Unless you are an accomplished chef or you have oodles of time (and, ideally, both), hosting a dinner party can seem a bit daunting. There’s the tidying, the table-setting, the menu-planning, the cooking… But it doesn’t need to be intimidating. All it takes is a bit of strategizing and a few clever tricks. After all, it should really be about togetherness, conversation, and good food—not stressing about the meal.
Start by stocking a few essentials like good cheese and crackers and a few bottles of wine. This way, you’re always covered in case of a truly last-minute get-together; plus they’ll double as pre-dinner bites if you don’t have time to whip up elaborate hors d’oeuvres.
Next, consider the ambiance. Good lighting, a tidy home, and a thoughtful playlist can make up for an imperfect dish or two. The other secret? A happy host. It’s true: if you’re at ease, your guests will be too.
Whether you like setting an elaborate table or keep it simple, it always helps to have a few décor items on hand to make the setting feel special. “I always have fresh flowers and candles at my house as well as linen table clothes and napkins. I mix and match my napkins, and I'm anti-ironing, so they're fuss free,” says Beth Kirby of Local Milk Blog. Another way to save time (and to save on dishwashing later) is to serve directly from your pots and pans. “Over the years, I've curated a small but intentional collection of pots and pans that I find to be beautiful,” says Kirby. “That's the most time saving thing of all because all I need is a trivet and I can serve right out of the pan and keep the table beautiful.”
Now it’s time to think about what you’re serving. If you’re a kitchen savant, you can probably plan the menu in your sleep. However, if you’re a bit apprehensive about what to serve or not terribly confident with your cooking skills, there are easy ways to take the pressure off. Step one: “Don’t make everything from scratch,” advises Kirby. “Bakeries exist for a reason, and they are often very good at their job! Outsource dessert and bread.” If it’s a less formal affair, consider asking your guests to bring a dish. Friends won’t mind bringing dessert or a bottle (or two) of wine. Just be specific about your needs.
If you’re really down to the wire but still want to pull something fresh out of the oven when guests arrive, consider going the semi-homemade route. “I’ll pick up a rotisserie chicken and reheat it before serving,” advises entertaining expert and event planner David Stark. “If you roast lemon halves in the oven when you reheat the chickens, a quick squeeze over the birds before serving brightens them. I plate them on beautiful platters with herbs or on large cutting boards and then focus my limited time in the kitchen on vegetable accompaniments and/or a salad. It’s homey and perfect.”
Kirby has a clever idea for an interactive meal that will impress without a ton of effort (or dishes): Japanese hot pot. “I keep dashi in my fridge so when it's hot pot time I throw a pot on a butane burner—it’s easy to buy one on Amazon—in the middle of the dining table and pile fresh, raw ingredients like cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, thinly sliced meat or fresh seafood, green onion, carrot, onto platters for guests to cook themselves in the dashi filled pot,” says Kirby. “Don't keep dashi? No worries, it only takes about 20 minutes to make.”
It’s also possible to host a fantastic meal without any cooking at all. “This summer, I visited a very chic friend in Normandy, France, and he prepared the simplest of lunches that was impressive to me for its delicious ease,” says Stark. “He served melon and prosciutto followed by a simple salad, bread, and three artisanal cheeses that were passed around the table family style, all accompanied by a chilled rosé. There is no ‘cooking’ in this beautiful menu. Simply pick the finest ingredients from the best purveyors, and present them beautifully on gorgeous tableware.”