How to plan a dinner party (that won't end in a surprise fire)

October 19 | Guest post by SonyaG
Let's Party Bitches cake topper by PartySparkles

Christmas, Easter, Mother's day, someone's birthday. The occasions to have a party are numerous. But someone has to organize and host the bash. How about you?

When our parents/grand-parents, that traditionally hosted get-togethers, grew older it became obvious that unless someone took the initiative of inviting everyone over the family would drift apart. So we took over, even if the first times were especially intimidating. (Other siblings now share the party hosting with us, and that's awesome!) This was ten years ago, so I now have enough experience to share what worked for me in the party-planning thing.

Donut Party Invite by PaperBuiltShop

Decide who you want to invite

Six people? Ten people? Fifteen people? Twenty people? More? Personally, I've found little difference between hosting twelve or up to twenty-five. So I tend to lump both my family and in-laws together, with a couple friends thrown in. Don't be afraid to mix-and-match. My quiet reserved in-laws help temper my boisterous Irish family. And, over the years, they have developed their own relationships!

Determine if you have enough space

Not enough room in your home/backyard/trailer/tree-house for all the folks you want to invite? Maybe you can split them up into smaller manageable groups. Host your family at Christmas and your in-laws at Easter.

Or, if the occasion is important enough, consider renting a community center. They are generally affordable, have ample and easy-to-customize space, enough bathrooms, and keep the mess out of your home. I have done this twice, for a fifty guest milestone birthday and my 125 guest wedding. However, they present their own logistical challenges, such as needing to be set up and (unless you have a full-service caterer) you will need to plan for every item from napkins to salt shakers.

Send invites three or four weeks in advance, if you can

I'm not talking about hand-scripted haikus in gold leaf on artisanal flower-pressed cards. Just a group text or e-mail to give people a heads up will do.

Start planning your food

This is the biggest thing you will need to organize. Do you enough room for everyone to sit at a (folding) table? If not, this doesn't mean you need to cut back guests, just adjust your menu. Ever try to eat spaghetti from a paper plate in your lap? Yeah, thought so. Plan for something easy to eat while standing. Like a traditional sandwich/cold cuts buffet. Cocktails and appetizers. Tapas. Pizza. A wine and cheese pairing. Or skip the complicated meal and have a mid-afternoon party with a cake and coffee.

Round Disposable Dinner Plates by ConfettiMommaParty

Decide how you want approach the meal

A lesson learned renovating my hundred-fifty year old house applies here: Either you can pay a professional to do something (hire a chef who will concoct a gastronomic feast in your own kitchen). Or you can save costs and do it yourself, for way cheaper but much more trouble. So decide which one fits your situation better.

Personally, I DIY, so I can share a few tips:

  • Plan around a main dish that is seasonal or on sale.
  • Anything that can be prepared in advance/reheated/crock-potted is best.
  • Don't expect to be able to man the stove right before the meal; if you are setting up tables, you will be pulled in a million different directions to coordinate it all. A way around this is to delegate to (trustworthy) helpers.
  • Simple is best for a large crowd — Save the experimental six-course cuisine feast for a smaller dinner party. A tasty main, two sides, a salad or two.
  • Keep in mind oven/fridge space. And make sure to look inside the oven before you turn it on (I'll explain later).

Potlucks

Potlucks are fun, but they require at least a minimum of coordination so you don't end up with six desserts and nothing else. And communication about who needs the stove/oven/freezer/serving dishes is difficult, making potlucks tough to organize in my opinion.

But definitely delegate to (responsible) people who ask if they can help. Be specific. A dessert. A cheese platter. A salad. Not "bring something".

Food allergies

Certain things are easy to accommodate — like having a meatless options. However if one person out of twenty-five has multiple allergies, I think it is perfectly fine to give them a call and admitting not to be able to cater to them. As a mom of an allergy kid, we definitely do not get mad if someone says, "I'm sorry, can she bring her own lunch." Heck yeah! I'd much rather know in advance.

What about booze?

Well that's up to you. We don't drink much alcohol, so I usually have one mixed drink like sangria and non-alcoholic drinks. My sister, on the other hand, is a wine aficionado and will serve several carefully selected wines to pair with each dish. If you're doing bring-your-own, just make sure guests know.

Clean kitchen sign by HouseofJason

Now clean your home

Don't go overboard. You are not Pinterest, and most people won't be bothered by a little lived-in look. Move the furniture to edges along walls to open up that floor space as much as possible. But the one thing you absolutely must have sparkling is the toilet. Everyone will use it, and they are bound to notice any suspicious brown spots. Also, add a pile of four-five spare rolls of toilet paper on top. And plan a place for coats/boots/purses or they'll end up piled in a corner and block the door.

