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Monday, September 17, 2007

Dinner Party 101

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I LOVE having dinner parties - it's totally no coincidence that the most populated categories on my blog are generally related to me having people over for dinner. I always have a ton of fun planning and executing these (aside from the whole having to clean the house aspect....meh). Anyway, I've noticed that a lot of people of my generation (KD Nation) are a little put off by the whole idea. So I thought I'd break it down into simple steps. Realistic steps.

I mean, I've read dinner planning articles in the high end food magazines and they seem to expect to you be some sort of master chef/sommelier/patissier and all sorts of french words that are ridiculous, overwrought and totally unnecessary.

Anyone can throw a dinner party. It's not hard. It just takes a little planning and preparation....but everyone - from the student to the kitchen-phobic - can totally do this.

So first....

Step 1: Company's coming....but who?
For me, this part is easy. I don't have enough nice dishes for more than six people (without having to wash stuff between courses). So hubs and I usually invite four other people over. Personally, I find that once you get beyond six people, it becomes challenging to cook the sheer volume of food that's needed, it's tough to come up with adequate seating and that whole dishes issue. I've done as many as 10 and it totally works out though. But I would suggest no more than six people if you're new to DP planning. It's good if your guests know each other, but not completely necessary. I'm all for mixing it up, but if you have single friends, make sure you invite at least two of them (not necessarily to match-make....just to keep it from being a Bridget Jones-esque smug married-type evening).

Step 2: Mikey doesn't likey
There was a time when people ate whatever you put in front of them. But that time has passed - so in this day and age of KD Nation, it really never hurts to ask. It's been my experience that most people say they will eat anything (myself included), BUT a second prod is never amiss. The list of food I won't eat at someones house is quite small, but let's say if someone decided to serve rabbit, I would be outta there faster than you could blink. So if you're thinking of serving anything out of the ordinary, just ask - usually a simple email along the lines of "Hey, I was thinking of maybe serving [emu-partridge-raw beef-etc.]. Is this okay with you? I know it's not something that appeals to everyone so let me know if you'd prefer something else!" Always try to present said exotic item like an idea, not a fait accompli (i.e., I've special ordered fermented yak from Tibet and I'm so excited for you to try it - is that okay?) because that places the picky guest in an uncomfortable position.

It's also a good idea to poll about cuisines - some people LOVE a good curry (ME!ME!) while others would rather eat their own boot than sniff a little cumin or coriander.

This whole idea does go against established etiquette rules, but trust me that it is always helpful to ask. Especially when people have serious allergies (like shellfish and nuts - both of which do make frequent appearances on my menus). So when it doubt, drop someone a line and find out.

Often you'll find out that someone is a vegetarian (make sure to ask what type of veg, and what kinds of things are okay) - depending on your crowd, you can make a vegetarian meal, offer a selection of entrées (like a few different kinds of curry, or two types of pasta), or just make one special entrée for the vegetarian guest. :) I've got tons of vegetarian recipes on this site, so take a looksie.

I also find that guests usually ask if they can bring anything. I don't generally take people up on this (too control freak about the menu), but it's important to keep in mind that most people offer out of a sense of politeness....they don't usually want to make anything - you're the one throwing the dinner party. ;) BUT, if you want to throw a potluck dinner party, there's nothing wrong with that, just make sure it's something that works with that particular group of people (and let them know it's potluck when you invite them...not after they've already accepted!).

Step 3: Theme? Nobody told ME about any theme.
Aside from cooking, I find this to be the most time-consuming step. I like to start with a theme - usually something pretty simple - like 'harvest' or 'fiesta' or whatever. It's just nice to have a certain tone for the whole evening - I mean, I'm all for fusion, but for the home cook, it just works well to have one simple idea that guides you through your menu selection.

So the dinner party I had on Saturday, I decided on a harvest theme. It's fall, it's a little clichéd, but it also means that you've got seasonal, inexpensive ingredients (like throwing a tropical feast in January would be exorbitantly expensive, but totally reasonable to throw the same feast in June). Making use of local ingredients when they are at their peak is always a great idea.

I like browsing through recipe websites to find recipes and get ideas (my favourites are and ).

That said, the whole theme idea can be a little intimidating if you're not so comfortable in the kitchen. But there's a little secret here - you don't have to make everything from scratch. If you want to, totally cool. But if you're not so sure, there are SO many high-quality premade items out there that you could draft your menu, toss the packaging and no one need be the wiser.

