebrate it then with a dinner party with my close family and friends?! A quick survey of invitees made a list of 20 people, which was about the maximum our living room could hold. Planning started.

Here's how I made my fabulous dinner party so fabulous:

  • Pick a food theme. Themes give you some guidance on what dishes to choose and a theme can bring the meal together.
  • Think of the Food Guide Pyramid. It is not only healthy, but also balances your meal and helps ensure there will be something for everyone. In addition, a variety of dishes will mean a variety of cooking techniques, which means more fun AND better use of your kitchen.
  • Make a master list of ingredients. Catalog everything: all the spices in your pantry, how many eggs you have — everything.
  • Make a shopping list. I like to make one big shopping list divided by the different shops I am going to visit. When shopping, I cross what I got off the list.
  • Make a schedule. The key to an awesome dinner party is having dishes ready at the right moment, so have a plan. Dishes like pies, cakes, bread, and spreads can be made a day earlier or in the morning. Which dishes need to go in the oven? Which dishes need to go in the fridge? Is there room in the fridge? I often take a page and make two columns. The left column is my time schedule (when I am going to make which dish) and the right one is my oven/fridge schedule (which dish is going to be when in the oven/fridge). Tape the schedule in your kitchen to the wall — it's easy to see and it won't get lost.
  • Don't forget to include party area set up in your schedule.
  • Plan to warm your dishes. You'll probably have a few dishes that need to be kept hot. Towels around oven tins and hot plates work wonders. I usually plan to have all dishes ready half an hour in advance and put multiple dishes in the oven at low temperature (50 ˚C/122 ˚F). This gives me time to change into nice clothes and check my hair while the food gets reheated or remains hot.

And finally, learn from my mistake: don't get too enthusiastic. I got excited and picked out fairly complicated recipes — and bought nothing pre-made! Although it is cheap to do everything from scratch, it's also a lot of work. Include "easy" dishes that will be quick and painless.

Still, our party went well — even though we ended up doing five loads of dishes by hand! If anyone has advice on cleaning up a dinner party, I'm listening.

  1. These are all great ideas! My 25th is coming up, but I'm keeping it to spouse, family, and a couple friends. However, we're having a christmas party and this information will be most useful! Muahaha…

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  2. On cleaning up, the more you do ahead of time the better. Bake what you can the day before, everything else much earlier on party day than anyone will be arriving. The goal is to have all prep dishes washed and put away before a guest enters the house. That way even if you have a ton of plates and bowls to wash by hand, you at least will have similar things to wash and no pots and pans to muddle the rhythm. We had four people over a couple months ago, and I made a lasagna. It was tasty, but I spent much of the pre-meal hang out time cooking and washing the prep dishes while my husband entertained the room.

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  3. Make ahead feasts are awesome. This year for Thanksgiving my family is skipping turkey to have PIES: quiches, tourtieres, pot pies, and of course, dessert pies. Much of these can be made or purchased in advance-check out church and community bake and craft sales along with your usual take-outs and grocery stores. We'll also have soup (carrot ginger, made in a slow cooker) and a salad or two. The salads are probably the only thing that will be made the day of. We're still able to eat yummy seasonal food, and keep with the thanksgiving theme, while feeding a large crowd and NOT going insane in the kitchen. WIN!

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    • Too funny! I have an annual Pie Party every September. I ask each of my guests to bring a pie of their choosing, and end up with everything from Pizza to Pumpkin. I brew large pots of coffee and tea, fill the wine decanters, and my prep is done. Super fun, and easy clean up.

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      • Ahhh I love this!! I am now instating an annual Pie Party.

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  4. Disposable dishes! I know, I KNOW… not very environmental but for the few times that I have people over, my waste is so minimal. I also try to get items made of recycled material to make it a little better.

    They make disposable baking dishes too!

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    • I agree. We host large weekend long parties often and disposable plates and silverware are a necessity with groups larger than eight. I also have found that offering a couple of size options for the paper plates is helpful. Otherwise people were using a large plate to take just a small amount of food, throw it away when done, and grabbed a new plate when they snacked again. To also get people to reuse their plates I only stocked a small amount at a time. It meant restocking the stack often but it kept people from getting new plates all of the time and producing a ton of garbage. Then to minimize the inevitable amount of garbage, we used the paper plates as fire starter for our evening bonfires. :)

      Plastic cups are our next big issue. Even though I had people put their names on the cups they would still lose them and get a new one. However I did discover a few friends made use of our limited plastic cup collection. Each cup was unique so they could easily identify their cup and hung onto them over the entire weekend. So my new strategy is to scavenge the thrift stores for more unique plastic cups (preferable with lids!).

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  5. If your friends are culinarily inclined you could make partly a potluck and still cook the main dish yourself?. My friends and me did a few themed dinner parties (e.g. all purple food), which was a lot of fun.

