Weekend Cooking

Cooking for Guests Isn't Fun, Like at All

May 17, 2018

I’m ankle-deep in flour. My doorbell is ringing so persistently it sounds like a fire alarm. Oh wait, is it my fire alarm? My pasta’s boiling over, my sauce is burning. I haven’t checked on the asparagus roasting in the oven in what feels like an hour. To hell with them (they’re probably in flames anyway). I’m minutes—no, seconds—from throwing in the apron and calling it a night, running to my room and slamming the door behind me, chef’s hat still teetering on my head.

I’d texted a few friends to come over for dinner. Our table fits four—so, naturally, I texted six. I asked my roommates to throw a few more into the mix as well. My friends approached my announcement with caution.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

Shop the Story

"Isn’t eight people too many?"

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I hope these tips will save you all some blood, sweat and tears on your next dinner party! Lastly, when it comes to roasts, steaks and things alike, nothing beats an instant read thermometer to ensure perfect doneness! Happy cooking!”
— Pieter H.

"Don’t worry," I brushed them off, a flick of the wrist. "It’s fine. I’ve got it under control."

A couple group chats and an Instagram direct message later, I had myself a bona fide dinner party. And by "bona fide," I mean: all ten of us on the floor and couch, eating from plastic plates with mismatched cutlery. And by "dinner party," I mean: There was food (most of it on plates), and people showed up with alcohol.

It’s a formula I stick to, often. l cover dinner; my guests bring wine, beer, whatever it is they like to drink.

But tonight, my friends are already on their way and nothing's ready. I’m descending, fast, into a rage-and-shame spiral as I pull an overcooked roast chicken out of the oven. I quickly Google: How long does it take to boil pasta in tears?

Even I know "entertaining" is not supposed to be this way. What of "cooking as therapy"? What of those easy, breezy dinner parties in movies and glossy magazine spreads? Affairs by the beach, even cramped but cozy-chic apartment get-togethers? Who are these "hosts with the most"? What's in the water they're drinking?

Some say that the most generous, most organic thing you can offer a loved one is a plate of home-cooked food. And I agree, don't get me wrong. It only makes sense that whenever I miss a friend, feel like catching up, or just want someone near, I invite them round for food. The kitchen is my sanctuary, when I’m alone, but especially with a friend or two. I feel confident and comfortable and at ease. I can experiment, add something new to a sauce, try that different technique I’ve had my eyes on. I can laugh and participate in conversation, and dinner is usually on the table within a 30-minute window of when I promised. It sounds idyllic because it is. Dinner shared with a few is a treasure.

It’s when you multiply this "few," square it, and run it through the quadratic formula that things get hairy. Messy. All types of frantic. I don’t know if it’s anxiety or stress or a fear of disaster that flips things upside down. Maybe it’s a control thing, a need for perfection, some invisible exacting standard that I hold myself to, but as soon as I start entertaining, the weight of it becomes a reality. There’s never enough time and Rachel is over there spilling wine on the white couch and are people even enjoying the Brussels sprouts? I taste test my food so much that I'm too full to eat and the sink is piled so high with dishes I feel like I can't look away. As soon as I move to join a conversation, I remember something simmering on the stove that needs my attention, and I scurry back to the kitchen like some ornery goblin.

Everyone reassures me that the cake tastes good and the cauliflower is perfectly seasoned. But I pay them no mind. I can’t see past the overdone meat or the fact that I forgot to sprinkle capers on my side dish. Recipes gone ever so slightly awry are but a prison of negativity.

It’s only then that I look beyond my self-doubt–induced farsightedness, and notice empty plates and full smiles abound. Everyone looks, dare I say, pleased, and the room is humming with a languid sort of just-having-feasted euphoria that causes couch cushions and seatbacks to squeal under the weight of immeasurable contentment.

My roommate smiles and claps me on the back, congratulates me on another successful dinner party. Rachel asks for the Brussels sprouts recipe. Suddenly my shoulders drip down my back and my neck loosens. I unclench my hands and forget about the dishes in the sink and the gravy that didn’t come together like I wanted it to. I grab a plate and spoon a bit of what little food is left onto it and reach for a tall glass of wine.

“So who wants to come over again next weekend?”

Does entertaining stress you out? Share in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mfiedler
  • ktr
  • Smaug
  • Pieter Hussaarts
    Pieter Hussaarts
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
Valerio is a freelance food writer, editor, researcher and cook. He grew up in his parent's Italian restaurants covered in pizza flour and drinking a Shirley Temple a day. Since, he's worked as a cheesemonger in New York City and a paella instructor in Barcelona. He now lives in Berlin, Germany where he's most likely to be found eating shawarma.


