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:
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.
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?