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    • My friends and I are big fans of doing potlucks. We all have different specialties and it means nobody is on the hook for everything which can get expensive. My family has always made sure that we spread things around a bit too. If you aren't hosting, you're bringing something. Mom's friends are the same. Usually the host does the meat but for our last party a friend brought burgers and then I cooked them.

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  6. My ex and his friends used to have Quesadilla night in which they made quesadillas and frozen fruit smoothies. Simple but definitely crowd-pleasing. You could keep on hand gluten-free tortillas and vegan cheese and you've got something luhterally everyone can enjoy.

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  7. When you plan your menu, think about seating and room setup. If you don't have enough places to sit, or people will be eating on their laps, plan a menu that can be eaten that way.

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  8. On cleaning: let the dogs lick the plates and put them back in the cabinet. …Just kidding, of course.

    The biggest thing I've learned about cleaning is to let the people who want to help do it! My mom and an aunt are always trying to help me clean up, and I used to not let them. Then I realized it not only makes things easier, but makes them feel good about being able to give back for the meal they received. Also, with a few people in the kitchen cleaning together, you can still socialize!

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  9. I've been hosting Thanksgiving At Midnight (yes- we really eat at midnight!) for over 10 years- we've had anywhere from 18 to 9 people. My tips: Don't try anything totally new; If you're going with a new recipe, try it out the week before. 2) Clean as you go 3) Enlist help. Bring in your significant other or a good friend to help! 4) How much prep work can you do ahead of time?– precut things, predecorate 5) Dollar store or thrift store dishes- you don't spend a ton, they look nice or quirky, you don't care if they get broken, and you can donate them when you're done. 6) Don't grow broke! If it's between paying rent and the fancy organic cheese, pay your rent.

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    • I too, love Taste. Nice Australian recommendation!

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  10. While I have yet to host 20 people, I've hosted Thanksgiving and saved a LOT of time by making things ahead.

    Soup and stuffing can be made a week ahead, frozen, and placed in the fridge to thaw the night before.

    And I always – ALWAYS – make dessert a day in advance. If it's something requiring assembly, like chocolate cake topped with caramel sauce, I'll bake the cake and make the sauce the day before (storing them separately so the cake doesn't get soaked), then warm them up and serve.

    Making ahead also means some of the dishes get washed before the big night!

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  11. We had a Scandinavian-themed bday party recently with about 50 people. We built a smoking box and smoked a whole salmon (yes a WHOLE salmon), made a massive salmon stew and pumpkin soup, had bread, random cheeses, and asked everyone to bring something (bottle of wine, cheese, etc.) We easily fed everyone, and that's not even counting dessert which was about 5 or 6 cakes. If you have good friends, you'll find that little things like not enough chairs, cutlery, toilet paper (kidding) etc. are not a big deal at all. We just can't help but have crazy parties!! They're so much fun :)

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  12. As far as cleaning up goes, I like to do parties with h'ordeuvres that can go one one type of dish or plate– usually a bread plate– and no silverware needed, or only one type– e.g. mostly finger food, except for something requiring a teaspoon. Even sans dishwasher, fifteen or twenty plates of one type are so much easier to clean up than two dinner plates, seven bread plates, four salad plates, etc.

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  13. I love to cook. Basically I am a bake-aholic. Anyway for my soirees I get my besties (who also love to cook) to bring a plate of food to share. This lessons the load a lot.

    One of my favourite 'finger food' dishes is arrancini (risotto balls). You make the risotto ahead, let it cool and then roll it into balls and bake them in the oven. Easy peasy.
    Gado-gado is great too. Just cut up a bunch of vegie sticks, boiled eggs, tofu or meat and serve cold with peanut sauce. Yum yum.

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  14. I am a soux-chef, and most of the time I am making food for hundreds, if not thousands. Unfortunately, I do not have the same enormous kitchen at home, or the patience when I have been doing it all week!

    When husband and I are having company over, our favorite thing to do is throw together a massive batch of french onion soup the night before. Everyone loves it, and it's easy and cheap as can be!

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  15. When I'm planning a dinner party I use a sort of Gantt chart. That's how an engineer I lived with described it when he saw what I did.

    I get a piece of lined A4 paper and in the margin I write increments of time and then I draw columns for each of the different bits of equipment (hob 1, hob 2, microwave, oven etc.) and a column for me and I fit into the chart everything I need to do to prepare the meal. That way I can see easily when I'm going to have a lull during which I can do prep or table setting, whether I need to cook some dishes earlier to make room for other dishes in the oven/on the hob later and when I'm cooking I don't have to keep it all in my head, I can just look at what my instructions say I should do next.

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  16. i do my best to make things well in advance and freeze as much as possible. if you look up recipes for once a month cooking you'll find all kinds of things. lots and lots of deserts can be made in advance, anything that has to be done fresh can be prepped in advance (chop your veggies, mix your dry ingredients, etc). not only does it save you time at the last min, it means you've got most of your cleanup done as well, just serving dishes to do. if you're making dinner for 20, there's going to be a ton of cleanup no matter what. clean as you go and make your peace with the rest, i say.

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