Mfiedler May 21, 2018
Don’t debut a new recipe. Experiment in private with expensive ingredients.

It’s also ok to limit the guest list, this is not an all access invitation. My only friend who eats sepia has ou of town guests, We can reschedule.
Sharing food with love is great but if they won’t laugh with you and order pizza when it fails, these people should get together to eat at a restaurant, maybe come to the house for coffee or night cap.
ktr May 18, 2018
I try to remember that people are there to enjoy themselves and visit and the food is secondary. And, that I’m probably more critical of my food than anyone else.
Valerio F. May 18, 2018
For sure, it's a mantra.
Smaug May 18, 2018
Seems to me that where people get in trouble is usually by trying to show off, doing things they don't really know how to do.
Pieter H. May 18, 2018
It's all in the planning. I regularly (meaning every weekend as it is one of the greatest joys in my life) throw dinner parties for 6 or more people. What keeps me from being reduced to a mumbling, sobbing ball of stress are the following "rules":

1. Determine the menu early; one or two days in advance. I tend to make around four different courses, which makes this step crucial. Make an honest estimation of effort in this step.
2. Ideally do all the groceries a day in advance. This is the rule I tend to violate most... But this will save you a lot of time and exhaustion on the day itself and perhaps more importantly, it gives you the opportunity to adjust the menu if it turns out that a crucial ingredient is unavailable.
3. This step is the most important: plan, plan and then plan some more. A day in advance I already start visualising what needs to be done. I go through the steps of each recipe, determine which one can be reheated, kept warm or served cold (and thus can be made first), which pots and pans will be used simultaneously and the restrictions this implies, which ingredients can boil or simmer on the stove without demanding my attention and which ones require my full attention.
4. On the day itself, always make sure to prepare all the ingredients in advance of cooking them. Chopping the tomatoes in a frenzy while the onions are already burning is waste of time, food and peace of mind.

I hope these tips will save you all some blood, sweat and tears on your next dinner party! Lastly, when it comes to roasts, steaks and things alike, nothing beats an instant read thermometer to ensure perfect doneness!

Happy cooking!
Valerio F. May 18, 2018
Ok, committing all this to memory... for sure!!
Eric K. May 17, 2018
This is my favorite sentence: "Recipes gone ever so slightly awry are but a prison of negativity."
tia May 17, 2018
I know this feeling! I've been hosing Thanksgiving for a few years now and I'm so glad it's just my immediate family usually. It's still stressful. One way I've found to make it less stressful is to have a pre-made cocktail ready to go and some chips and dip set out (not fancy, not homemade, still absolutely delicious). Welcome a guest, put a drink in their hand and voila, I can ensure that they don't care if dinner is running a bit latter than planned.

But man, make-ahead stuff is the BEST.
Eric K. May 18, 2018
Agreed re: make-ahead. Really saves the day.
Valerio F. May 18, 2018
A cocktail can be a very useful welcome gift, you're right!
Hana A. May 17, 2018
I love this, and can relate so much. These days, my husband and I don't have people over for dinner unless >75% of the menu can be pre-prepared the day before, ha! That way, the day of (usually Saturday) can be focused on the charcuterie board-building, cocktail base-prepping, and salad-making. :)
Joanna S. May 17, 2018
love this. for me, there's definitely a positive correlation between the number of guests I have and how ambitious my menu is. but why? why do I do this to myself?
Valerio F. May 18, 2018
Same, girl.
Stephanie B. May 17, 2018
Lol preach! I find if the total number of people is ~4 (also what my table seats), I can usually knock something up with little stress. Beyond that, I need to mentally prepare, and food prepare: make a menu and grocery list well in advance, have a game plan of what can be made ahead of time, and a timeline down for the day of. And if I can have my dishes mostly done before guests arrive I feel like a boss. But we all know that doesn't always happen - inevitably someone will step into the kitchen while my hair is frizzy from steam, sauce on my apron, to ask if I need help and my immediate thought is "OMG they'll see the mountain of dishes and in progress cooking and they'll know I didn't magic the dinner into existence but cooked it in pots and pans like a mere mortal (insert sobbing emoji here)" But without a doubt no one is surprised by cooking in cookware, and I think I'm probably the only one fixating on minute details.
Stephanie B. May 17, 2018
That being said, I usually really enjoy having people over for dinner.