*cough* Not that I've done that. *cough* hehe

But a theme is great to help make a menu that is tasty and memorable.

Step 4: many courses do I have to make?

There's no rule here. BUT, keep in mind that a dinner that lasts a longer time is easier on the stomach, makes for more drawn out conversations, and sets a relaxed pace for the evening. Sure, you can set everything up buffet style as soon as people arrive, but I'm more wont to have all the courses spaced out so I can make sure that people don't end up too full.

Here's what I like to do:

4a) The appetizer - This should be something relatively light that you can have available as people are arriving. Try to avoid using bread (people get too full!) and it's nice to have two light, simple things (that way if people don't like one, they can munch on the other). Veggies and dip is a classic that everyone loves. A little cheese and crackers is nice. Or a hot dip. Or shrimp with cocktail sauce. Or little purchased hors d'oeuvres (you can make them too, but they are often more labour-intensive than the meal itself). It's just nice so people have a little something to munch on while you're greeting other guests, offering drinks, etc.

For my harvest theme, I made a garlic thyme cheese dip with crackers (added some crab to it), and phyllo-wrapped parsnips with a very mild curry sour cream.

garlic thyme dip with crab

phyllo-wrapped parsnips with curry dip

4b) The soup - I like serving soup. I like making soup. People like soup too. I always serve some sort of soup at a dinner party - it's fabulous because it's made in advance, and can heat slowly while people munch on appies.

For my harvest theme, I went with a roasted squash soup. I've made this one before and it is FANTASTIC. I use buttercup squash. You should too.
roasted squash soup with cinnamon cream

4c) The salad - ditto on salad. You can mix it up so it fits your theme (like mandarin sections and sesame seeds for an oriental theme, bocconcini and basil for an italian theme, etc.). Chop it in advance, make your dressing in advance, and all you have to do is plate it.

For the harvest-themed dinner party, I made a salad of baby greens topped with apples and toasted walnuts, and a homemade cranberry balsamic dressing.
salad time

4d) Main course - This is a given. It can be as simple as a frozen lasagna (though you should totally try making your own - it's not hard and so tasty!), or involve complicated scary things like soufflé. Whatevs. You can serve this with bread too (or have all the bread on the table). I don't usually serve bread because again, I find people get too full!

I opted for balsamic-fig-topped chicken (yes, I know it's a recipe for pork...I used chicken, and just seared it then baked it and made the sauce in advance), individual cauliflower gratins (a HUGE hit - I skipped the horseradish crumbs and just sprinkled seasoned breadcrumbs) and roasted sweet potatoes (cube potatoes, toss in olive oil, garlic, salt and rosemary and bake on a silpat at 400 for 90 minutes, tossing every 20 minutes or so). This was tasty for my harvest theme. :)

chicken with balsamic fig sauce, cauliflower gratin, roasted sweet potatoes

4e) Dessert, coffee and tea. This part is super easy - there are tons of places where you can get amazing pre-made desserts. Or perhaps there's some sort of cake/cupcakes you've been wanting to try out. Keep it small though and serve with coffee and/or tea.

I didn't want to make an apple dessert (because I was already using apples in the salad), so I went for peaches. It turns out it's a little bit past peach season, but I made do with what I could find. I took this strawberry tart recipe that I've made before, and made mini tarts instead (doubled the crust recipe, and made a bit extra pastry cream). Topped with sliced peaches, and then glazed with melted apricot jam (to keep peaches from turning brown). Made the shells the night before, made the pastry cream the night before and just assembled it late on the Saturday afternoon).
the remnants of the harvest peach tarts

Step 5 - So how do I put this together and not spend the whole night in the kitchen?

This is the MOST important step of all. When you go to a restaurant, they've got like half a dozen people slaving away in the kitchen so your food comes out fresh and perfect. Unless you're way richer than most of us, you're not going to have this for a dinner party. And it totally sucks when you're hosting a dinner party, and all your guests are having a blast chatting it up in the kitchen and you can't even participate because you've got so much cooking to do.

You really don't want this.

So.....while you can get all pre-made stuff so you don't have to cook at all, I know that's not my preference. I like to make my own stuff. I like to chat with guests. And these two things are absolutely NOT mutually exclusive.

The trick?

