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How to Host a Small Dinner Party Without Stress
The Stress Less Dinner Party
Most of us face planning parties with a bit of apprehension. Even the most veteran entertainer will always experience a few moments of panic.
- "Have I thought of everything?"
- "Will all the foods be ready at the same time?"
- "Will everything taste alright?"
Though most people who entertain at all will not completely get rid of anxiety, this author has learned that the best way to eliminate stress when having a small dinner party for friends or family is to have a plan.
Not just a plan for one particular gathering but rather an overall approach to entertaining in general.
Having a dinner party is just like any other situation in life where "performance" is important so preparing for it makes total sense.
Stressless Party Planning
The most successful events, large and small, are usually the result of planning. Dinner parties are really no different.
Your Dinner Party Planning List
- Where will the dinner party be? Outside on the deck or in the dining room?
- If the weather is bad, do you have a plan B for location of your dinner?
- Do you need to clean your house or the area for your dinner party?
- Do you have what you need to serve your guests for dinner--whether it's your own dishes or you need to buy some--or use disposable items like paper plates and napkins?
- How many people will you invite to dinner?
- What's your menu for the dinner get-together?
- Do you have a theme like a BBQ or an Italian dinner?
- How long will it take to make dinner for your guests?
- How complicated are the recipes--how long to prepare?
- Will it be a sit down dinner or a buffet style?
- Do you want to have people bring food to make it a potluck or do it all yourself?
- Will people need to bring their own drinks or will you furnish?
- What kinds of drinks will you have if you're furnishing?
- What day of the week and what time will you serve dinner to your guests?
- Do you plan on adding any activities to the dinner such as watching a movie or playing games?
- Are children coming or are there pets involved or invited?
Budget and make a list for your dinner party.
The best dinner parties can be the simplest.
Spending more than you should on a small gathering for dinner doesn't guarantee the party will be better. In fact, it might be worse due to worrying about the cost of everything especially if the party doesn't go well.
Keep your dinner party reasonable on all levels and you'll enjoy it much more--as will your guests.
Check to see what supplies you have on hand. Then make a list of things you need to buy at the store. Lastly, list the things you need to do ahead of time before dinner party day.
Have a theme or menu category for your dinner party.
Figuring out what kind of meal you'll serve will reduce stress. Remember to keep it relatively basic.
- Trying to make too many different types of things can become quickly overwhelming.
Here are 3 different menu ideas which illustrate the diversity and simplicity of meal planning.
Italian dinner: Lasagna or pasta dish, tossed green salad, steamed vegetable, garlic or French bread, spumoni ice cream with coffee. For a starter, fresh fruit or a vegetable tray. Drinks might be a chianti or light beer.
Burgers and dogs: Grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, potato or macaroni salad, cooler corn, chips and store-bought pound cake with fresh strawberries. Drinks might be coffee, pop, wine or beer. A starter might be a veggie tray or fresh fruit with cream cheese dip.
Takeout: Anything from ready-made appetizers from Trader Joe's to gourmet pizzas or Chinese food make for quick and effortless entertaining. Finish the meal off with a fudge cake, apple pie or sherbet or ice cream.
Gourmet cooking for dinner parties.
No one expects lavish 5-course dinners when you get together--unless you happen to be known for that.
Or perhaps you belong to a gourmet cooking club. In that case, gourmet cooking may be the style of the evening.
Make things that you're comfortable with and perhaps add only one new recipe to the mix. That way, the chances for success multiply and you can simply tell your friends or family that you trusted them enough to experiment with a new dish.
Whatever the meal, remember the most important thing in any get-together is companionship and a good time.
Gourmet cooks may find they can create meals that are more complicated but even then, enjoyment of the meal should be the most important factor, not trying to prove your culinary expertise.
Clean several days before a dinner party.
Nothing says stress like being exhausted when it comes time for your dinner guests to arrive.
Taking the time to clean a day or so before a planned get-together or dinner party will reduce stress remarkably.
If you're needing time to add in yardwork or things like floor cleaning, set aside time the week before and tackle all major cleaning projects.
Save touchups only for the day of your dinner party and you'll find you are able to enjoy your gathering more.
Prepare food ahead for a small dinner party.
Doing as much beforehand as you possibly can before the dinner is set to start saves you from rushing trying to get things done at the last minute.
It's also a great buffer for things that aren't planned--like you forgot an ingredient and have to make a last minute dash to the store. Or you were planning on being home by 4:30 but you got stuck in traffic and you're now 45 minutes behind.
