It’s game time for my dinner-beginners! This entire blog is directed at helping you pull off your first dinner party.
I rule my world with sticky notes. Everything I can think of that I need to do for a dinner party gets a dedicated sticky note. I display them on the upper cabinets of my kitchen. I arrange them according to what can be done well ahead of time, two days out, the day before, and the day of. If you plan ahead and get as much done as absolutely possible, you’ll be so relaxed when your guest arrive, they’ll think you’re on quaaludes.
As I finish each task, I take it down and throw it in a drawer to be used the next time I host an event. If there is something I missed, I make a sticky note for it and save it. This system works for every size gathering from a dinner for four to a Mardi Gras party for fifty. It’s also great for any helpers as they can grab a sticky note and off they go.
If you’re more modest and prefer to keep your post-its private, put them on the inside of an upper cabinet door. It’ll be our little secret.
I assume everyone has a job and possibly kids to take care of, so I’m going to outline preparations spread out in little bite-size chunks. Should you have more time on your hands, you could pull this off in less days, but let’s glide into this one like a knife through warm butter.
Monday - 15 minutes tops. Make your sticky notes. What will you need to put on the table, what do you need to make or do by the time your guests arrive? What household chores do you need to do?
I suggest among other things: order main course, pick up main course, music, wine, party beverage (if you feel like serving something extra special to kick off the evening, after all, alcohol gets the endorphins going), check supplies - salt, pepper, spices for your recipes if your cooking, pull out serving spoons, read recipes (can’t emphasize that one enough), get dog groomed, clean cat box, light candle in guest bathroom, set the table, sweep the porch, vacuum, clean the bathrooms, pick up main course, chips & nuts, etc.
If you don’t drink, you don’t need to offer alcohol. It’s your house. You’ll still have a great evening. You could make a non-alcoholic party-starter beverage if you like.
Once you get all these notes written, give yourself permission to freak out for a few minutes and get that over with, because from here on, my friend, it’s a cake walk. You’re simply taking sticky notes down and moving through it. A side note: There is nothing better to motivate you to get your house projects done than setting a date for a party. Just be overly realistic in what you can get accomplished. We want success, not massive stress.
Tuesday - 1 minute or 30 minutes. If cleaning your house makes you hurl and if you can afford it, call for a housekeeping service to come on Friday, not Saturday as you don’t need to be working around someone cleaning on your big day. Otherwise, you do not have to give the grand tour of your home unless you are comfortable with it. Concentrate cleaning only the rooms people will be using. Take one room tonight and tidy it up.
Wednesday - 1 minute or 30 minutes. If you are going the pre-cooked route, order your main course for Saturday pick-up. Take another room you’ll be using and clean it up. Meet some friends for happy hour.
Thursday - 1 minute to 1 hour. Has anyone not responded? Check with them to be sure they are alive and confirm their situation. What from your sticky notes can you do today? Go ahead and do it.
Friday - 10 minutes to 1 hour. Do everything from your post-its that won’t get screwed up before dinner time tomorrow. Set the table if that is possible. Set out wine glasses, fill salt and pepper shakers, queue up your music selection and dance around while moving through your projects.
Saturday - A.M. - pick up all the rest of your items. How much time do you need to warm up or cook your food? The internet is your best friend, look up any questions you have about what you are serving. You might find you have a lot of time on your hands. Do something fun until you have to be in the kitchen for the final stretch.
What time do you want to eat? Let’s say you want to begin eating at 8 p.m. and you have a 7 p.m. arrival time for your guests. Not everyone will arrive on the dot, and you’ll need time to eat the appetizer and socialize before sitting down to dinner. Your dish might need 45 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees. Put your dish in the pre-heated oven at 7 and set a timer. When it goes off, announce that you’ll be serving in five/ten minutes if anyone needs to prep their dish. If the food cools to room temp, that is o.k.
You will have diversions once your guests arrive, like people might bring flowers that require a vase and water, or wine that needs to be opened to breathe. Since you so wisely purchased pre-cooked food and you’ve prepared yourself so well, you’ll be able to pirouette around the kitchen for vases and wine openers while discussing the latest episode of Goliath.
Set the wines in the center of the table so people can help themselves. Set the plates at one corner of your pot luck serving area, set up the rest of the dishes with serving spoons, and tell someone to start serving themselves. If necessary, grab someone (gently) and move them to the serving line. Serve yourself last.
When everyone is seated, say grace if that’s your thing, then raise your glass and make a toast. It can be as simple as, “Thank you for coming. To friends!” or as elaborate as you like, but unless you are a Vegas comedian, please don’t drone on and on as your guests will doze off and fall face first into their (now, cold) food. One minute is a good limit for a long toast.
Let the magic begin. Without much prompting, conversation flows effortlessly. If it doesn’t, ask everyone to describe the dish they brought, and you’ll be off to the races.
Brillat-Savarin said it best in the 18th century, “Physically, at the same time that a diner’s brain awakens, his face grows animated, his color heightens, his eyes shine, and a gentle warmth creeps over his whole body. Morally, his spirit grows more perceptive, his imagination flowers and clever phrases fly to his lips…” It’s like oxygen for the soul.
Yes, you will have to clean up afterward. If anyone offers to help, take them up on it, or at least ask someone to help bring the dishes to the kitchen. The party can continue while the dishes are being washed and counters wiped down. If anyone seems to have over-imbibed, be sure to offer a sofa or call an Uber or taxi.
I go to bed with dirty dishes in my kitchen! And, the world still turns, and up until now precious few others knew this, and they love me anyway. I fill the sink with soapy water and put as many plates and items (no knives) into the water to soak over night. The food falls off of the dishes the next morning. While I’m having coffee, I put them in the dishwasher. But, if you have animals that might commence nocturnal grazing, then you need to clean it up the same night to avoid other problems.
Congratulations, you are no longer a dinner-beginner. How do you feel now? I hope you’re proud of yourself, I hope you notice your spirits have lifted, and I hope you feel like you could do this again soon.
If you would like to hire me as your Culinary Arts Coach, please contact me, and I will walk you through these steps and teach you as much as you can stand about throwing a dinner party and also how to cook simple meals to please a small crowd. I will take you right up to the moment your guests arrive, then set you free to spread your wings and fly.
Otherwise, please contact me and let me know how your dinner parties progress. I’d love to hear your story!