Make it all up in advance. There are TONS of recipes that can be easily altered so you're not spending all your time in the kitchen. For example, a lot of meat recipes call for your meat to be seared, magically kept warm without drying out, and then for you to make some magnificent sauce at the last minute.

Guess what. You can make the sauce (without browning the meat) in advance in a little pot. So all you have to do is cook the meat and you're done. Soups can almost always be made the day before. Salads can be pre-chopped. Cakes can be made.

What you need to do is go over your menu. Make a list of all the things that have to be made (from salad dressing, to toasting nuts, to some sort of drizzle for dessert). List them all out. And then see what you can make in advance. I usually start on the Friday night - I will make the soup, make pastry/dessert. And then finish the remainder of the items on Saturday morning/afternoon.

That way, by the time my guests knock on the door on Saturday evening, I've got EVERYTHING done. It's just a question of heating things in the oven, on the stove, or just assembling them and plating them. This is the way to go. Give yourself the time and it will all come together, and leave you with a worry-free evening.

Step 6 - People are coming. What else do I need to do?

So you've got the menu, most of the food is this is what you need to do to make sure your house is ready for guests..

- clean up. We're not talking about white-glove-inspection clean. Just tidy up - pick up your stuff, sweep/vacuum. Make it look neat and tidy. Make sure your kitchen is clean (I know I wouldn't be too enthused about food coming from a filthy kitchen).

- do a bathroom check - after you've cleaned it, clear off the counters. Make sure there is soap, a clean hand towel, and a little spray just in case (it's SO embarrassing if you've got to *go* at someone's house and there's someone who uses the bathroom right after if you can provide a little spray, that's always a good thing

- set the table. I like to set a slightly more formal table, so I start out with (from left to right) - salad fork, dinner fork (both on a cloth napkin), dinner plate, soup spoon, knife. Above the plate you've got a wine glass and a water glass. You can also have the little fork and spoon for dessert/coffee if there's room on the table. Make sure the salt and pepper are there. I like to buy flowers to make some sort of centrepiece (actually, I usually buy a small bouquet and divvy it up into a few different vases for a cheap but modern look. I'm all about the cheap.

I bought a cheap bouquet of orange gerbs and disseminated it throughout my living room....three on the dining table:

One on the coffee table:
it's amazing what you can do with $10 worth of flowers!

One precariously balanced on top of the piano:
another gerb

And even one in the bathroom for good measure...

- put some music on. It's not cool to leave the TV on during dinner. So don't do this (unless you are less cheap than I am and actually have those cool channels that do nothing but play music). But it's nice to put on some tunes - they can compliment your theme, or just be an eclectic mix of your favourites.

- drinks - I usually serve wine with dinner, but it's also good to have a selection of other drinks - some pop (diet and non), beer, juice, etc. You never know when someone is expecting, or can't/doesn't drink. Always good to plan ahead. If you're feeling daring, take a stab at matching your food with your wines (there are some sites out there to help you - and, just for a small sample.

- if you've got a dishwasher (I would totally die without one), make sure it's empty. If you can at least fit the dishes from the first couple of courses in there, it makes for a lot easier cleanup - I just clear the table and put the dishes straight into an open dishwasher.

A few particularities:
- Shoes on/shoes off. It's your house - you make the rules about whether shoes are or are not welcome. Personally, I'm a Canadian, so it's generally shoes off. But it's also technically rude to ask people to remove their shoes (apparently them stomping all over new carpets in muddy shoes is more acceptable). Anyway, you make the rules, but use your judgement. I know I have hardwood/ceramic on the whole main floor of my house, so I can live with someone keeping their shoes on (though no stilettos, please!). But if you have light coloured carpet and it's icky out....use your judgement. :) I never even knew this was an issue. If you're a guest and you've found the perfect shoes to go with your outfit....clean off the soles, wear another pair of shoes over and change at the door.

- Condiments. Generally try to offer an array of condiments for people when the situation merits. Some people like to drown everything in ketchup. And this can be insulting. But don't waste your time being insulted - the kind of person who douses their food likely wouldn't have the kind of palate that can appreciate your tasty cooking anyway. But it is a good idea to look into the different kinds of condiments that people like to use - for roast beef, a lot of people like to use horseradish. I know that I grew up having mustard with my ham. Some people like to put mayo on their burgers (or fries). There are all kinds of norms, so just go with the flow if a guest asks for a condiment - if you've got it, bring it on out. Condiments are like a security blanket for some people - you can't fight it.

