How to Throw a Fabulous & Stress-Free Dinner Party

Learn the three simple tips to throwing a stress-free dinner party, and you’ll be able to entertain successfully from here on out!

We offer cooking lessons through our video tutorials, cooking resources, and meal plan service, but before Cook Smarts was what you know it to be today, I used to go to clients’ homes to teach them how to cook.

I remember this one client I had, and like many of my clients, she’s a mom. But unlike most of my other mommy clients, her kids stopped calling her “mommy” awhile ago.

With all three kids at college, she called me, ready to start a new stage in her life – a stage that involved finally entertaining in her beautiful kitchen. Her goal was to learn to throw a dinner party, something she had never ever done before.

I, on the other hand, cannot count the number of dinner parties I’ve thrown or helped throw. Bringing friends and, sometimes, strangers together in the kitchen, providing them with a simple but delicious meal, seeing bottles of wine evolve into laughter, ever more amusing conversation, and sometimes even impromptu music jam sessions – these moments have been the heart of my life, so I was pretty excited to help this client create these very memories in her own home.

While I’ve gotten dinner party throwing down to a science (believe me, it’s as much science as art), it wasn’t always this way. I still remember the debacle of my first dinner party.

I was 20 and had just returned from a summer in Florence. So excited to share the Italian dishes I had enjoyed at restaurants, I invited three friends over to my parents’ house. Menu choice was my biggest mistake. I picked a high-maintenance dish that I had never made before.

As my friends arrived, I had only par-cooked risotto that had ballooned in size, though volume clearly had nothing to do with flavor, which this pot of mush completely lacked.

I also decided to make a cheesecake, another dish I had never made before. I remember watching my friends pick at the dishes, my ego completely deflated.

Luckily, I’ve learned a lot since then, and I’m so glad I didn’t throw in the towel after that first bad incident. I now approach dinner party throwing differently now, and have even put together some helpful tips to ensure you have a successful dinner party:

1. Pick the Right Menu

  • Select recipes that you’ve cooked before.
  • Select recipes that can be done mostly ahead of time and then “finished” at the last minute quickly (like quick sautes) or passively (like in the oven).
  • Keep it simple. Maybe choose one “wow” factor dish or learn to make one or two tasty sauces / vinaigrettes that will up the flavor of any dish.

2. Make a Plan / Schedule

This is especially important for novices. You can go as far as a detailed spreadsheet or simply jot down what needs to be done so you don’t forget something.

The sequence of events I typically follow are: 1) Prep everything and then clean so your kitchen isn’t a disaster when guests arrive; 2) Set the table; 3) Get out all necessary serving dishes; 4) Shower and primp! That way you’ll be so fresh and so clean when guests arrive.

3. Remember the *WHY*

Remember the company is more important than fancy food. A night of awesome food that requires you to slave inside the kitchen all night is not a successful dinner party. Your friends could have just gone to a restaurant on their own to not get to see you.

If you need to ask for a little help to bring it all together (e.g., a pre-mixed cocktail, an appetizer / dessert contribution), don’t hesitate to ask. Your friends are happy to help (and if they aren’t, you need new friends).


All this Advice Applied

Now I’m going to put these tips to action with a dinner party I have thrown.

The Menu:

Pureed Asparagus & Corn Soup with English Peas
Arugula Salad with Peaches & Corn
Baked Salmon with a Green Onion Vinaigrette
Orzo with Tomato Basil Sauce

I had made all these dishes many times before, and most of the labor could be done ahead of time. Because I had made everything before, I also knew how long it would take me to cook everything. Our friends were arriving at 7:30, and I knew I needed about 45 minutes to prep, 30 minutes to get ready, and about 10 minutes to finish things up, which meant I started prepping around 6.

During prep time, all chopping was done and I cooked as much could be done ahead of time. I also tried to clean up as much as I could since we had an open kitchen. Everything was then grouped together by dish, so I could efficiently finish things off after I got ready.

The soup was cooked and left to cook for pureeing. English peas were sauteed and sat next to the pot. The salad was all put together, with the dressing ready next to it.

For the salmon, I had pre-marinated the fillets and had them set out on a baking sheet, all ready to go in the oven, which I had pre-heated. My plan was to bake the salmon (10 minutes at 400 degrees) while we were all enjoying our soup. The reason for the green onion vinaigrette was because if I had any issues with the salmon, such as overcooking, I could remedy it with a really tasty sauce.

The orzo was another simple make-ahead. The orzo had boiled to al dente, and all the ingredients for the sauce could be sauteed in 10 minutes, right before guests came and kept warm. I made sure to get everything chopped up – tomatoes, basil, and garlic – and the pan ready to go.

Even though I cleaned everything else off the countertops, I like to leave a small cutting board and knife out just in case I forget something.

Now it was time to set the table. I like to fancy up the water with whatever I have on hand. On this evening, it was cucumber and lime. It was a good thing I had that cutting board and knife still out to slice them up!

And before I hit the shower and got dressed, I also got out all the serving dishes I was planning on using for the meal – a platter for the salmon and a bowl for the orzo.

6:45 – Off to shower and primp before guests arrive.

7:15 – Final touches: Puree soup and keep on low heat. Dress salad. Make tomato basil sauce for orzo. (Salmon gets put into oven during soup course.)

This dinner party was a small one during the weeknight, but it was still a success and completely stress-free. My friends enjoyed the food, and I was able to spend quality time with them instead of rushing around in the kitchen. I sure came a long way since that risotto time!

What are your most memorable dinner parties? Menu, successes, party fails, or even tips for a more stress-free dinner party? Let me know in the comments below!


Note: This blog post was originally published in May 2012 and has been updated with new and helpful info.


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