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How to Prep a Dinner Party in Advance

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: What you can (and should) do in advance of your dinner party.

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In a perfect world, you'd never scramble the day of a dinner party. Dressed and calm, you'd welcome guests with appetizers and a cocktail. The food would be heating up and music would be playing. You'd certainly not be standing in a towel in your bedroom with wet hair, trying to remember where you put the wine. 

To achieve the ideal dinner party scenario, you simply need some advance preparation. Armed with a few tips, you can stay organized and plan a stress-free party—and a happy host means happy guests. Here's what to get out of the way before guests arrive:

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The Week Before:

Practice the menu:

Though some brave souls like auditioning new recipes for company, I suggest doing a run-through of your meal ahead of time. A dinner party isn’t the best time to try a recipe you’ve never made (unless you really like an element of surprise). If you’re inspired and excited to try something new, make it at least once first, or better yet, choose a tried-and-true menu that you’re comfortable with. 

Cook what you can ahead of time:

The simplest way to prepare for a party is to choose dishes you can make in advance. Breads and baked goods can be made at least a day before, or weeks in advance and frozen. I like making foods that improve over time: Braises, roasts, kale salads, and some pastas all fall into this category. Some perfect make-ahead menus: braised chicken thighs, kale salad, and coconut cream pie, or sweet and savory overnight pork, roasted vegetable and barley salad, and olive oil cake.

More: Get Alice Medrich's tips on freezing baked goods.

The Day Before:

Prepare ingredients:

If you have dishes that won't rest well (like a rack of lamb or risotto), don’t assume you can’t prepare ahead of time. Do any mise en place—chopping vegetables or measuring out ingredients—the day before or the morning of to save time during cooking.

Rehearse the drinks:

It’s easy to focus on the food and forget about the flow of drinks. If you have a self-serve bar or you’re passing around wine, pay attention to quantity and plan ahead so you have all needs covered: Get ice, make sure you know where your corkscrew and shaker are, remind guests who are bringing drinks to actually bring them. Then, duing the party, you just have to restock. These seem like small details but are worth planning out in advance so everyone is happy, with a drink in hand all evening. And during the party, if you’re filling glasses as the host, make sure you don’t forget to keep doing so during dinner.

Decorate:

Cutting and arranging flowers always takes longer than I think it will. Fortunately, fresh flowers will last, so buy them and put them out the day before. The same goes for any other decorations: Place cards, candles, and lights can be organized a day in advance.

Set the table:

It’s easy to do in advance and will save you time, plus it will help you remember if you’re missing anything like knives or napkins.  

More: Feeling fancy? Make your own marbled place cards.

The Day of:

Lay out your dishes:

Avoid rooting around in your cabinets for serving spoons or platters at the last minute. Organize in advance: Go through each dish and locate what you’ll serve it in and what utensils you’ll need. 

Make a batch of drinks:

If you’re planning to serve cocktails, make them ahead of time. Drinks are often left to the last minute, and it’s nice to welcome people with a cocktail so that you can focus on finishing up with the food. Punch and spirit-only cocktails are good candidates, so brush up on how to do it.

Get dressed!

In the flurry of cooking and preparation, I always leave getting dressed to the last minute. Prepare for early guests by getting ready at least an hour before a party is scheduled to begin. I’ve found myself frantically applying mascara in the bathroom with guests in my living room more than once, and it starts the evening on a stressed and frenzied note. 

When guests arrive, you'll be ready to participate in the party, instead of rushing around the kitchen looking for enough silverware. That, we think, is the ultimate party.

Tell us, how do you plan ahead for a party?

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: entertaining, parties, dinner parties