Step 7: But I don't have any silver platters.....(serving)

I remember when I hosted my first thanksgiving dinner. I was pretty nervous - just out of school, had never cooked a turkey (or any roast) before and hubs' (except he wasn't hubs then) parents were coming. And as soon as I finished cooking everything, I realized that the only thing I could serve it all in were these butt-ugly cheap white plastic bowls. Nice. At least it went well with the folding chairs and 80s era laminate table. CLASSY.

But you know what - no one complained, the sky didn't fall and it was totally fine. I've got a lot more serveware now and I can actually pick which platter/bowl I want to use. But use what you have.

That said, it's still important to consider how you're going to be serving the meal. I personally like to go the more formal route and plate things in the kitchen (so each plate looks the same and has the same visual appeal). But it depends on your menu. If you're doing a classic meat-potatoes and vegetable (MPV) meal, this works fine. But if you're doing a selection of curries, or making tacos, or something like that, you need to rethink a little. You can serve straight from the stove-top (done this - it's a little casual but still works), you can move everything into nice bowls and serve family style at the table. You can set up a buffet somewhere. Just think it through in advance so that when the time comes, you're not scrambling for a bowl that is full of salad dressing, or wishing for a platter that's holding the remnants of your appetizers. (This is why plating is nice - no need for extra serveware! Plus, it looks fancy!).

All in all, planning a dinner party doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as simple as picking up a platter of hors d'oeuvres, a pre-made salad, a couple of containers of soup, a frozen entrée and a dessert from your favourite bakery. Or you can make it as complicated as you want. The important thing is spending time chatting, catching up with friends and enjoying yourself. So give it a try. :)

Thanks for reading!!!!!!!!!


Anonymous said...

Can I come to your dinner parties? hehe

We're having a larger, welcome home party for some friends (14 people) in a couple of weeks and I have to say you've made me re-think a few items on the menu :)

Thanks for all the time and effort you put into that post... really really helpful!

Oh... can you link us to the parsnips phyllo recipe... I have both ingredients in my fridge and don't know what to do with either!

-first_2b_aBride from WB

Deborah said...

What a great post!! Although I don't think I'll ever throw a dinner party like this, (unfortunately, my husband is not the "dinner party" type), if I'm ever in Canada, I sure hope you'll be throwing a party!!

annes said...

Love this post!

Anonymous said...

My guess is no one you invite over for dinner ever declines!
I have wanted to throw a dinner party for a long time. Now that we have a house I am just itching to invite some friends or family over...but it's just a little scary cooking for people other than Hubs! Your post really helped though and I might just try your exact menu out on my parents and bros!
Loved your post! I am a long-time reader and have tried lots of your recipes which have always been tasty!

MarjoB from WB

Anonymous said...

have you put this forth as an article idea for the H! magazine... you totally should!

Dolores said...

And thank YOU for sharing.

I grew up in a "dinner party every Saturday night" household so I don't understand my generation's fear of entertaining. But I found your tips both informative and amusing.

Inquiring minds want to know though (and both Google and Wikipedia come up blank): What IS KD Nation? Is it going to make me feel old? :)

Anonymous said...

As always, such a great post!! Thank you for this! Will definitely try it out soon! :)

Jenny said...

Well done Leslie!
What a great compilation of information, with great pictures!
And with Thanksgiving not that far away, great timing too.

Anonymous said...

What an excellent, helpful post! And yes, please, do share the parsnip phyllo recipe!

- Lannen from WB

Anonymous said...

Hey Leslie - welcome back! I read your blog at work (when I'm not busy of course..) and love your entries. I'm heading into married/domestic life in October and will definitely be using some of your ideas. One idea for your "shoes on/off" dilema, buy some of those cheap little "Chinese" style slippers and put them out in a cute basket or something. You can usually find bins of them in your local "Little Italy!". (I'm marrying an Italian - I've learned these things!!!).

-Kimberley from T.O.

Anonymous said...

Your article totally makes me want to have a dinner party!
Your ideas are inspiring without being intimidating.
I wish I was one of your lucky friends who got invited over for your delicious looking dinner party.
BTW..I love your blog!

Brilynn said...

Seriously, when's the next one? I'm there... I just made butternut squash soup tonight, so good.

