It’s an odd quirk of human nature that people who regularly host large holiday meals are often intimidated by the idea of a more intimate dinner party. Fundamentally the challenges are much the same, except you have the freedom to choose your guests and menu instead of following the beaten path. As with those gatherings, a little bit of preparation can go a long way to help the day go smoothly. So if you’ve got a party on the horizon — take a deep breath (you’ve got this!) — and dive into our top tips for putting together a menu that is sure to please even your pickiest guests.
Planning Is Paramount
You don’t need to fill a clipboard with checklists to have a successful dinner party, but a modest amount of planning can save you a lot of unnecessary stress. A few pro tips to consider:
Prep Ahead as Much as Possible
The fewer dishes that need to be prepared at the last minute, the less stressed you’ll be. Try to have no more than one menu item to actively cook, with the rest reheated or pulled from the fridge at dinnertime.
Plan Around Your Kitchen’s Limitations
Even restaurant kitchens have limitations, and chefs won’t create a menu they can’t deliver with the equipment that’s on hand. You shouldn’t either. If you only have one oven, it can’t be broiling an entree and keeping dessert warm at the same time, so keep that in mind when you’re choosing which recipes to tackle.
Know Your Guests’ Preferences
Do your level best to know about any allergies or dietary restrictions ahead of time, so you can tailor your menu around them. Not every dish has to meet every restriction, but nobody should feel left out.
Allow for Large Batches
A recipe that normally takes you 20 minutes will need more time to prep if you’re making a triple batch, and will take longer to cook. It also might not fit into your usual pots or countertop appliances. Borrow or rent larger pots and cooking surfaces, if necessary.
Give Yourself Time
On a related note, allow yourself extra time to get everything done. Work out how much time you’ll need to prepare everything on your menu, then add 50 percent. You may not need it all, but often you’ll need more than you think.
Finding Dinner-Party Menu Ideas
Inspiration is everywhere, so cast a wide net when you’re looking for menu suggestions. The internet in general, and Instagram and Pinterest specifically, are thick with options. Magazines oriented around cooking and entertaining often include complete menus, or you could mix and match courses inspired by things you’ve enjoyed at restaurants. Even old-school Sunday-dinner ideas can provide you with a base to work from.
If anything, there’s often too much inspiration available. Selecting an overarching theme is one way to narrow your selections to something more manageable. You might opt for a retro menu straight from the ’50s or ’60s, for example, or choose a specific national or regional cuisine to highlight. A seasonal theme is always appropriate, and as a side benefit it won’t send you off in search of ingredients that aren’t available right now.
Some Practical Suggestions
The most important thing to remember is that a dinner party is no time to try a challenging dish for the first time. Juggling everyone’s schedules and preparing the gathering is stressful enough without unnecessarily making things even harder. Stick with foods you know you can cook well; or, for specialized items, just buy them and incorporate them into the meal.
A few other key tips:
Balance Your Menu
If your entree is rich, pair it with lighter appetizers and desserts to avoid overwhelming your guests. Choose dishes with differing textures and colors, to keep the courses interesting. Don’t be too dogmatic about it: It’s okay to skew a bit lighter overall in summer and heavier overall in winter.
Let Your Theme Help With Dietary Restrictions
If you have dietary restrictions to work around, choose a theme that meets your needs. If several of your guests eat gluten-free, for example, a Latin menu built around pupusas or arepas fits the bill without singling anyone out. For vegetarians or vegans, an Indian theme can work beautifully. Alternatively, choose vegetarian appetizers and side dishes that can stand on their own as a complete meal, and add a small but tasty meat or poultry entree for the omnivores.
Don’t Obsess Over Presentation
The table and the room should look pretty (and serving up cocktails in beautifully colored glassware can go a long way to make that happen), but the individual dishes don’t have to be especially elaborate. If you’re putting microgreens on the plates with a pair of tweezers, you’re not having fun with your guests. As long as the food is tasty, it doesn’t need to be Instagram-worthy. Instead, give your party its visual interest with seasonal decor or intriguingly eclectic place settings.
The most important tip of all is simply to have fun. The success or failure of your party ultimately depends on the enjoyment you and your guests find in each other’s company, and that’s difficult to achieve when you’re stressed. The food is only a means to that end, so relax and don’t sweat the little imperfections.