New & NowEntertainingSummerTips & Techniques

17 Tips for Throwing Your First (or Your First Painless) Dinner Party

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I am not an entertainer by any means. I do not own coasters or wine glasses and I'd rather spend a Saturday night figuring out what to do with my sourdough starter discard than playing hostess.

But when I do plan to invite a few friends over for a meal, and those friends have boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, or cousins that they want to bring... the group size skips from four to eight (or five to ten!)—and suddenly, I'm the planner and executor of a sizable gathering.

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Here are the tips—and questions—that have helped me stay sane as an entertaining non-entertainer:

The Menu

1. Plan your menu around your kitchen's constraints.

Do you have a small oven? Two burners, one of which is defunct? A kitchen that can only fit one person? No Dutch oven?

Read through all of the recipes you're considering a couple of days before the party in order to figure out the equipment that you're missing (what can you MacGyver, what can you borrow, what is a dealbreaker) and to conceive of how everything will fit, both literally and timing-wise.

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Then rejigger the menu accordingly. It gives me peace of mind to choose recipes with an even split of oven to stovetop to raw. That way, I'm not waiting around to use the oven—I can cook on the stove, or prepare a chopped salad—as one dish bakes. If you will be baking multiple recipes, try to choose the ones that go in at the same temperature (and that both fit in the oven at the same time!).

2. Embrace room temperature dishes, especially those that can sit for a while.

Unless there's some extremely compelling reason to serve a dish that has to be served piping hot or ice cold, I stay away. When you can serve the food at room temperature, you don't have to be as concerned about timing or storage, and you won't be squirreled away in the kitchen, doling out pasta that must be served immediately, while your friends wait at the table.

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3. Keep your friends' dietary restrictions and eating preferences in mind.

For me, the bottom line is that I want my friends and family to eat what I make when I'm hosting them. I'm a vegetarian and the menu is all-vegetarian—so that everyone can eat it—and I keep allergies and preferences in mind too (no nuts anywhere; my brother, what a weirdo, doesn't like berry desserts).

4. Make dessert ahead of time, particularly if it's temperature sensitive.

If you want to make ice cream or pie dough or any other summertime food that's heat-averse, make it well in advance, before you start heating up your workspace.

5. Go for a larger quantity of food rather than a larger variety.

Double the recipes you've already chosen rather than adding on something new: Everyone can take a normal-sized portion and your grocery list will not spiral out of control (or leave you with strange amounts of leftovers).

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6. Divide up the space and the labor.

If you have a partner-in-crime (or a guest asking how they can help), figure out how you can work together in a way that will be more helpful than stressful: One of you can set up a workstation at another table, outside of the kitchen, for example.

I find it easiest to divide up the recipes instead of the tasks within a recipe—you take the lasagna, I'll take the corn salad, for example. It also makes it more obvious as to who to blame when something doesn't turn out well. (Kidding.)

7. Pick out your serving dishes ahead of time.

These can be mixing bowls. These can be casserole dishes. These can be pie plates repurposed as shallow bowls. Serve in whatever pieces you have—just conceptualize what you want to use ahead of time to lessen stress.

8. Count backwards.

In order to figure out when to start your party preparation, add up how long it will take to make each recipe (and which can be made simultaneously) and what time your first guests will arrive and count backwards. Then give yourself an extra hour!

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9. Clean up everything you possibly can before anyone arrives.

Because you've made recipes that are happy to hang out at room temperature ahead of time, you can clean up all of your equipment—the pots and pans (as long as you're not serving from them), the baking sheets, the utensils—before guests ring the bell.

That way, you'll only have the serving dishes, flatware, dinnerware, and glasses to clean afterwards. It's still a lot but you won't have hulking pots monopolizing sink space. Plus, your guests won't feel daunted by dish duty; the kitchen will be a more inviting place for them to linger.

10. Figure out where the actual food will go.

If your table is too small to accommodate all the food and all of the guests, set up a serving area in the kitchen, or carry in a desk or small table from another room and display your spread there.

The Other Nitty-Gritty Logistics

1. Shop for perishables the day of the party.

If only to answer the question of: "Where will all the groceries go?!" It swells our fridge way past capacity to try to store ingredients to make a dinner for eight. That's why I like to go shopping the morning of the party, so that some ingredients can happily sit on the counter until the actual preparation later that afternoon.

2. Ask your friends what they're bringing and if it requires prep work.

That way, you can have a clean baking sheet or pan—and an available burner—at the ready.

3. Similarly, make room in your fridge for chilling the wine or beer they'll inevitably bring.

If worse comes to worst, you can always chill wine super quickly with a handy—and impressive—trick. You'll want to make sure you have a corkscrew, too.

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4. Count your plates, your silverware, and your cups.

Do you have enough dinnerware and flatware for everyone? Enough glasses for water and wine? If not, will you buy disposables? Or ask a friend to pick some up along the way?

5. And chairs, too.

Do you have enough seating? What creative solutions can you come up with? That might mean pulling a couch and opening up the room so that the couch folks can talk to the table folks or scrounging up some comfy cushions that disguise themselves as floor seating.

6. Stock up on toilet paper, napkins, paper towels.

There's nothing worse—for you and your guests—than realizing you've run out of T.P. twenty minutes into the get-together.

5. Figure out how to you'll keep the space cool.

It sounds like a silly problem to have, but you'll soon be generating a lot of body heat (and, in my case, in a relatively small space) when guests arrive. I can't tell you how many dinner parties in my apartment I've sweated through. Set out pitchers of water, drag some fans into the room, open the windows, ask guests to wear tank tops.

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6. Think of some ways your guests can truly be helpful—since they'll want to be.

Maybe that's pawning leftover cookies onto them (have baggies on hand!) or asking someone to put out the recycling (now full of beer bottles) on his way out.

7. Do you have cleaning supplies for the aftermath?

And what preventative measures will you take to make sure—to the best of your ability—that there's nothing that can't be easily cleaned up? I'm a neat freak, but I have a strict no-shoes policy and I readily employ the use of washable placemats and tablecloths.

How do you entertain on a budget or in a small space? Share your tips in the comments!