The Dinner Party – Heaven or Hell?

Franka Philip on how to manage a dinner party without turning a great occasion into an evening of hell

  • Illustration by Darren Cheewah

Quite a few people have been asking for tips on throwing good dinner parties. Is it that people want to entertain at home these days because it’s cheaper than going to restaurants? Or could it be the influence of television chefs like Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten who make hosting dinner parties look effortless on their cooking programmes?

Seasoned entertainers know that cooking for a crowd is not easy. A lot of effort and attention to detail goes into making a dinner successful, from the mix of guests to the right ambience and, of course, the food.

It seems that most people want to host a soirée that’s not too formal or too casual. One friend said to me she wanted to put on something “cool but elegant”.  So let’s start there.

What’s the style you’re looking for? Will you be eating indoors or outdoors? Is it going to be a buffet or will you serve your guests? And if you really want a particular style, you might even consider setting an “elegantly casual” dress code for your guests.

Throwing parties can be expensive, so it helps to be realistic about your budget. Depending on the occasion, it might be appropriate to provide the entire meal, including drinks. But it’s not unusual for guests to bring drinks.

Some people get really fussed about what they should serve, and get caught up with the idea of making overly fancy dishes to impress with their culinary skills. While this is understandable, the best thing is to keep it simple, especially if you’re cooking for a relatively large group.

Joanna Goddard, who writes the blog A Cup of Jo, recalled a dinner she and her husband hosted where the central meal was based on a baked potato bar.

“We recently invited six friends over for dinner, and instead of juggling recipes (we aren’t fancy cooks) we did a baked potato bar! Alex baked the potatoes in the oven for an hour, and we put out bowls with tons of toppings. Our list of toppings: butter, black pepper, goat cheese, sautéed spinach, avocados, chicken, brie and cranberry sauce, chilli, grated cheddar cheese, sautéed mushrooms, onions and garlic.”

Isn’t that a fantastic idea? Potatoes are relatively inexpensive and there’s no limit to the variety of toppings you can use, which means that you can cater for meat eaters as well as vegetarians. I’d suggest toppings like chilli con carne, curried channa, tuna mayonnaise with sweetcorn or even salsa.

Or you might think about hosting what North Americans call a “potluck”. The idea of a potluck is that everyone brings a dish and this sharing makes the dinner really groovy and communal. Most times you get some really interesting combinations, which works well if guests have different dietary preferences.

The Kitchn, an American lifestyle website, always gives useful tips about hosting dinners. In response to an article about low-budget dinners, a reader responded: “Potlucks are a great way to go. It creates a nicer atmosphere when people start tasting (and hopefully complimenting) one another’s dishes. Potlucks are especially handy for larger gatherings. You really shouldn’t stress about cooking for 14 people.”

What has worked well for me is cooking a main dish and asking people to bring something complementary. So I’d roast a chicken, a leg of lamb, a whole fish, or cook a substantial vegetable dish. I’d ask someone to bring a rice dish, another to bring a pasta salad, and someone else to bring the dessert. If you’re doing this, you need to know how well your guests can cook – otherwise, advise them on where to buy something suitable.

But seriously, a potluck dinner means there’s more time to concentrate on the little things like flowers, scented candles, and making sure there’s enough ice and cold drinks.

You can’t overestimate how crucial it is to give yourself adequate time to get things done. When I was a dinner party virgin, I sometimes got overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to be done. I quickly learnt that good planning is vital if you want to avoid my mistakes, so here are some practical tips, especially if you’re cooking an entire meal.

• Decide on your menu as early as possible. In this way you should be able to set your budget, determine if all the ingredients are readily available and whether you have the correct crockery in which to serve each dish. When you plan your menu, avoid repeating big ingredients in different dishes, and think about how to add variety with different textures and spices throughout the meal.

• Ask about food sensitivities. In addition to finding out about dietary preferences, ask whether people have dietary restrictions like nut, wheat or seafood allergies. Have at least two dishes on the menu that everyone can eat.

• Shop a couple of days before the event. If you can’t find some ingredients, at least you’ll have time to locate them further afield, or even change a dish if necessary. It makes no sense rushing about trying to find ingredients on the day.

• Cook and freeze what you can in advance. Stews, soups and some pies are freezable. Lasagna is a dish that can be prepared in advance and completed just before the dinner.

• Don’t be afraid to enlist help. Even the best plans can go wrong, so if you need help, get a couple of friends to come over a bit earlier to assist with things like making salad, putting out the appetisers, folding napkins, setting up the bar and cleaning the kitchen.

• Give yourself time to relax. It’s not cool for your guests to meet you still cooking, looking sweaty and stressed. If you plan well enough and have enough hands to help, you should be able to take your time to get ready, greet your guests and – most importantly – enjoy the evening.


Related websites

A Cup of Jo:

The Kitchn: