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How to Give a Dinner Party


Malawry
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One word of warning about appetizers: Yes, it's important to have them ready when guests arrive and the wine starts flowing, BUT I've had guests fill up on appetizers and then not be hungry for the main when it comes around. I usually try to have a limited amount of apps, that way people are still hungry. Course, you can always surmise that it should be a guest's own responsibility to keep from filling up if they know more food is coming. :raz:

Timing is important. The first few real attempts I made at multi course dinner parties the main came WAY too late, like after 10pm :wacko: which for some crowds is OK, but for others, they'll be yawning by that time and looking at their watch. One of the newbie dangers of a multi course with lots of apps is that guests sit around grazing and having cocktails or wine and it's easy to get lost in the socializing and forget that you still have an hour of work left before you can bring out the main.

The recommends for one dish meals works fabulously for dinner party newbies. Especially if it's something lovely like beef bourgignon. And, for impressing people, the newbie can easily impress non-foodies by making something simple but with a fantastic presentation, like a souffle. This is especially great for dessert.

Born Free, Now Expensive

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The recommends for one dish meals works fabulously for dinner party newbies. Especially if it's something lovely like beef bourgignon. And, for impressing people, the newbie can easily impress non-foodies by making something simple but with a fantastic presentation, like a souffle. This is especially great for dessert.

Setting something on fire (crepes, Norwegian omelet, cherries jubilee, etc.) is good for impressing people too. Just make sure you haven't been drinking too much. A guy I know set fire to his ceiling.

On the topic of drinking, I swore off the long cocktail hour after a guest passed out in my bed before dinner was served. One drink and a few dry snacks and we're on to the first course.

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Lots of wine is a must: a couple of bottles of red open, the rest held in abeyance, bottles gathered in a plentiful grouping, in view. A friend of mine who was a florist is a genius at doing wonderful centerpieces of unexpected seasonal things - for autumn, small gourds and swirls of ivy scattered down the center of the table with little votive candles here and there. Or a grouping of fresh pots of pansies in baskets at Eastertime. It's old fashioned, but everything looks nicer on white linen. Somehow, it signals that something festive is about to happen.

I often cook something I've never done before for a dinner party - maybe I'm reckless. Generally, things turn out very well, although there is the occasional dud. But I rely on good cookbooks - I know from experience that these cookbook authors won't steer me wrong.

For starters, I usually have olives or salted nuts, sometimes flatbreads and cheeses. Main courses have tended to be both a meat dish and a vegetable dish that would satisfy a vegetarian (lots of those around). Always a salad afterwards - I love them, winter or summer.

It never hurts to have a few things in the mix that you don't have to fuss over cooking - e.g., if you are trying a risotto that involves lots of stirring and attention, for the main course, roast a chicken, which is a relatively fuss-free process. If I want to spend time hanging out with my guests rather than slaving over a hot stove, I'll make something that's heavy on preparation before the guests come, then is safely ensconced in the oven when they arrive.

If the host/hostess is relaxed, it makes a difference to the general ambience.

Oh, the one thing I've learned the hard way: if you ever make a dinner with individual dishes to a specific guest count (i.e., 8 chocolate mousses, 8 tournedos rossini), you will ALWAYS have someone show up unexpectedly at the last second, and be screwed. Overestimate on the guest count for insurance purposes (you can always eat fabulous leftovers the next day!).

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Echoing what others have said, as advice for a beginner, I'd avoid trying something new -- when you're an experienced cook and thrower of dinner parties, you'll be able to gauge pretty well how something will work, what kind of time is involved, etc. But when you're new at it, and nervous, it just adds to the stress.

Marlene's advice to start out with small groups is great -- maybe even just two or three friends, or one other couple (if you're half of a couple). Then you can move on to bigger groups with more confidence.

Cocktails and appetizers are a lot of work, and I'd never suggest them for someone who's new to entertaining, and who's going to prepare dinner on top of that. It's different if you just want to have a cocktail party (I have lots of advice on that, but that's another topic), but if dinner is the focus, a few snacks and a glass of champagne is a great way to start. And I'd never be embarrassed to buy premade items for snacks, as long as the quality is good. Some hummus and olives, or spiced nuts, or a good pate or terrine, is a nice and easy way to start.

I'd stick with no more than four courses, including dessert, and only that if most of them are all done ahead. I've found that soup is a great first course -- it's all ready to go, requires no last minute work except for putting it in bowls (and maybe a simple garnish), and can go with all kinds of menus and all seasons. And people don't expect soup -- it's really very impressive that way.

Then, depending on the type of meal, you could follow up with the main course and finish with a salad, or follow with a composed salad and finish with the main course. Then dessert, and you're done.

A few other things that bear mentioning. Depending on your guests, make sure you have something non-alcoholic to serve, even if it's just sparkling water. If it's a long party and guests are drinking a lot, make sure there's lots of water available before and during dinner.

For some menu-planning advice, here is an eGCI class on the subject. It's not specifically for party menus, but might contain some information you can use.

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Oh, and ps, regarding sending them the menu beforehand.  That would be the exact opposite from my advice.  I usually advise not even telling them what they're going to eat until after they've had half of it.  The conversations often go like this:  "My, something smells good, what is it?"  "Fiesta Bake."  "Fiesta Bake?  What's in it?"  "Oh, this and that...here, can you put some ice water in the glasses for me?"  It's been my experience that if you tell them in advance, sure enough, they'll hear an ingredient they think they don't like.

(...)

I'll ask if there are any allergies I should know about, but if they say no, all bets are off.  And if they inhale a couple quarts of spinach dip, thinking it's some sort of guacamole, good on me.

Yup, I like your style! :cool: I, too, go by the same principles....they keep on coming back...

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I'm still in the mostly simple and casual category for entertaining. I think basic principles are to plan thoroughly ahead of time (menu, timing, groceries, placement of dishes, etc), and then have fun at the event.

I definitely try new dishes on guests, but not new cooking skills.

I often assign little last minute tasks to the first couple of guests to get things going (putting out a centerpiece, putting on some music, etc.), but try not to depend on others' "help".

Especially for newbies, I'd say worry less about complicated menus and concentrate on good food and drink.

Always have water available for guests (bottles or in a pitcher) so they don't have to ask for it or fiddle with the kitchen sink or fridge spigot.

Kids always present a challenge for me. My guests are often young families, some with kids who are accustomed to crap I refuse to serve. I try to meet them half way -- serve chocolate milk instead of juice boxes, and include items in the spread that aren't blatantly kid food but still kid friendly -- fruit, cheese and pretzels.

Ditch the paper plates and napkins. Even burgers and dogs deserve a real plate.

Bridget Avila

My Blog

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I would explain a little about wine glasses. Which ones to use for white or red wines. A lot of people don't know this. I just think wine tastes better in the right glass. Planning ahead is important. Clean your house the day before, pick out your outfit and get the flowers for the table. I want to enjoy my parties and spend time with the guests so I make everything that I can ahead of time. The most important part is to have fun! It's supposed to be fun so invite fun people, especially for the first few parties while you get the hang of the whole thing. The more dinner parties you give, the more comfortable you'll feel. The best parties that I've been to have not been the ones with the best food, but rather, the parties where the hostess and host just seemed really relaxed and so everyone else could relax too.

Melissa

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I always buy fresh flowers for the living room and dining room and kitchen. I always use real dishes, no paper for this girl. I make a list of things to be done on the white board in my kitchen and then as the week goes on cross off the things that are done and add new items as needed.

I write a timetable on the whiteboard on the day of the dinner party which can be adjusted as required.

For newbies I'd say use the best quaility ingredients you can afford, do as much prep in advance that you can, and give yourself the whole day to pull it all together. Once you have done several dinners and are more comfortable with how long everything takes to do you can sqeeze in a quick round of golf before your guests arrive. :laugh:

I love to entertain and I put a lot of effort into the food and table setting, and I think your guests know when you have gone to a lot of trouble for them.

We usually judge the success of a dinner party by the number of empty wine bottles and the lateness of the hour that our guests depart.

Dawn aka shrek

Let the eating begin!

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Heh. This is going to be a challenge coming up with stuff that hasn't already been said. :smile:

I guess the most important thing for me is to have fun with the party. That can mean different things for different events. Some parties, I've wanted to be totally present at my party and not fussing in the kitchen, so I've done those as mainly make-ahead buffet-style affairs. Other times I've really had a wild hair on to do something over-the-top--those dinners I've basically treated as the culinary equivalent of running a marathon, so I allow myself sufficient time, resources, planning, and above all prior rest and physical readiness to handle both the cooking and the hostessing.

It's all in the advance planning--I make all kinds of lists, notes about how I want to set up the dining space, even try a few things in advance if I'm not sure if the logistics will work properly. And that goes for the food too. I do sometimes cook dishes I've never done for a dinner party before, but I try to at least try them out beforehand to sanity-check any potential screwups. For me, this is actually part of the fun--it's like playing house when you were a kid.

Another thing: I have a few beloved items I like to bring out for dinner parties that make the party feel like it's mine. One example: I have a lovely folklore-ishly embroidered tablecloth and matching napkins from Central America that I won in a church raffle some 20 years ago (one of the few times I actually won something cool in a raffle). When I put them out for guests, I feel generations of ancestral matriarchs nodding their heads in approval--even if I didn't inherit these table linens from them, I did inherit this classic gesture of home hospitality, and it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. :smile:

Edited by mizducky (log)
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1. Send them the menu beforehand, prepare to be flexible. People have all sorts of wierd food allergies or dislikes you never hear of until you cook the food. If you don't send them the menu, then they might not know until they come and then become too embarrased to say anything and suffer in silence.

I agree that you need to let them know the menu beforehand. I've found that many people "forget" to tell me about allergies even if I ask until the food is set in front of them - whether the allergy is real or not, it makes for a very awkward moment.

Then there's the multitude of diets that people are on. Again, I ask ahead of time if there are any "dietary restrictions" I should know about - you never know when people will do a 180 on their diet, but they will indeed let you know when you put a plate of something now unacceptable in front of them. Nothing stops the flow of conversation and conviviality like "Oh, no, I can't eat that!"

Since I usually have an idea of what I want to make when I have folks over for dinner, I'll usually phrase the invitation as something like "Would you like to come over for dinner next Saturday? I'm planning on making chicken curry and a chocolate torte for dessert."

For beginners, I really would suggest sticking with something you're comfortable making. There are ALWAYS last minute glitches, which can throw people off. If you know what to expect from your main course, it's one less thing to worry about.

Don't worry too much about table decorations. Real dishes and silverware, tablecloth or placemats depending on the dinner/your table, and something of interest in the center of the table is all you need. People don't remember the details, they remember "the table looked nice".

My secret to making just about anything into a centerpiece: go to Home Depot, buy a 12" x 12" floor tile (ceramic or marble), buy some self-stick rubberized feet. Stick one rubber foot on the back side of the tile at each corner. Place it in the center of the table, place your thingummie on top of it, instant centerpiece.

Finally, something I learned along the way: the dish that took you the least amount of time to make, or uses the cheapest ingredients, or is just some chopped something or others mixed together will be the ONE dish that gets all the compliments. The one you spent hours slaving over will be ignored. Roll with it and remember the goal is to have a good time with your guests.

Marcia.

Don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he wanted...he lived happily ever after. -- Willy Wonka

eGullet foodblog

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I like candles burning on the table as a sign that something special is anticipated when my friends gather. I have candelabras in all shapes and sizes......but glass votive holders work well too.........

I'm a canning clean freak because there's no sorry large enough to cover the, "Oops! I gave you botulism" regrets.

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In family-style serving settings, I've found that candles often get in the way. Tall candles can physically block reaches, and peering around candlesticks to engage in conversation gets frustrating. Votive candles don't physically get in the way, but reaching for something can result in the unpleasant surprise when you realize your arm is hovering inches from a hot flame. Scented candles, a favorite of my grandmother, distract one too much from the tastes and smells of the meal.

-- There are infinite variations on food restrictions. --

Crooked Kitchen - my food blog

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Ditch the paper plates and napkins.  Even burgers and dogs deserve a real plate.

Nothing says "I really don't care about you" like paper plates and plastic flatware. Instant turnoff!

Agreed, except when you don't have enough dishes for 50 people. :smile:

Edit to say that after a minute's thought...I'd say it's better to entertain with paper plates (Chinet, not the flimsy ones :biggrin: ) than be afraid to have company because you don't have enough dishes or silverware.

Edited by hjshorter (log)

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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Edit to say that after a minute's thought...I'd say it's better to entertain with paper plates (Chinet, not the flimsy ones  :biggrin: ) than be afraid to have company because you don't have enough dishes or silverware.

Or you can always rent. Rentals are not that expensive if you're just having 12 or 20 people over for dinner, and they'll fit in your car. It's when you start renting tables, chairs, linens, chafing dishes, serving platters, salt and pepper shakers, butter ramekins and so on and so forth that the cost gets exorbitant. Renting tableware for most dinner parties is very affordable. And many rental companies allow you to return dirties!

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I really only have small dinner parties, so my advice is mostly focused on less formal gatherings of friends. But I love to serve family-style, so people can take whatever amount they want of whatever dishes they want.

When you're planning a menu, the timeline question is essential. Write out how long everything takes and figure out what you can do when. If you're serving a roasted beet and goat cheese salad, you probably want to roast the beets the day before. And make sure you're not trying to do three things on the stovetop, or three things in the oven, simultaneously. Pick dishes that don't interfere with each other (roast the squash in the oven, cook the chicken on the stove, prep the salad on the counter, and serve a tart you baked yesterday and let come up to room temperature while the main course was being served.)

It's also handy to pick one course that is assembled instead of cooked, usually an app or a dessert. No one is going to be angry that you didn't personally marinate the olives yourself.

Appoint someone else to help you manage the crowd. Spouse, older child, good friend, roommate, whoever. If you're going to be doing a lot of the cooking, make sure there's someone else who shares the responsibility -- pouring cocktails, cleaning up red wine spills, going back to the stove to ladle out more mashed potatoes, et al. You'll go nuts trying to do it all yourself, especially if your kitchen isn't visible from the dining table.

Cooking and writing and writing about cooking at the SIMMER blog

Pop culture commentary at Intrepid Media

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Edit to say that after a minute's thought...I'd say it's better to entertain with paper plates (Chinet, not the flimsy ones  :biggrin: ) than be afraid to have company because you don't have enough dishes or silverware.

Or you can always rent. Rentals are not that expensive if you're just having 12 or 20 people over for dinner, and they'll fit in your car. It's when you start renting tables, chairs, linens, chafing dishes, serving platters, salt and pepper shakers, butter ramekins and so on and so forth that the cost gets exorbitant. Renting tableware for most dinner parties is very affordable. And many rental companies allow you to return dirties!

True, but what novice entertainer is going to rent silverware for a barbecue? And while the cost may not be exorbitant, for young people just starting out it might be a burden. It makes sense for a large dinner party.

And y'all can go ahead and talk smack about if me you like :wink: but I have been known to use paper plates for very large parties.

Heather Johnson

In Good Thyme

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I don't think this has been said yet:

There's nothing at all wrong with getting comfortable with a few basic entrees, salads, desserts, etc. and using them often, especially when you are a beginner. These can become your "signature" dishes.

~ Lori in PA

My blog: http://inmykitcheninmylife.blogspot.com/

My egullet blog: http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=89647&hl=

"Cooking is not a chore, it is a joy."

- Julia Child

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I don't think this has been said yet:

There's nothing at all wrong with getting comfortable with a few basic entrees, salads, desserts, etc. and using them often, especially when you are a beginner.  These can become your "signature" dishes.

