People just don’t throw dinner parties like they used to and I think it’s really sad. It doesn’t have to be hard work and, if you’re inviting friends, they are often very forgiving of (or even endeared by!) the occasional faux pas throughout the evening.
I plan my dinner parties like mini projects, and these are my top 10 organisational tips:
- The occasion/theme – People are more inclined to accept a dinner party invitation if it’s for something, such as a birthday, anniversary or a big promotion. Even if the occasion is ‘just because’, you can invent a theme – a black tie event, a board games night. In my experience, even the biggest whingers love an excuse to dress up.
- The budget – Set it realistically. With tolerance levels. Revise it at every step along the way.
- The guest list – How many guests? Who? Given the prevalence of different diets/allergies, this will determine the food to some extent (but it can be fun to embrace the challenge of cooking an entire meal to suit a food preference/issue!). I like to stick to inviting either established groups of friends or a mix of people who share some similar interests. [Note: similar interests = small-scale common ground. Putting a staunch Catholic and a Satanist in the same room and encouraging them to talk about religion is probably not the best idea.]
- The invitations – You don’t have to assemble professional-looking invitation cards for the event to be well-patroned. A short note, email or a phone call may do. SMS is just too impersonal. Keep a list of those you invite vs RSVPs – and always set an RSVP date for catering purposes. You may also want to confirm event details via email closer to the date.
- The running order – Even when there is no running order, there is a running order. Best that you control it by:
- Determining whether (and where) to have pre-dinner drinks, eg. standing in the lounge, sitting outside, at the dining table?
- Decide on the number of courses you want to serve and how they are timed.
- Stand up (cocktail-style) meal vs sit-down.
- If it’s a group of people who don’t normally associate, think of some topics to raise in order to encourage conversation around the table.
- Choose your activities. It’s ok to sit around and talk, but did you want to do anything else? Like board games or karaoke? Maybe I am saying too much here…
- The food – Food allergies and special diets aside, I recommend not serving the same meat/major food element in more than one course. I also recommend ensuring that only one course (if any) requires major effort while your guests are present; you are the host, and spending all your time in the kitchen means not spending time with them. Precooking or at least pre-preparing dishes for oven or barbecue cooking is a good way to go. I recommend a number of sites for food/menu ideas, including: Gourmet Traveller, Chow and Bitchen…in the kitchen – or just google “dinner party ideas” and thousands of ideas will flood your screen. You could even write up a menu to increase the sense of occasion and anticipation. For me, a menu also ensures I don’t forget to serve any of the dishes I have prepared.
- The beverages – If it’s an intimate group of friends, you might purchase a few special bottles, but that gets expensive as the numbers creep up. Now may be the time to taste-test the cleanskins at your local bottleshop, or to take advantage of that special on Coronas. Quite often, guests will bring a bottle with them – or you can suggest it if they ask what to bring. If you’re serving cocktails, you could ask each guest to bring a different, predetermined bottle of spirits while you provide the glasses and mixers. A non-alcoholic punch can be a real crowd pleaser if it complements the meal.
>For a summery mocktail, try mixing a large tin of Golden Circle tropical fruit punch with 2L lemonade, a can of coconut cream and some mandarin segments frozen into iceblocks with a mint leaf [of course, you could always throw in a bottle of vodka…].
- The decor – Think of elements such as colours, the table covering, place settings, table centrepiece, lighting/candles, crockery, cutlery, glassware. Do you have enough knives and forks for each course?
- The music – Try to identify music that is likely to appeal to (or at least not offend) all guests. My post of 21 March includes a few ideas.
- After the event –
- The end of the evening – Will you give guests a take-home gift (eg. home-made goodies, such as biscuits or chocolates in petite boxes)? Will you walk them to the front door, or their car? Will you sing a verse from the Sound of Music’s ‘So Long, Farewell’ every time someone approaches the door to leave? Think about the time you take and how the farewell affects the rest of your guests. Kitsch can be cute and memorable – or it can be scary.
- The days to follow – A thank you note, card or sms with a personal reminder from the evening, received within a week of the event, can go a long way to creating a lasting and positive impression in your guests’ minds.
Like I said, this is the nutshell version of what works for me but it may not be a winning formula for everyone. So, what do you think? Have I missed anything, or got something completely wrong? Let me know – I would love to hear from you!