How to throw a successful and stress free dinner party.


Yeah, that’s a funny one. I don’t think it’s possible that a dinner party can be stress free. I’ve tried, and it just doesn’t work. However, I have learned how to minimize stress so I can relax and generally enjoy myself and my guests. Here are my hints:

Start early.

Get an idea of who you’re having, what you’re going to serve, and how you’re going to get from “Shit, I’m having a dinner party!” to the portrait of domestic bliss when your guests arrive. Me, I generally start a week beforehand. I figure out what sort of party supplies I need, a general idea of menu, and what I need to clean. Monday of this week I started cleaning. I tend to be one of those people who obsesses over details when it comes to cleaning, so this is an occasion where you might want to have someone come in and clean. If that’s out of your budget, start in baby steps. I tidy first, then move on to big cleaning tasks, then the day of the party I do a quick wipe down of surfaces so everything is neat and tidy.

Don’t be fussy.

This is not the time to practice your plating techniques or to serve highly perishable foods. Stick with simple but delicious food. This is the time to pull out your favorite lasagna recipe, your roasted chicken recipe, or a big salad with lots of toppings. Think food that you can prepare ahead of time, too, or at least that doesn’t have a whole lot of active cooking while your guests are there. My lamb roast worked out perfectly, as I popped it in the oven while I was putting my final touches on my apartment, and continued to cook as we enjoyed cocktail hour.

Prep ahead of time.

I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t want to run around like a chicken with your head cut off, prep your meal beforehand. The night before, I made my hummus, tzatziki, refilled the ice trays, and prepped all of my vegetables for the salad and the entree. Then, the day of, all you have to do is put everything out and reheat things (if applicable), and relax.

Make a list.

I don’t know about you, but I always forget something. I make a list, keeping a pad of paper nearby me at work, so I can write down things as I remember them. I even write down things like what I need to clean when I get home, or what pictures I need to take for my blog.

Enlist the help of a friend.

Significant others are great for this, but having a friend who will attend the party but doesn’t mind showing up 30-60 minutes early to help with last minute details are invaluable. Terry rescued me by picking up cream cheese and pretzel chips that I didn’t have time to pick up, and I greeted him at the door with a bag of garbage to take down to the garage. It also helps, for me at least, to have someone to talk to while I finish things up. It takes some of the pressure off and helps me relax.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Put clutter in closets, pull the shower curtain so that you can’t see that your tub isn’t spic-and-span, and use paper napkins instead of cloth. Your guests won’t care, and it’ll keep you from going nuts. You are not Sandra Lee with her tablescapes; they’re pretty, but what they’re covering up is mediocre food and lack of conversation. If you have good food and conversation, no one cares if your napkin rings are handmade out of raffia and pinecones. Really.

Buy flowers.

They don’t have to be expensive, just grab a bouquet at the grocery store and put them in a vase. Instant festive atmosphere, minimal prep work, and minimal cost. I generally get mine at Trader Joe’s for $5. Plus you can enjoy them after the party is over!

Generally, if all goes well, or even if it doesn’t– yesterday greeted me with the fire alarm going off and a half-frozen leg of lamb– you should have a few minutes to sit down, relax, and enjoy some quiet and a glass of wine before your guests arrive. Then, since all you have to do is assemble things, you can concentrate on enjoying the time you have with your guests, and not slaving away in the kitchen.

What are your tips for a successful dinner party?

20 thoughts on “How to throw a successful and stress free dinner party.”

  • Hi, Julie! I wanted to come last night, but it was my son’s birthday.

    My tip for stress-free dinner parties (and I actually =do= mean stress free — I’ve got Thanksgiving for 30 down to a science) is (drum roll):

    Choose the right recipes.

    This IMO is THE most important factor in stress-free entertaining. There are recipes that require almost ZERO last-minute intervention, and those are the ones I go back to every time. If I can make it ahead and have almost nothing to do while guests are actually here, it goes on my list. If I have to do anything beyond garnishing, I would only make it for a small party.


  • That pretty much nails it. Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. The more you have done before guests arrive, the better it works. When possible, prepare as many tasty cold or cool foods as possible. When not possible, prepare things that can cook untended as much as possible (lamb roast is an excellent example)

    A week in advance is a good plan. A little each day for the week leading up makes it much less stessful the day of.

    Go with the flow, and don’t sweat the minute failures. As a perfectionist about food this is hard. Everyone will have a good time regardless of whether its 5* restaurant perfect. This is food for friends, an act of love, not an assembly line.

    And have a good glass of wine while working, it makes everything that much more enjoyable, especially envisioning what will work and what won’t.

  • Oh, and desert can almost always be made well in advance. And nothing makes a final impression like a fabulous desert. So if all else fails, the desert will cap the night off and it can be perfect well before the big night is upon you 🙂

  • For me, the “impressive desssert” is nearly always something that either Terry made or that I buy from a really good bakery or, like last night, Madison’s. 😀

    And the wine is very important. 🙂

  • Heh, we need to fix that 🙂 Dessert is the easiest thing to score big points, and once you get some basic chemistry/techniques, by far the easiest to just *poof* pull out of the cabinets. You can always win with a few key recipes, varied in “stock” ways. Next time I think I’ll do souffles, slightly more wow factor.

  • Although, madison’s gelato is also a winner every time 🙂

    AND, the other thing is you have to go out to eat the night after, and let someone else do the work!

  • Oh, I’m definitely comfortable with baking, but I’m such a perfectionist that I’d flip out if the frosting wasn’t right. Thus, no stress. I love baking on the weekends, though. 🙂

    And I completely agree with eating out the next night. That’s what I just came from doing. 🙂

  • I think stress free is important for most parties but not all, we like to try new things and my SO puts out some killer dishes, she seems happiest when she stretches a bit. She tried a Moroccan chicken dish with preserved lemons recently and wowed em.

    As to stress free I think a comfortable size crowd helps, depending on the table setup any more than six or seven make conversation more difficult and the meal less manageable.

    Dishes you can do in your sleep with one hand tied behind your back helps, for me that’s Marchellas Lemon Chicken or fresh fish, my guac or pine nut and olive spread

    A martini when doing last minute prep is my last suggestion.

  • See the way I keep from stressing about dessert is choosing recipe where presentation is secondary to taste. (see flourless chocolate cake). Combine that with preparing the dessert farthest in advance, then in the worst case, you either make another or you buy something if it just isn’t working.

    My dinner parties tend to have flourless chocolate cake, souffles, or fruit tarts. They all have wow factor, and all but the souffles can be prepared well in advance (and even souffles can be fully prepped (except the mixing) ahead of time) And I am not beneath just doing it again if I feel like its not up to snuff. But when its 3 days from the party, that doesn’t add any stress 🙂

  • Julie, I’d say your list is complete judging from the results.
    I agree with Chris on dessert but I’m biased, the one thing everyone mentions from our party is the low-fat apple cider pie I made.
    ^flexes biceps^
    of course my wife ran around like a chicken with her head cut off for two days. but aren’t all guys like that, take all the credit after accomplishing one small task?

  • I have bookmarked this blog entry to come back to when I throw my next dinner party. One thing I did last time, was have one couple bring bread, and the other bring salad. It gave me two small details not to worry about.

  • Random question…anyone cook plantains before? I try not to fry things so I have “sauteed” them in a little olive oil until they caramelize. I also tried roasting them. They have turned out edible but not wonderful. I know they have to be really ripe aka black to be good. Anybody mash them? They were on sale at Biggs awhile back but I am a little intimidated by them. Love to hear how others tackle this ethnic food and any others out there that you didn’t grow up eating.

    I know Julie is going to want me to get my own blog! 🙂 I love yours though! If this is a past topic, let me know and I can dig it up!

  • in reference to the plantain question. I have mashed them before, they were delicious! Pan Frying in little oil is always good as well. i am not much of a deep fryer but pan fried plantains with a sprinkle of salt at the end is a great way to eat them. I’d love to hear your trials with plantains!

  • I don’t mind a bit, CinTwin!

    I’ve done mashed plantains, and I (guiltily) also enjoy an occasional deep fried plantain chip. 🙂

  • One thing about the plantains and pan cooking them in oil… You said you used olive oil – IMO, thats a bit too strongly flavored an oil to use. If you must use an oil, try something lighter with less strong flavors, such as canola or safflower. The ideal for that method of cooking however is butter.

    Second, plantains often need a touch of sugar and the faintest pinch of salt to bring the full flavor out.

    Try doing this, saute them in butter, until they caramelize. Add about a tbsp of sugar to your saute pan, and a teeny tiny pinch of salt. Get them good and coated until the sugar you added starts to brown as well. Then, add about a shot of dark spiced rum to the pan and cook until they alcohol has been cooked off.

  • Ohh….I never thought to add rum, but that sounds great! I wonder if it would be too sweet to serve with the meal? I have several times just cut up a whole pineapple as a side dish for my hubby and myself for dinner. Ok, I am going to add them to the grocery list to try again. I wonder if a spicey spice would add something? Maybe a jalepeno for some heat? My mom said to think of them as your would a potato, and let that guide you on how to doctor it up.

  • You can think of them as potato like material, and if you are mashing them, thats just what you get. A slightly sweet potato like substance. Its OK for what its worth. I like to try to play up on the sweet a little more. To me, thats what the plantain has to offer that the potato doesn’t. Then, you can serve with meats that can do with a little sweet side dressing (think ham, or pork chops, or salmon).

    I usually do them as described (with the sugar and rum) as a side to go with seared salmon. Serve that along with something with a good fat/salt component (spinach wilted in bacon drippings for example), and you hit almost all the key flavor components (minus ummami, however you spell that).

    And yeah, it is a little “bananas foster” like, but its really not that sweet (you don’t want to go overboard on the sugar, but just enough to bring it a bit above their natural sweetness.) A tbsp will work for a big pan of em.

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