If you're having lasagna or chicken parmesan, for instance, make the week before, freeze and then thaw the day of the party. Or make it the day ahead and store it cooked or uncooked in the fridge.
If you can't make recipes ahead of time, prep things out as much as possible. Chopping ingredients or having things premixed saves time and stress. Refrigerate or store in containers or marked zip-lock bags for ease of assembly.
This author purposefully selects recipes that can be made ahead as much as possible when a dinner party is on the menu. An example of one of my go-to desserts is Make Ahead Chocolate Souffle. It's made hours before and simply needs to be popped in the oven when ready to eat.
This helps keep the party out of the kitchen and tends to make people feel more relaxed as some people get nervous watching someone else work while they sip wine!
Consider BYOB for your dinner party.
Having folks bring their own beverage to a dinner party is never out of style. Things to consider are that people tend to be more careful about their drinking if they're paying for it out of their own pocket.
Drinking to excess can be a pitfall of anyone's dinner party. It's important to remember that as hosts, over-serving someone in your home can be just as dangerous as someone being over-served in a bar.
A great way to encourage people to bring their own drinks (alcoholic and nonalcoholic) is to suggest that they bring whatever they like to drink.
Decide as well if you want guests to bring something to the dinner party. Most people ask if there is something they can bring so don't be afraid to suggest something such as a salad or a loaf of Italian bread.
Set the table a day before the party.
This may seem over the top in terms of advance planning, but surprisingly it's a great way to take the stress out of a dinner party for any size group of people.
Most banquet planners set their tables well in advance of an event. There are several reasons this works well. There's time to make certain all the equipment that's needed is available for how ever many people are being served.
It also gives them (or you, the dinner party planner) the opportunity to see what dishes look best, what colors go best if you're into that, and how you want everything to be laid out. If you're worried about your table getting dusty, simply toss a clean sheet carefully over it and come time for the guests to arrive, you have a beautifully set table.
This seemingly little thing eliminates trying to set the table around guests or having them sit down in the area where you plan to serve them. Even if you're having a buffet style dinner, setting the table as you'd like it to be arranged makes it easier for people to know where they'll be sitting and what to use.
Planning for Pets and Children at Dinner Parties
If you're having a dinner party that includes children, think about menu choices and make sure you have something that works for kids on your menu.
Age-appropriate favorites can include mac and cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches. You can even set a separate table for them within supervising distance from the main eating area.
Be sure and have plenty of entertaining activities on hand that match the ages of the children such as appropriate videos, puzzles, coloring books or toys.
If you're having people over who are bringing their pets or if you have pets of your own, be prepared.
Make sure guests are comfortable with your pets and if they aren't, whether just by personal preference or allergy concerns, have a safe place for your pets to hang out during the dinner party.
If you have visiting pets, be aware that there can be food issues or dominance issues. Nothing says disaster like a dog fight while people are sitting around the table talking after a fabulous meal.
This author had this happen and thankfully it was only a skirmish with one of my malamutes and a visiting dog who snarled at him. However, it does unnerve the guests. It's a good idea not to have pets around the table before, during or after dinner, as I learned from experience.
It's also important to make sure food is out of reach of counter cruisers like my malamutes. One snag of the meatballs can ruin the perfectly prepared dinner and leave you starting over before guests arrive.
Remember that certain foods are highly toxic to pets such as chocolate for dogs. Keep all temptations out of reach or pets in a safe place during your dinner party to avoid unhappy endings.
How to Reduce Stress in Planning a Dinner Party
This author has discovered that the best way to have a dinner party of any size is to plan ahead. That single thing makes all the difference when it comes to the final moment of truth when guests arrive.
That said, be flexible. If you've planned to play games but everyone is having a great time chatting or enjoying the meal, your work is done and you score!
There are other factors as well that reduce stress long before the dinner party day even arrives.
- Get plenty of rest the week before but especially the day before a party
- Keep up exercise routines to maintain a relaxed state of mind
- Eat a healthy diet and avoid excess smoking and drinking
Lastly, this author and my husband always discuss what went well after a dinner party or get-together. We always focus on the things that were positive rather than the negative.
It's important to remember that things can sometimes be less than perfect and still be a success.
We try to take what we learn from each encounter with guests in our home and build on that for the next time.
Much as in anything in life, the more you host dinner parties, the better you become at it, no matter if they are simple or extravagant.