We all have at least one friend that makes entertaining look like a breeze. Their menus are as delicious as you’ll find in a good restaurant and they seem to possess effortless hosting talent. While it is easy to think that maybe they were just born with a ‘dinner party gene’, the likelihood is that they developed their skills through experience. So my advice, before you read anything else, is that the the best thing you can do to become a fabulous dinner party doer is to do it and do it often. Invite your friends over first, then think about the details later. There is nothing like a deadline to force you into action.
With practise, some careful thought and planning, you can have a fabulous dinner party that won’t stress you out. Even if the idea of cooking for friends makes you nervous, remember that they are most likely just grateful to have been asked over in the first place. Here I have given my top ten tips to help you reduce those concerns, plan a smashing menu and increase the fun and frequency of your dinner parties.
1. Keep it low key.
Thank goodness our expectations of a dinner party have changed over time. Where once, the dinner party entailed elaborate, formal settings involving the ‘good cutlery’, we have come to our senses and replaced this with casual tablescapes and relaxed vibes. It’s not to say there isn’t the odd appropriate situation for a formal table, but if you want to increase the frequency of having your friends over, it’s just not that practical to do every time.
Food is still the most important thing to plan, but our menu choices have evolved. We are less focussed on impressing and more on sharing. We want our offerings to be interesting yet uncomplicated, with the ingredients as the star. We are getting more adventurous, dabbling in dishes inspired by flavours from around the world. We are less scared to try new recipes or ingredients on our friends and less worried if they don’t work out the way we’d hoped. We are swapping pompous, plated up dishes with rustic share food and epic flavour. So put away the piping bags and edible flowers and bring out the condiments and delicious dressings.
2. Cook the food you want to eat.
It sounds obvious but when you’re planning a menu, think about what YOU want to cook and enjoy. Guests will be more excited about your food if you are too, plus it will taste better. It is super cliché but you can really tell if a bit of love has gone into a dish. No-one wants a side of resentment with their gnocchi.
When I am deciding what to make, I often like to scan my favourite restaurant menus to gather inspiration, which guides the menu vibe. If I’m planning multiple courses, I make sure that they will work harmoniously together. I’m aiming for a nice flow of flavours that match the season. For example, when it is summer, I want to enjoy shellfish with herby dressings and fresh salads, followed by cool, fruit desserts. Or perhaps in Autumn, I’ll pair a spicy Indian curry with a palate cleansing cardamom-infused ice-cream. There are no hard rules to putting together food, it is all about what you think will combine well. And whatever dishes I choose, I make sure that I know I will enjoy the cooking process as this is the whole reason I am inviting my friends in the first place.
3. Less food, more impact.
I prefer to serve my friends a modest quantity of one knockout dish rather than a long menu of unnecessary options. Or, if serving a share feast, concentrate on just one dish and add a handful of minor accompaniments. The benefit to this is that you’ll have less cooking to do and can focus more on nailing one or two elements, rather than feel overwhelmed at cooking a whole buffet.
It’s nice to announce the whole menu at the beginning of the night, so that your friends can get excited and know how much they will need to eat to be satisfied. You can always offer bowls of bread, rice or some other staple for your very hungry pals.
Many years ago, my husband and I went to a hosted dinner in Italy. We sat down to eat the first course and it was incredible. The second course arrived and we couldn’t believe our taste buds. As we were preparing to collapse into our post-dinner food coma, the next course was served! And the looks of horror on our faces as the next three courses rolled out were hard to hide. It goes down as one of the most delicious, yet unpleasant food experiences of my life! Let’s face it, no one is going to serve six courses but a little heads up will be much appreciated by your guests.
4. Add that little punchy something extra.
You know what can often set restaurant food apart from home style food? Sometimes it’s just those delicious dressings, punchy sauces or extra sides that elevate a dish from good to great. I think of a dish in terms of its flavour and texture profiles. For flavour, consider salt, sweetness, sourness, herbs, umami & heat. For texture, think of the crunch, smooth & silkiness, a decent bite, something cooked & a pop of fresh. To give you an example, a dish might just need a herb & citrus salsa to add interest and make the flavours sing. It is little extras like this that you can easily make in advance, with big impact on your food.
