When I imagine hosting a dinner party, I picture myself in a fabulous dress, toting a perfectly made, ice-cold martini as I float around my dining table. My friends and I revel into the wee hours of the morning, and when I wake up the next day, my Instagram feed is filled with dazzling photos from the evening, captioned with effusive praises for my hosting abilities. (I’m also not hungover and my kitchen is magically clean.)When I *actually* host a dinner party, I’m more likely to be found sweating over a stove as I try to eavesdrop on conversations to make sure everyone’s getting along, and I keep hitting “skip” on the random Spotify playlist I chose at the last minute. I’m lucky if I don’t fall asleep face-first in the dessert.In an effort to find some sort of middle ground between my fantasy and reality, I asked experts — including chefs, cookbook authors, and influencers in the entertaining space — for their best dinner party tips… you know, beyond the basics of considering dietary restrictions and remembering where the salad fork goes. (P.S. The world will not end if you skip salad forks entirely.)
Whether you’re hosting a tight-knit friend group, a holiday dinner for your family, or a mishmash of people from different parts of your life, these tips will help to ensure everyone has a great time — yourself included.
1. Throw A Low-Key Theme Party
— SolStock/E+/Getty ImagesYou don’t need to dress in costume and fill your menu with punnily named dishes, but having some semblance of cohesiveness can elevate the evening from “eating food with people I know” to “legit dinner party.”“With every aesthetic, culinary, and music decision, you establish the vibe,” says Stephanie Nass, the caterer, designer, and founder behind home entertaining brand Chefanie. “For example, if you’re going for a cozy vibe, go with browns instead of neons; soup instead of sushi; Norah Jones instead of Benny Benassi.”Of course, if you want to go all-out with your theme, you certainly can. “[Select] an artist who has a large body of work, pick an album, and [base] all of the dishes on that album,” suggests Carla Hall, a chef and Food Network regular. “I would love Prince’s Purple Rain because I would want everybody to choose something purple.” Or, Hall says, you could assign guests different TikTok-famous recipes (like baked feta pasta or butter boards) to try out.Bonus points if you like to keep people on their toes: Pick out a handful of recipe videos, assign two guests to each video, and have them go head-to-head to see whose dish turned out better — you’ll be in for a night of taste-testing and friendly competitions.
2. Seriously, Don’t Procrastinate
“Plan the menu as soon as you decide you’re hosting,” Nass says. “If you need speciality ingredients, source them early on. Dry goods and alcohol can be purchased as far out as you want. Produce can be purchased three to four days before the event. Meats, fish, and flowers should be purchased the day of or day before. Bread must be fresh-fresh.”
A huge reason you should get a head start is so you can figure out your budget. “When I’m budgeting, I always [start with the] highest-cost item, which will be the protein,” says chef, cookbook author, and TV host Adrianne Calvo. From there, you know how much money you have left to spend on sides, dessert, drinks, and decor.
3. Invitations Are Still A Thing
“The invitation sets up the anticipation of what’s going to happen,” Hall says. But it doesn’t have to be a formal, paper invitation sent by snail mail; if your party isn’t especially fancy, a digital invitation or even a text will suffice. This will clue guests in on what time to show up, when you expect it to end, and — if you send an Evite, Paperless Post, mass email, or group text — who’s coming.
4. Try These Hacks For Chilling Your Wine
— Maria Korneeva/Moment/Getty ImagesNobody wants to drink room-temperature wine. (Yes, that goes for reds, too.) “If you’re in a pinch, take a paper towel and wet it with cold water. Squeeze out the excess, wrap it around the bottle, and pop it in the freezer. It [will be] chilled in five minutes,” says Ayesha Curry, who was inspired to co-found a wine brand after giving a toast at her mom’s birthday dinner. (She and her sister-in-law Sydel Curry-Lee launched Domaine Curry, a Prisoner Wine Company portfolio label, in 2018.)“With Champagne, to keep it colder longer, put a little bit of salt in the ice bucket with the ice,” Curry says. There's a lot of science involved in this tip, but the gist is, as Curry puts it: “It tends to keep everything nice and cold and perfect.” Cheers!
