Ten Dinner Party Hacks for Even the Most Seasoned Hosts

If you’ve ever struggled to figure out who to invite to your dinner party, what to cook without spending a fortune, or how to subtly let people know you want them to leave, know that you’re not alone.

A dinner party can be stressful, time-consuming, and wallet-emptying.

But it doesn’t need to be.

By following these dinner party hacks and trying to integrate them into most of my gatherings, I’ve spent less money, have more free time, and ultimately enjoy myself far more than I had in the past.

So if any of these things are important to you, don’t shy away from hosting a dinner party just yet and read this post.

Plan Like a Pro: Prepare Better With These Dinner Party Hacks

Someone holding up red wine in a glass.
Photo Credit: Dedicated to be Classy

1. Decant Inexpensive Wine

Our sense of taste isn’t as good or as refined as we think. Especially, when it comes to wine.

According to economist and author, Robin Goldstein, who has conducted more than 6000 (!) blind tastings with wine connoisseurs, amateurs, and everyone in between, our perception of taste is influenced by price.

A $50 bottle of wine must be five times as good as a $10 bottle, right?

Wrong!

Unless you’re an expert sommelier, the general public actually prefers less expensive wine if they are tasting completely blind. Who knew?

So, if you want to provide wine for your guests and aren’t afraid to try a little experiment, buy some inexpensive wine and decant it. Heck, you can even go for a highly rated boxed wine and really blow the socks off your guests.

Tip: Check out The Kitchn’s roundup of best boxed wine in the US here.

Decanting wine not only removes any chance your friends will influenced by marketing, but it gives your wine a chance to open up and become a better wine. Decanting works particularly well for full-bodied red varietals such as Rioja or Syrah.

This dinner party hack levels the playing field for both your wine snobs and your friends who still haven’t made it past sangria. It can be a great way to introduce a fun conversation around how marketing, price, and branding affect our taste perception.

Plus, drinking wine from a decanter is just cool.

A new decanter can be expensive, but I’ve seen many in thrift stores or second-hand marketplaces such as Facebook Marketplace for the price of a bottle of (inexpensive) wine.

Related: Listen to Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better on Freakonomics if you’re interested in learning more about this.

A dinner party hack - pasta making night, not a dinner party.
Our pasta making night with friends was definitely a dinner party, but we didn’t need to call it that.

2. Don’t Call it a Dinner Party

Calling your dinner party something different is a bit of a contradictory dinner party hack, but it works.

Some people get intimidated by the phrase dinner party. There’s this notion that dinner parties are stuffy, fancy affairs (even when they’re not) that require a ton of preparation and dressing up.

By giving your dinner party another name (get-together, potluck, barbeque), you can make your gathering more casual and give you and your guests different expectations about what to expect.

Or, remove them altogether.

Tip: If a dinner is too intimidating, try organizing a brunch instead.

Friends chat on the balcony at sunset in Cape Town.

3. Keep a Running Guest List

This dinner party hack will save you from pulling your hair out when you want to host a dinner party and don’t know who to invite.

It’ll also ensure you don’t forget about anyone that may have asked you to an event in the past, and you want to return the favor.

I keep a running guest list in my Notes app, but you could use just about anything. Essentially, just keep a running note of friends, acquaintances, or anyone you meet that you’d like to attend one of your future dinner parties at some point in the future.

If you travel a lot, you might want to separate it by city or country, or break your list up into groups of people who you might think would get along. 

Tip: Make sure you keep their current phone number, email, or other contact info so you can get a hold of them quickly.

Chris working on his storytelling skills

4. Invite One Backbone Guest

Backbone guests are individuals who get along with a diverse group of people, have an interesting background (whether through life experiences, career, and travel), and aren’t afraid to talk.

Having a backbone guest is an easy dinner party hack that will help you feel less like a babysitter and more like a guest.

Just to be clear, this backbone guest isn’t doing any more “work” than the others. But, their outgoing personality, zest for storytelling, and confidence to lead conversations will help you and other guests feel at ease.

Tip: In your running guest list, separate these backbone guests and try to invite at least one at each of your dinner parties.

Big dinner party cheersing at the dinner table.

5. Set a Purpose

It might sound silly to have a purpose for your dinner party, but it helps to think beyond just getting together with friends. While there’s nothing wrong with just getting together, there’s a greater chance for success if your dinner party has a specific purpose.