When I talk about preparation, it’s anything you can do beforehand which will allow you to sit with your pals rather than be stuck in the kitchen. It’s not OTT to write a little cooking timeline if you think it might help you be prepared. Then you’ll know exactly what you need to do on the night, and at what times. And you will relax, knowing you will have no surprises.
You can choose a menu that allows most of the cooking to happen beforehand, reducing the chance for anything to go wrong last minute. For instance, most desserts can be made up to a couple of days beforehand. Think about other pre-prepared elements like slow cooked meats, dressings, emulsions or reheatable sauces. They will ensure that you won’t be slaving over a hot BBQ or stovetop and missing out on the fun. For a salad or salsa, you can even have all the elements already chopped and stored in separate containers. Then all you have to do before serving is to toss them together in a bowl. They will retain that fresh, just-made taste, but most of the work will already be done.
Other prep like tidying, cleaning, clearing fridge space and getting drinks cold etc can all be done days before to reduce extra chores and last minute pressure.
6. You don’t have to cook all the food.
These days we have an incredible selection of artisanal-made delicacies on offer at the shops. It makes sense to serve something delicious that you’ve discovered. Instead of hiding behind it, celebrate it as a way to share with your friends an exciting food experience. Cold and hot smoked fish & meats, small batch boutique cheeses, punchy condiments or even the freshest in-season local vegetables can become the base to a great dish. You could incorporate something ready-made into a starter, leaving you to concentrate on a main.
My best tip with this one is to keep it uncomplicated. If you purchase a hot-smoked mackerel, for example, you could serve it simply on a platter with a pile of crispy roast potatoes and a herby dressing. Making the fish the star and talking point.
7. Take a chill pill.
You know that cool, calm and collected friend of yours? The one who is an uber entertainer? The reason you have such a good time at her place is probably because she makes you feel like she really wants you there. When you have your friends over, the less fuss you make and buzzing around you have to do, the more at ease your guests will be.
If something doesn’t work out, it is not the end of the world. Try not to apologise too much and just laugh it off. It will make a good story in years to come and you’ll remember next time not to repeat the same mistake twice.
8. How many guests?
The number of guests you invite can have an impact on a dinner party vibe. Too many and the conversation will be disjointed or you may get overwhelmed with the amount of food to cook. 6 guests is a good number to practise with until you feel more confident cooking for more. It is also a good amount for just one conversation around the table.
9. Music moods.
In terms of setting a dinner party scene, there are not many elements I feel are necessary, apart from music. Access to instant playlists and online radio stations make it very easy to play a well put together selection of tunes.
10. Clean up later.
It is inevitable that there will be dishes to wash and it will take time. Instead of rushing straight into clean-up mode, it can be nice to sit back and enjoy the time after a meal. Leave the plates on the table (they aren’t hurting anyone) and conversation can flow, uninterrupted. You might find those last corners of dessert are polished off. In fact, the Spanish word used to describe this is ‘sobremesa’. It is an important part of their dining culture. A sneaky glass of port can be poured, guests are are all feeling relaxed and connecting over good chats.
For this reason, I prefer to just leave all major cleanup until after everyone has left. Being cooked for AND having your dishes cleaned would put a smile on any guest’s face. They may just return the favour some time soon.
What are you waiting for? Unleash your fabulous inner dinner party host and invite a group of friends over.
The business of Table & Taste is in helping you connect with your friends more often. Our cooking classes and Table & Taste Club are designed to help you create interesting and fuss-free food and wine experiences. So if you are feeling a little overwhelmed after reading all of this, you can check out the class menus here or learn more about the club concept here and discover how they can be incorporated into your next dinner party.