5. Serve Guests A Little Treat Upon Arrival
Set the tone from the moment people walk in. “Pour them a drink, invite them to relax,” says Dan Pelosi, food influencer (better known as @grossypelosi) and author of the cookbook Let’s Eat. If the idea of hors d'oeuvres sounds fussy and stressful, relax — they’re just snacks. Try a simple cheese plate with charcuterie, fruit, or nuts.
6. Don’t Sleep On Casseroles
So many pros sang praises for casseroles, largely because they’re easy to customize based on your guests’ dietary needs. You can make them meatless, vegan, gluten- or dairy-free — or all of the above if you have a big crowd. They’re also easy to prep ahead of time; the oven will take care of the rest.“The hour before you’re having people over, you just want to be lighting candles and finessing the books on your bookshelf and doing your makeup and just relaxing,” Pelosi says. Casseroles let you do just that. “Also, walking into a house where something's in the oven and the whole house smells like it is a total dream.”Of the casseroles recommended by these experts, one reigned supreme: lasagna. (And yes, lasagna is a casserole; this is not a hot dog-sandwich debate.)
7. Serve Your Meal Family-Style“
Sending out [individually plated food] is out of style now,” Calvo says. Instead, she recommends setting out all the food in serving dishes and letting guests help themselves. It removes the host’s responsibility of portioning out food and timing when each course is served. Plus, it makes it a lot easier for guests to eat enough of what they want and discreetly skip the stuff they don’t.
8. Let People Sit Where They Want — With Some Rules
— FilippoBacci/E+/Getty Images
“I don’t usually assign seating,” Pelosi says. “I think it’s a little bit presumptuous [to assume] you have that much power in the world.” He does, however, encourage guests to switch seats multiple times during the party. “I love to just be like, OK, now’s a good time for you guys to mingle while I’m working on the next course.”Hall also has a trick to facilitate bonding among guests. “You can talk about anything else, but you can’t talk about what you do,” she says. “Once somebody talks about what they do as a job, [there are] a lot of assumptions, [and] what you do for a living isn't actually who you are.” It’s a party, not a networking event.
9. Make It A Group Effort
Whoever said potlucks were out of style was seriously disturbed. According to our pros, asking your guests to bring a dish not only takes the burden off you as the host, but also ensures they have at least one thing they like to eat.If you’re worried about ending up with three different salads and zero desserts — or you want to ensure all the flavors mesh well together — you can assign a specific dish, or general type of dish, for each guest to bring. (Those less culinarily-inclined can bring wine, ice, and other supplies.)
10. Don’t Forget Your Garnishes
Want an easy way to make your dishes look impressive (yes, even if they’re store-bought)? Accessorize. “Garnish your cocktail, garnish your dishes in whatever form — whether it’s edible flowers, fresh herbs, or whatnot,” Calvo says. “That’s the attention to detail. That’s the finesse right there.” Citrus rinds, nuts, and breadcrumbs work, too.
11. Throwback Playlists Never Fail
Music plays a big role in the overall vibe of your evening, so don’t just pick a random Spotify playlist and hope for the best. If you have a specific theme, go with something that fits.If not, throwbacks are almost always crowd-pleasers. “Once people have a couple of drinks in them and the conversations get a little bit better and people feel more comfortable, I love to do throwbacks,” Calvo says. “Like, we’re going to play ’90s, early 2000s music. I don’t know if it’s because people start to remember their college days — I don’t know what happens — but it's always a great time.”
12. Chill TF Out
The most overwhelmingly common piece of advice from these experts might be the easiest said, but hardest done: Enjoy your party.“Entertaining is not about running an episode of The Bear in front of your friends,” Pelosi says. “The most important way to get people to relax and feel comfortable when they come to your house for a dinner party is for you to feel relaxed and comfortable.”Calvo agrees. “If the host is having a good time, that’s going to be contagious.”Sources: Stephanie Nass, caterer, designer, founder of ChefanieCarla Hall, chefAdrianne Calvo, chef, cookbook author, and TV host Ayesha Curry, co-founder of Domaine Curry, cooking expert, author, actorDan Pelosi, food influencer, author