In today’s economy, more of us are eating in than eating out. This suits me fine, as I love a crowd at the family dinner table — we’ve been known to squeeze as many as 14 people around our table for six. I enjoy having people in our home, whether it’s a Christmas party for 15 families in our home on five minutes’ notice and or a cocktail buffet for 45 after months of planning.
Our house is far from perfect; in fact there are several rooms that are somehow stalled in the redecoration process, but my guests aren’t coming for a home show. Don’t let that stop you from inviting friends into your home; just use what you do have creatively and focus on relationships and interaction more than the environment.
Here are my seven tips for lively, low-stress, fun dinner parties:
- The House Get it cleaned up and ready several days ahead of time. Then you can focus on food and table prep rather than dust and dirty toilets. Once it’s ready, walk out the front door, and walk back in as if you were visiting for the first time. It’s likely you’ll notice things you wouldn’t otherwise catch.
- Table Get it ready at least one or two days ahead. If you have more than one dining area, one table can be completely set up ahead of time. We use the kitchen table for appetizers, so I just stack the place settings near the table until it’s time to quickly set up.
- Food Get to know mise en place. Literally means put in place. Do all of the food prep such as measuring, chopping, slicing and peeling before you begin to cook. Depending on the ingredients, some of this can be done a day ahead. Not only does this save time the day of the party, it helps you get a head start on the prep dishes.
- Flow For a buffet, separate drinks from food to help with traffic flow. Serve from whatever space you have — I use the stovetop. For a sit-down dinner, Jim and I plate the food assembly-line style just before seating everyone so they don’t sit down to empty plates.
- Plan for Extras You never know when someone will bring an extra person. For a larger party, I typically plan for about 10 percent more than the number of invited guests and enjoy the leftovers if we don’t need the extra food.
- Relax There is no bigger party buzzkill than a stressed-out host. Your friends will remember the time with you more than the perfection of your house, the table or whether or not your sauce breaks. Keep it in perspective and don’t forget to enjoy the people.
- Cleanup is Not Part of the Party I never let my guests do dishes. The last thing they remember should be conversation and good times — not the remains of someone else’s plate. Clear an area where dishes can be quickly stacked, then take the focus off cleanup — move to another room or serve coffee or dessert. Think of clean-up time as a way to unwind after everyone leaves; pour one more glass of wine and attack the dishes after the party.