Christie said...

Wow! Great article!! Our dinner parties tend to be pizza parties - Chicago Deep Dish Pizza to be exact (hubby has near perfected his recipe) - but his gives me a few thoughts re: appetizers and decorating. :)

Anonymous said...

I love having dinner parties but we moved in the spring & unfortunately this apt doesn't have room for our lovely big table that easily seats six..... sigh. Our current table is somewhat squishy for 4! Love all your tips. I'm all for making as much ahead as I can - I hate missing out on the fun!

~ Ginelle (from WB)

Peter M said...

A great read and it's very timely as I'll be hosting soon...Thanks!

Anonymous said...

You're my hero:) That was an incredibly helpful post. I love the idea of having dinner parties but I'm definitely trepidatious. Now I can have you guys over for dinner with far less anxiety, in fact pick a weekend in the next two months (seriously:) ). I have to survive *my* first Thanksgiving (his parents meet my parents, I hide under the table due to dinner-party-inadequacy feelings) first though. Thank goodness my guy is far more adept in the kitchen than I am. Take care my dear and hugs for you and yours. Liz

Helene said...

Great post ! Your photography always makes me feel good!

Pille said...

Came to look for your cinnamon rolls/sticky buns post, but found another great article to read instead. Thank you!

Almost Vegetarian said...

That is the best primer I have ever read on how to give a party, bar none.

Now, the next question is, which recipe is the best? I've been debating between the soup and the tart ... soup ... tart. Hmmm, tough one.

I think I'll go with the roasted squash soup. Then, tomorrow, the lovely tart!


Anonymous said...

Great post, thanks for putting in the effort. I think I will make the squash soup with the extra squash I have left over.

Marlene said...

I was in charge of bringing a salad to T-giving dinner on Sunday and I made the salad in this post... it was SO FREAKING YUMMY and a huge hit!

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant! Such a wonderful breakdown of what can be a rewarding, but daunting task.

I was particularly taken by your shoes on/off conundrum - after living in Canada for two years I got used to being asked to remove them (never occurred to me back in Pennsylvania) but I always kind of left it up to my guests to decide. Hopefully the rack of muddy boots by the door will give sufficient clue!

Monika K said...

Fantastic post - glad I just happened to find it! This info was totally helpful - I entertain all the time but tend to overdo it. It sounds like time management is the key to all my problems...(-:

AshleyHami said...

Wow - excellent post, thanks for sharing all the fab tips and your experiences!

Anonymous said...

"What IS KD Nation?"
As another Canadian I think it stands for Kraft Dinner Nation which we all grew up on. (Same as Kraft Mac & Cheese I think.)


Anonymous said...

Great post! I just through my first dinner party last weekend, and while I started out as a nervous wreck it was a smashing success.
One little thing to add - candles in the bathroom. My mom always did this and now I always light candles in the bathroom when my guest are coming over. Keeps smells under control and helps them find the lightswitch!

Aneesa said...

Hi - I'm not sure if you'll get this in time but I read your post and it was really helpful! I'm having my first "formal" dinner party tomorrow evening and I want things to go smoothly. I want to do a plated dinner instead of buffet but I'm not sure of the logistics of it all. Do I set the table with the plates and then bring them back into the kitchen when I'm ready to serve or do I just set the table with silverware and drinking glasses and bring out the plates as we go?


Unknown said...

Very useful and gives one confidence but think the type of guest may influence the style as I found at Thanks for your ideas and thoughts - very good. Maybe the food should be tailored to the type of guest as I found at

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know a good computer program or application that will keep a journal of my dinner parties - who attended, what was served, special likes and dislikes, the conversation, etc., etc. I hate realizing I served the same dinner to someone last time they came. I would like to keep a record of all the parties I do, and then be able to look back to what I served. There must be some good computer programs out there.
"Hate to Repeat"

Sunehra Koshy said...

Oh my God I just loved your post! Its quite reassuring that Im not the only one who gets insanely obsessed with throwing the perfect do. I really find that the best way to host a party and enjoy it too, is to make as many baked dishes as you can. This way it just sits in the oven while you participate in the witty banter. Recently I was at a bash where I saw some really cool ice cubes in my drink. I blogged about it. Drop by for a read.

Chrisharmen said...

That was such an amazing post! I loved your writings and your style to present your dinner party. That was lovely.

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