The best advice I have ever read for newly minted party givers appears in Patrick O'Connell's first book.

He advises to pick a 3 course menu. Cook each dish separately and together for family, a close friend, etc. Cook these dishes for them until you have made every mistake possible and your family is sick of this food. Make your audience critique the dishes every time you serve them. Cook this 3 course menu until you have the timing down so well that you can get it out in your sleep.

Then serve this menu to your boss or friends or whomever at a dinner party. Most importantly -- keep your mouth shut! Your guests don't have to know that these three dishes are the only things in the universe that you can cook. In fact, they will likely think that you are a bona fide world class cook.

Add two more appetizers, main courses and desserts to your repertoire and you probably are.

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Most points have been covered but I say "No Lasagna!" It has been soooo overdone that there's nothing special about it anymore. No paper plates unless it's a very casual Barbecue. I use paper plates for a Pig Pickin' because I don't want my good China falling on the patio floor.

Know your audience. I had some friends that I wasted several bottles of good wine on before I realized that it was a waste of time because they put ice in it!

Learn a few really good dishes before you get carried away and overdo.

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Wow a lot of great information. I remember when my husband and I started having dinner parties, my typical menu was: salad, chicken parm, pasta and garlic bread. Dessert was usually cheesecake or apple pie.

A few things to think about when having a party:

have a pre-designated place for guests to put their "stuff" (purse, coats)

make sure the bathroom is clean, have extra toilet paper and clean towels available

make guests feel welcome ... thank you for coming, let me take your coat, what can I get you to drink, introduce them to the other dinner guests

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my wife and I have plenty of BBQ's over the summer. typically anywhere from 30-50 guests. things i have learned.

1. dont set out the whole dish and try to keep chairs as far away from the food area as possible. lol. (one time i fried around 10lbs of chicken wings, i had a few friends sit around the plate like its a wing bowl. i was mostly upset because not all the guests had gotten a plate yet!)

2. put trash bags/cans in high traffic areas. i guess its not common sense to throw away your plate/cups when your done?

3. its nice to have most food in some type of disposable. like chicken/ribs/ salad/etc.. placed in a alumminum pan. that way it can gostright to the trash, or stright into the fridge after the party.

4. have fun! worry about the mess the next day...i try to remind myself party = fun, not stress, even though it really annoys me when people leave their trash around!

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wow, i haven't posted in a long time, though i thought i would give this one a shot.. i entertain probably at least once a week. I have 2 kids under the age of 3 so at times it can be a bit chaotic, but that is all in the fun of it. I don't ever do the extend of all the planning and menus and allergies and who likes what and doesnt like previous posts mentioned. I think any of my friends or family would be a little shocked if i did, a little too rigid .. so it is all pretty relaxed. My house is pretty much always very clean, usually alittle tidy up of toys and i usually always ahve fresh cut greens or flowers in the bathroom, kitchen and living room. I love summer for the fact i can get most things out of my garden, being flowers or veggies! I always serve with china and always cloth napkins, that is pretty much the only formality.. sometimes we sit with the meals on our knees, even if i am serving a few courses, or sometimes we all crowd around our little kitchen table. People are very comfortable at my house, which i love, it is always busy and active. I choose dishes by either what i have in fridge/freezer, or what is in season or what i feel like making. I will make a risotto and my company will sit around the table waiting (kitchen and dining in one room) with the music going and the cocktails going, waiting while i stir a little rice. the only the other thing that is a must at all dinners is MUSIC. Man it is as much as my life as food. And the 2 go together so well. Depending on the mood, it may be a little jazz or some funk or some good ol' rock 'n'roll . I also change the music during the night, depending on the mood, while serving a cheese plate at midnight while we break open another bottle, the music might get a little louder and fun.. or if it is time for tea/coffee and dsessert maybe a little ella or madeleine or even kings of conveniece or death cab in the background.. all depneds on the company, the mood.. Just as long as it is easy and fun for all, including me the cook!

Edited by DameD (log)

DANIELLE

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."

-Virginia Woolf

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