Tips & Techniques

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

July 12, 2016

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.

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.

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.

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).

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!

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.

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.

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!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • amy
  • lydia.sugarman
  • Hannah Blase
    Hannah Blase
  • connie m
    connie m
  • Laura
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


amy July 17, 2016
Love this article. Practical and fun. Will employ your helpful tips when we host again for Rosh Hashanah this year. Wish I had this article last year. Thank you Sarah!!
lydia.sugarman July 17, 2016
Oh! Dietary restriction! Seriously, if someone is kind enough to invite me into their home, I believe it is part of being a gracious and appreciative guest to celebrate what my host/ess has worked hard to prepare. As a hostinviting people into my home, I let people know that I have a cat and what is, basically, the planned menu. If one or both don't suit them, I suggest we get together at a restaurant or bar another time. Genuine allergies are one thing, arbitrary dietary restrictions that "friends" might expect me to cater to are unacceptable.
Hannah B. July 17, 2016
How is "keep dietary restrictions in mind" a tip to help you plan? I've been throwing dinner parties for people with a wide range of dietary restrictions (vegetarian, pescetarian, varying degrees of kosher, those who can't have alcohol even in a sauce, along side meat-and-potato eaters, those who can't have any spice - even black pepper - or mint, and those who won't eat root vegetables, etc.) and I've just had to make a variety of dishes and let people pick and choose what to eat. "Keeping their restrictions in mind" has been a huge pain. I was hoping for a genuinely helpful tip here, but this was not it!
Sarah J. July 17, 2016
Sorry, Hannah! It does help me to focus in on a particular menu or dish when I keep my friends in mind: I can eliminate anything that involves nuts when my friends with nut allergies are invited, for example. I do hope you found some of the other tips helpful! To each her own, of course!
connie M. July 17, 2016
I, too, find the "no shoes" policy insulting and disgusting. My brother's wife has this policy and yet has two large dogs which have free roam of the house. By the time it is time to go home my feet/socks are caked with stinky dog hair which I then have to put in my shoes. I certainly would not ask guests to put on/take off shoes. Large parties may have the bar on the lanai and buffet food in the dining room. People are there to enjoy themselves (first rule of entertaining) and socialize, not to worry about my later house cleaning.
lydia.sugarman July 17, 2016
*Strict no shoes rule.* is that in the interest of cleaning? Personally, as a host, I have *never* even asked, much less required this and honestly, resent being ordered to remove my shoes. I find it rude and inconsiderate of guests. (Yes, my home is carpeted. I deal with spills.) it's more important to make guests feel welcome. If it's a dinner party, people have taken pains to dress for it. Provide mats at the door.
Sarah J. July 17, 2016
It's a personal rule, not one that I've suggested everyone should enforce! I live in a very small apartment in New York (read: dirty, dirty streets and subways!), so it makes life a lot easier (and cleanly) if people slip off their shoes before they come in. My parties are also not at all fancy—I don't think my friends are typically concerned with their footwear. Of course, if I lived in a different city, in a different house, and threw formal parties, I'd reconsider!
lydia.sugarman July 17, 2016
I simply quoted what you wrote. It doesn't matter that you have a small apartment. It doesn't matter that the streets are dirty. It doesn't matter what style of entertaining it is. I've always lived in apartments, in New York and San Francisco. You said it's your *strict rule*... so, excuses... I just don't believe in imposing strict rules on *guests* who might not be comfortable with removing their shoes or any other kind of strict rules that may represent an imposition on my guests. That being said, I do expect the same consideration in return. If I'm inviting you into my home to eat food I've prepared, don't treat me like a short order cook in a restaurant. I don't entertain arbitrary food "restrictions."
Sarah J. July 17, 2016
Thanks for the advice, Lydia! I will definitely check with my friends in the future to make sure it's not an imposition that they remove their shoes. :)
Laura July 13, 2016
I have a small kitchen and no dishwasher but love hosting large dinners....I have found that plating meals helps cut back on some of the dishes. It also makes for a nice presentation.
PHIL July 12, 2016
I cook for a big family , we average 20 adults for a birthday party so I have been down this road on average 8 times a year.. So here is my tips besides what you and creamtea covered
Do a theme drink and make a pitcher of it so your not playing bartender plus beer and wine. put drinks in a cooler with ice on the deck /terrace./fire escape, buy /make extra ice
when you think you have enough food, you don't make more, nobody wants to take the last piece fo anything
try not to make individual serving items i.e. spring rolls because they take lots of time to prep
If your not doing a formal sit down do it buffet style. I set up my kitchen island as buffet Summer I might do a fajita bar , winter a pasta bar
prep as much food the night before , chopped onions, / veggies for crudite / sauces or dips etc...
people arrive at different times so have stuff for them to eat when they get there, chips , salsa, nuts, crudite, charcuterie ,cheese board.

creamtea July 12, 2016
If possible, set the table and tidy up the day or night before. Saves time and frazzled nerves! Pull out the serve ware in advance too so you're not running back and forth to take out an extra platter or bowl. If you have kids (and their friends), start enlisting them to help at (whatever you consider) an appropriate age. Plan ahead: start making ice for chilled drinks/water a day or two ahead of time!!
Sarah J. July 12, 2016
Great tips, creamtea! Thanks!