Ten Tips for Hosting a Stress-free Dinner Party

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This year, I’m hosting my family for Christmas. Luckily, there will only be seven of us rather than the whole extended family, so it’s a pretty low-pressure way to start. However, I can’t help but feel a little anxious anyway! So, in the interest of helping myself and others, I’ve compiled a list of 10 tips for hosting a dinner party. Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments!

1. Choose your menu wisely. Some considerations:

-Think about oven and/or stovetop space. Don’t choose a main and sides that all need to bake at the same time, unless it’s at the same temperature. (I think this is why mashed potatoes/squash/turnips are such common sides at Thanksgiving or Christmas – the oven is full of turkey or ham, which precludes most roasted potatoes or vegetables!) Likewise, make sure you don’t need to make five things on the stovetop at once.

-Ask about allergies or food restrictions in advance. You don’t want to find out on the night of a dinner party that a guest is lactose intolerant when you've made cheesecake for dessert.

- Don’t pick a dish that requires too much of your attention. For example, if you’re hosting brunch, pancakes, while an obvious choice, will mean you’ll be stuck at the stove flipping and may not get to enjoy the meal with your guests. Try an overnight French toast bake instead.

-Similarly, rather than prepping an elaborate dessert, think about putting out a box of fancy chocolates and some berries for dessert. Ice cream sundaes are another great choice – all you need to do are grab bowls, spoons, ice cream and a bottle of chocolate or caramel sauce. Even your adult guests will love this fun, kid-friendly dessert. (For a healthier and classier option, pick up a nice sorbet.) It will take way less prep time, and unless it’s a holiday with specific food traditions (you probably can’t get away with skipping the pie on Thanksgiving), your guests will likely not be expecting a decadent dessert, anyway.

2. Make a shopping list several days (or weeks!) in advance.

-Make sure to note amounts of ingredients you’ll need. (Did the recipe call for a large or small can of chickpeas? Think about whether you need to double a recipe, and note amounts accordingly.)

-Double-check ingredients that you tend to keep on hand. There’s nothing worse than getting home from a big grocery shop and realizing there’s only one egg left in the carton or you're almost out of milk.

3. Do your baking ahead.

-If your meal involves a baked dessert, bake it ahead of time and freeze it. I always thought my grandma was crazy for starting her Christmas baking in November, but now I understand. Who has time to bake on the 24th, or after dinner on a weeknight? Most cookies, squares, and cakes freeze quite well. Just make sure to put parchment paper between layers. And if your dessert can’t be made ahead, maybe it’s time to rethink it. If the meal you’re planning already requires a lot of prep on the day of, maybe a chocolate mousse that needs to be freshly whipped isn’t the best choice this time around.

4.  Set the table in advance.

-I’m talking the day before (if you have a separate dining room), or a few hours ahead of time if not. This is a great task for a partner/roommate/kids looking (or not looking!) to help.

-If it’s a big/fancy meal, take out serving platters and utensils ahead of time, and put a paper label on each one (e.g. “Sweet potatoes). This will alert you to whether you are missing anything, and will give you or someone else time to run to the store if you need to pick up more wine glasses or an extra serving tray.

5. Prep everything you possibly can ahead of time!

-I used to have a very small kitchen table but a nice patio, which meant I only hosted BBQs! Even thought you’d think a BBQ was pretty stress-free, I found myself constantly dashing in and out of the house while my guests were sitting at the table – need to slice the cheese, tomatoes and onions, forgot the pickles, etc. I quickly learned that I could slice the tomatoes, onions and cheese for the burgers ahead of time and put them in the fridge with plastic wrap, put the condiments out on the table an hour before (it’s not like they go bad), set the table, and put all the extras on a tray that’s easy to bring in and out (extra spoons for condiments, BBQ lighter, BBQ sauce, extra napkins, etc.). That simple prep, while seemingly unnecessary for a laid-back BBQ, meant that I had time to have a drink with my guests when they arrived.

