Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!
Just because you can’t cook, you work 60-hour weeks, or live in a shoebox-sized apartment doesn’t mean you can’t plan a dinner party.
It doesn’t need to be expensive, take weeks to prepare, or look like anything you see on Pinterest. Try less to impress and, instead, focus your energy on being a good host by thinking about activities that’ll make your gathering more memorable. Read this guide for easy-to-follow tips so you can plan a dinner party on a whim, and still have time and money to enjoy your life.
10 Tips to Plan a Dinner Party (For Beginners)
#1: Skip the small talk.
Weddings and boring corporate events are for small talk, not your dinner party.
Have an activity or a couple of conversation starters planned to help lead your group’s conversation and to promote storytelling.
For example, you could start the night off with daily grateful, something we learned from a friend who went to a Jewish Shabbat meal before coming to one of our dinner parties. Avoid saying anything too serious, and instead, thank your guests for showing up on a weeknight or having zero dietary restrictions, so you could go wild in the kitchen.
Another idea could be to have your guests bring something to contribute for an organized blind taste test, which will have the conversation focused around the food or drink you’re tasting as a group.
#2: Ask for help.
Asking for help with your dinner party is like asking for directions. You don’t necessarily need to do it, but everything is a hell of a lot easier if you do.
Instead of trying to do it all, enlist a partner or a friend to help co-host. I host dinner parties with my husband Chris, and he helps me with selecting guests, cleaning, and making sure everyone has a full drink in hand.
Tip: If one of your guests asks what to bring, give them one specific thing to bring. And read this post for ideas on what to bring when you get invited to one yourself.
#3: Plan it out.
Nothing makes people more uncomfortable than a frazzled host.
Make a shopping and to-do list at the beginning of the week and space out your prep over a couple of days, so you’re doing this last minute. That means buying most, if not all, of your groceries at least two or three days in advance and only picking up a few things like ice and fresh bread the day of your party.
Tip: Use a notebook or Reminders on your phone and write down everything you might need to pick-up, do, and clean.
#4: Choose your guest list wisely.
Don’t screw this up.
You’ll be spending the entire evening with these people, so put some thought into who’s coming, instead of randomly inviting a group of people. An easy way to guarantee your guests are comfortable is if everyone invited knows at least one other person there.
Invite between four and six guests, and make the invitation casual by sending out an email or text message about a week in advance.
Tip: If your guests don’t RSVP within a couple of days, move on to other people that’ll be more grateful for your invite.
#5: Make a one-pot meal.
One-pot meals are the way to go if you want your dinner party both affordable and stress-free.
They’re easy to put together ahead of time (so you can make a Friday dinner party work) and require far less clean-up. They also look impressive in the center of the table with some easy garnishes like freshly chopped herbs or microgreens.
#6: Don’t be a cleaning Nazi.
Prepare your house as if your parents were visiting, not your in-laws. Unless your parents are clean freaks, but you get the idea.
Focus on the bathroom, living room, and kitchen. Dust if you haven’t in a while, sweep or vacuum, put away unnecessary crap lying around the kitchen or living room (like mail, shoes, toys, coats on the coat rack, etc.) and put out some candles, including a couple in the bathroom.
Tip: If you’re short on space, put unnecessary bulky things like skis or bikes inside your car or at a neighbor’s. Just don’t forget to invite them over!
#7: Go thrift shopping.
A second-hand store or flea market is your best friend if you’re about to plan a dinner party.
You might only own two wine glasses or four plates, and that’s okay. But, unless you want your guests to sip wine out of plastic cups, do yourself (and them) a favor and get yourself some second-hand dinner partyware.
In Cape Town, I picked up a large cast-iron pan, baking tins, chairs, and other kitchen essentials from the local flea market. It’s a great pan, and I used it at almost every dinner party we hosted there.
Facebook Marketplace has also been a great place to find gems if you put in the time to dig a little.
#8: Play good music.
Find some good playlists on Spotify or Youtube that you can play and forget about for the rest of the evening. And remember to charge your speaker(s), the day before your dinner.
If you’re not sure what to play, start with this dinner party playlist.
Tip: If you’re in the market for new speakers, I know at least ten people who own the reliable and high-quality UE Boom speakers (including myself).
#9: Use what your pantry gives you.
You’ll be surprised to see what spices and sauces are tucked away in your pantry, and what you can do with them. Before splurging at the grocery store on even more crap you might not need, see what you can make with what you have.
Sure, there will be things you’ll need to buy, especially produce, but use your pantry as inspiration for dishes.
Google recipes with that za’atar spice your friend brought back from Egypt, or the mole paste you picked up in Mexico. You’ll have a story to tell, fewer things in your cupboard, and a delicious meal that’s likely more interesting than what you were previously planning.
#10: Prevent hangovers.
Gone are the days when we could slam back multiple tequila shots, a couple of muff-divers, and still go skiing the next morning with almost no hangover.
If you want to plan a dinner party and have your guests come back a second time, leave them feeling fresh the next day by keeping them hydrated.
Save old wine bottles, fill them up with water, chill them in the fridge, and have one or two of them on the tables at all times. It’ll save you from having to top everybody up, and will ensure your friends stay hydrated throughout the night.