Eating out can be expensive. Eating at home is less costly, but you must put the time and effort into making it happen. Entertaining at home might involve having the relatives over for a holiday meal, getting the neighbors together or inviting your spin class friends.
Wonder why people don’t do more of these dinners? Because most people think they are hard to pull off. But they can be easier than you think.
You will be concerned with four aspects of the meal: inviting people, setting the stage, drinks beforehand and the meal itself. This article explains the basics, but you might find this book useful: Brunch Is Hell: How To Save The World By Throwing A Dinner Party by Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam.
Your objective is to get people to commit and show up at the appointed time. Assuming your dinner party has six guests total, you and your spouse or partner are probably inviting two other couples.
Casual verbal invites like “We’re having some people over the Friday after next …” are problematic because people are busy. They forget things. An email extending an invitation is fine. Texts work, too. Written notes have staying power because they can be clipped to the refrigerator as a reminder.
Specify the date, time and place. Ask for RSVPs, because you want confirmation people are coming. Include your address and contact information.
When your guests confirm, ask if they have any dietary restrictions. Since they are your friends, you will likely know the answer already, but it’s best to double-check. This can be an issue if a friend is bringing a date you’ve never met.
Although people have calendar features on their smartphones, it’s best to send a reminder a day in advance. People forget stuff.
Setting The Stage
Your objective is to make your guests comfortable. Let’s assume the format you’re going with is drinks at 7 p.m., dinner at 8 p.m. You will need someplace to sit guests for drinks beforehand and a table with chairs for the meal itself.
You have questions: Why not go directly the table and start eating? Because it feels too much like walking into a college classroom and starting to take notes. Why not sit on my sofa and eat the meal there? It’s awkward. People drop food. There’s not enough elbow room.
Here are some logistics. You will need the following:
1. Table and chairs. You no doubt own them.
2. Tablecloth or placemats. If you don’t own them, borrow. Placemats are easier than a tablecloth. If you use a tablecloth, go with a solid color. White is good.
3. Napkins. They should be large and a solid color. If you don’t have them already, a home furnishings store such as Crate and Barrel, Pottery Barn or Williams Sonoma should carry them.
4. Flatware. Knives, forks, spoons. You’ve likely got these.
5. Glassware. You’ll want water glasses and wine glasses. Go for two wine glasses per person. For an impressive dinner party, the glasses should be clear, without decoration.
6. Plates. The standard sizes, in ascending order, are bread, salad and dinner plates. You will probably use the salad plates for the first course, dinner plates for the second and the rewashed salad plates for dessert.
Here’s one additional thought: Go for candlelight. It makes everyone look better.
Sound simple so far? Good. This next part is pretty easy, too. As the host, your objective now is to get your guests comfortable without running around refilling glasses and preparing complicated hors d’oeuvres. If you are stressed, your guests will be stressed.
Stick to wine, beer and soft drinks. Offering cocktails and mixed drinks increases the work load exponentially. With six people sitting around in a group, mention your drink selections and ask your guests what they would like. Deliver their first drink personally. Let them know they’re on their own for refills. Another strategy is to set the popular bottles on the table, sitting on coasters. You can often make sparkling water the non-alcoholic alternative, eliminating soda.
What will you feed everyone that’s easy to prepare? Salsa and chips aren’t really dinner party food. Olives and nuts are easy. Open the containers and pour into separate dishes. A cheese board looks good and goes over well. Three cheeses with grapes, dried apricots and walnuts will look spectacular. You’ll need sliced French bread or crackers, too.
Obviously, you will need cocktail napkins. Paper is fine. You’ll need glassware in addition to what is set up on the dining table. Small plates are good. You’ll want knives for the cheese tray.
You’ll also want background music. Picking something soothing and instrumental sets an elegant tone. Music can become livelier as the evening draws to a close. Avoid vocals, since they compete with conversation at the table.
The Meal Itself
So far, so good. Everyone is having a good time over drinks. What have you decided to feed them? Your objective should be to prepare as much of the meal as possible beforehand. Here’s how you could make that happen.
The first course might be sliced smoked salmon. It’s very elegant. It can be prepared ahead of time. You lay a few slices across each salad plate you are using for the first course. IKEA produces a mustard and dill sauce that’s excellent. Put a dollop on the side. Buy some thinly sliced brown bread, cut into triangles and add them to the plate. Serve with a white wine. It’s difficult to go wrong with chardonnay. Clear the dishes away when people have finished the first course. Discreetly wash the plates in the kitchen. They’ll be used for dessert. Wash the cutlery, too.
On to your main course. This is the one you’ve cooked. It’s served warm. It doesn’t get much easier than beef stew, done in a slow cooker. Not impressive enough? Use a recipe for beef bourguignon. Serve over mashed potatoes. It’s a one-pot dish, because the vegetables are all in there.
At the other end of the spectrum is beef tenderloin. It’s the expensive cut associated with filet mignon. Many recipes will tell you to pat it dry, season with salt and pepper, brown in a large frying pan and roast in the oven. This means it’s easy to do. You’ll want to serve it with potatoes and vegetables.
This means three or more items need to come out at the same time. These dishes call for red wine. Choose a cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir or merlot. Beef bourguignon ideally should be accompanied by a red Burgundy wine, a pinot noir. Refill water glasses constantly. You want your guests to get home safely.
Time for dessert. You bought this from a fancy bakery. It’s a showstopper, like a chocolate tart or fruit tart. It has the wow factor. You serve coffee afterwards. Moving your guests back to the sofa for coffee is smart. It gets them on their feet and initiates the mobilization process. If they settle in over wine and coffee with good music, they might stay all night.
That’s it! You’ve thrown your own dinner party. You’ve started a trend. You’re a leader, not a follower