As gathering expert and author of The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker explains, 

“Specificity sharpens the gathering because people can see themselves in it.”

Priya Parker, Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters

By picking a theme, or specific reason for hosting your dinner party (whether it’s a taste test, pasta-making night, or a barbecue to celebrate the start of summer), you create more value for your guests. And value in itself is memorable.

Chances are, your friends will be more interested in hosting one themselves in the future and invite you, too.

Cookie dough ready to be baked.
Who doesn’t love freshly baked cookies?

6. Make The Freezer Your Best Friend

And no, I’m not recommending you serve frozen meals to your guests.

Freezing food and stocking up on food you can freeze when it’s on sale will cut down on your costs and make you feel more at ease about hosting a dinner party.

Preparing food in advance will allow you to have more time a day or two leading up to your dinner party as well.

For example, the next time you make cookie dough, double the recipe and freeze the other half. Next time you buy fresh pasta on sale, freeze it. And if you’re going to be making a beef stew one weekend, double or triple the recipe and make enough for the next dinner party you plan to have.

That way you’re creating less work for yourself, and what’s not to love about that?

Tip: If dessert isn’t your thing and buying a cake from your local bakery is out of your budget, try serving ice-cream with a drizzle of high-quality olive oil. It sounds weird but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Impress Without Stress: Remove Stress and Add Fun With These Dinner Party Hacks

Emma leading the conversation at a dinner party at sunset.

7. Guide The Conversation

This dinner party hack will turn your stale conversations about small-talk and gossip into something more meaningful.

According to this study by University of Arizona psychologist Matthias Mehl, people who engage in more in-depth conversations rather than small talk seem to be happier. Mehl goes on to say, “by engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world.”

I also recently listened to this Freakonomics podcast about asking personal questions and it turns out that we actually don’t mind getting asked personal questions as much as we fear.

Having conversation starters is a super easy dinner party hack that can help us dive deeper into topics, share stories or anecdotes, and instantly feel more connected.

I like to use Table Topics, but feel free to come up with your own or ask others for ideas. 

Wine taste test spread with guests.

8. Throw a Taste Test

Speaking of wine, blind taste tests are one of my favorite dinner party hacks, so it had to be on this list.

I’ve organized countless taste tests with my husband, Chris, and friends always ask when the next one will be. Comparing common foods and drinks can be a fun way to break preconceptions of what tastes good and at what price point. Plus, you’ll find out what you and your guests prefer. The results are often surprising, and you might have one of two defensive guests, but it’s usually something to laugh off.

This little experiment could even change the way you and your friends purchase food and drinks in the future. 

Related: If you’re not sure how to go about organizing a blind taste test, read this post from our other blog The Unconventional Route.

Friends helping each other serve food, family-style.

9. Serve Family Style

Your guests aren’t coming to your dinner party to see perfectly plated dishes, so skip the fancy plating entirely by letting your guests serve themselves.

Serving dinner family-style is one of the easiest dinner party hacks because you let your guests do the work for you. Believe it or not, this will get your guests feeling more comfortable, extra relaxed, and feel instantly connected to others at the table.

Tip: Try microwaving your plates so your food stays as warm for as long as possible. Nobody likes cold food. Thanks to my friend Amber for this tip!

10. End Gracefully

You know the story: dessert’s finished, and half of your group is politely trying to hide their yawns. While the other half is just getting started and asking if there’s any wine left.

To end your dinner party, think about when and where you’ll do it. Priya Parker, who writes about how to have more meaningful gatherings in her book The Art of Gathering, recommends ending an event by creating a temporary pause in the evening. 

For example, after dessert, clear the plates and offer a final nightcap in the living room for those that want to hang out and chat for one more drink. This intentional interruption gives those with kids or with early bedtimes an escape without looking like they’re party poopers. And also sets a precise end time (one last drink) before it’s officially time to wrap up.

Tip: If people aren’t getting your message, start tidying up, thank them for their conversation (and say how you’ve lost track of time), or just be honest.

What Dinner Party Hacks Did I Miss?

I’d love to know what your go-to dinner party hacks are that help make your dinner parties fun, affordable, and stress-free. Let me know in the comments and share this post with a friend if you enjoyed the read!

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