It's party time

Greet everyone as they come in

Introduce people who don't know each other. Direct them to drinks/where the action is happening. If there are new/shy people, I will try to start them off initially with someone who I know has something in common. Some people feel better helping out, cutting veggies or manning the bar.

As the host, don't expect to have really long, in-depth conversation with anyone. You will be asked for things and tugged away from any heart-to-heart. Keep your cool. A party does not have to be perfect to be a success.

When meal-time is approaching

Get ready for a blitz of action. I have found the best way to keep stress down is to have everything ready for set-up in bags and boxes nearby. Ask for help if you need to, and remember to be specific. "Big strong cousin, please unfold the tables and set up twenty five chairs." "Friendly sister, set the table using the stuff in those two bags." "Gentle mother-in-law, put those rolls in these baskets."

After Dinner Fortunes

Have a down time before dessert

Everyone is already full from all that delicious food! Get help clearing the tables, maybe get a head start on dishes. Brew some coffee. Relax. Finish that drink. Eventually, serve the sweets.

I often use disposable plates and napkins/spoons, because by dessert the dishwasher is already full, we are getting tired, and generally convenience wins.

As the party starts to wind down

Usually people will pitch in to help with putting stuff away. That's really nice of them, so do so. It also means you will be left looking for stuff that was "put away" for the next week. You also might set your pots and pans on fire after your mother-in-law stored them in the oven without warning you.

Once everyone is gone

Congratulations, you did it. What a success! Collapse onto the couch for a well-earned drink. Savor the silence.

(You can leave the mess for tomorrow.)

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  1. I’m an ex-chef and I love to cook for people in my home but what keeps it enjoyable for me is keeping it simple and thinking it through. The massive difference between cooking at home or in a restaurant is that at home it’s just you and maybe a partner or helper, in a restaurant there is a whole crew of you. You can cook restaurant quality food at home but I can’t cook restaurant style without all the helpers doing all the other jobs, meaning all I have to do is cook.

    So I tend to avoid a plated starter or appetizer but some hummus or baba ganoush (bought and fancied up is fine) and pitta or veg already there when people arrive is very easy and covers up any gaps when things take longer to cook than you thought…. Even just some nice unusual crisps or chips and nuts is lovey and very easy to ask a helper to do.

    For the main course or entrée I always try and make a large part of it ahead or earlier. I don’t really do last minute sauces or other flourishes at the stove either. I’d rather make a stew (or curry or chili etc etc) the day before and get accompaniments together on the day or something like a quiche in the morning for lunch later at room temperature, served with new potatoes roasted in the oven and a salad which I cut and stash in the fridge earlier but only dress at the last minute.

    Puddings or desserts tend to revolve around nice things with ice cream (seasonal fruits, brownies or odd fun combos like chilli flakes on chocolate ice cream or olive oil and salt on vanilla) or the kind of cake I can make in advance and serve as dessert.

    I catered my sisters wedding (150+ guests) with just one other helper but what made it possible was that it was served buffet style, many of the elements were prepared in advance, all elements were room temperature and I planned it over about six months. I should also add I was late for the ceremony….

    4 agree
  2. I love everything about this! Hosting a mealtime party always make me feel like a "real-live grown-up" , although I am not that young. Also, I once frantically called someone who had just cleaned my kitchen for me because I could not find my pots and pans anywhere! She calmed informed me they were in the oven. I'd never heard of keeping pots and pans in the oven, but apparently it's a thing. Who knew?

    1 agrees
    • Ha yes, that is exactly what happened! Except I set my oven to preheat a couple days later without looking inside first…

  3. My mate and I host fairly often, though usually very informally.
    Having an easy open-and-serve appetizer is a high priority for me. I love chips and salsa as a go-to, and for super informal/impromptu gatherings, popcorn is almost always well-received!

    We throw a large-ish (50-100 people) potluck family reunion every year, and the best advice I can give is to 1. Take/delegate specific responsibility for one dish from each category (appetizer, entree, dessert) 2. Take advantage of social media and make your needs and guidelines Crystal Clear. E.g. we tell folks to bring a comprehensive ingredients list if they bring food, so folks with allergies, etc. Know what they're eating. We also make clear that stove and oven space are a no-go. 3. If using/expecting a number of crockpots, PLAN THE WIRING. We often have 6-8 crockpots, so we run extension cords with surge protectors from 3 different outlets on 2 different breakers.

    1 agrees

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