-For something more formal, like a dinner party, you’d be surprised at how much you can do in advance. You can obviously chop and peel vegetables ahead of time, or make a salad and dress it when guests arrive. However, you can also prep a lot of meals the day before – for example, I’ve made the layers of a lasagna the day before so it’s ready to go in the oven an hour before dinner, and some saucy dishes actually taste better after sitting in the fridge overnight. If you’re not sure, look up “make-ahead” meals to ensure what you’re choosing will last overnight.

6. Keep snacks simple.

-You don’t have to prepare an elaborate appetizer if you’re pressed for time or money. A little bowl of spiced nuts or snack mix on the coffee table goes a long way in keeping your guests satisfied while you do the last minute prep work. So does a freshly sliced baguette and some camembert (or maybe that’s France getting to me…)

7.  Make a list of what you’re planning to serve, and stick it on the side of the fridge (or somewhere visible).

-I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a dinner host say “Ah! We forgot to put out the [green beans]!” while cleaning up after dinner. You wouldn’t think you’d forget something you’d prepared, but once your guests arrive and you’re chatting, it’s easy to forget a side or an appetizer. And no one will want a side of roasted red pepper hummus with their after-dinner coffee. Which reminds me…

8. Don’t forget the drinks!

-Besides the obvious wine and/or beer, think about having non-alcoholic options that are both adult and kid-friendly, so those choosing not to indulge can have something fun to drink, too. Good examples are sparkling water if you don’t normally keep this on hand, non-alcoholic sparkling wine (they offer lots of fruit-flavoured ones at the grocery store), or mulled apple cider for a more festive touch (just throw it in the slow cooker with a cinnamon stick if your stove-top is full!)

-Ensuring your guests have a drink while you’re doing last-minute prep is crucial to keeping people happy and not feeling awkward. However, I find it hard to remember to pour the wine as guests arrive, while simultaneously tending the stove. So, nominate a partner, roommate, or even a guest to pour drinks. Show them where the glasses are and leave them in charge of pouring for guests while you do the last-minute prep. Believe me, that guest who arrived 15 minutes early will be more than happy to have a task to do! Alternatively, if you have a side table or other flat surface not in use, you can put out the drinks, glasses and ice ahead of time, and invite guests to serve themselves. They’ll be more likely to do so given this set-up than if the wine glasses are formally set on the dinner table.

-Think about after-dinner (i.e., hot) beverages. For example, I recently added decaf coffee to my Christmas shopping list, as it’s not something I normally buy, and I know many of my guests will want a cup after Christmas dinner. Similarly, there’s nothing worse than having to tell a guest, “Sorry, neither of us drinks coffee…will herbal tea do?” (Let me tell you, it won’t!)

9. A little ambiance goes a long way.

-I’m envious of my friends who have Chatelaine-style dinner parties. I’m not the least bit creative or interior-decorating inclined. However, I’ve learned that you don’t need to go crazy to create a welcoming environment. A few scented candles and some festive place mats or a tablecloth go a long way!

-On that note, if you don’t have time for a full clean of the house, make sure you at least empty the bathroom garbage, wipe the counters and put out fresh hand towels. This will take <5 min and make your house look freshly cleaned, even if it’s not. No one (except maybe your great aunt) is going to inspect the floors, or judge you for a little dust.

-Don’t forget the music! Pick a (long) playlist that you love before your guests arrive, and make sure it’s set to loop. That way, you won’t have to get up in the middle of dinner when the music stops.

10. Set an end time to your prep – and stick to it!

- I got this tip from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Deb Perelman suggests picking a time at which you’ll stop prepping to get ready. It’s better to be dressed and do the last step of a recipe when guests arrive than to have all the food perfectly laid out but still be in your grubby clothes or greasy ponytail because you didn’t have time to shower.

Lastly, (and this note is just as much for me as it is for you), no one is expecting perfection! Don’t worry if you’re not totally ready when guests arrive, or if your kitchen sink is full of dishes. Your guests will appreciate knowing you’re a real person, and will be more relaxed if you are. (This means it's also perfectly ok to let them help with the dishes - or to leave all the dishes piled in the sink while you chat the night away.) All in all, don't forget to have fun!

What are your tips? Feel free to share in the comments!