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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

The Non-Foodie's Guide to Throwing a Great Dinner Party

It’s your turn to have the gang over for dinner, and—well, let’s just say your oven might as well be used for storage.

If you’re tasked with hosting, have no fear, as Julia Child often advised. Hosting a successful dinner party is easier than you might think! You don’t need a gourmet kitchen or Food Network-worthy culinary skills—all you need is a little hosting know-how. Here are nine tips and tricks to help anyone pull off a great dinner party.

1. Do Your Planning

Spend a little time making a to-do list, a shopping list, and a day-by-day guide of your chores for the week before the party. Don’t save cleaning until the day of, when you’ll have a million other things to do! And start on your grocery list as soon as you decide on the menu—you'll likely be adding items to it as the week goes on. (I thought I bought napkins last week…)

2. Know Who's Coming

Whether you’re hosting an intimate dinner for four or big game night buffet for 16, take into consideration your guests' likes and dislikes and any sensitivities or food allergies they may have. In other words, double-check for vegetarians, and be sure to clearly label the screamin' hot salsa before the first chip hits the bowl.

3. Go With What You Know

When in doubt, pick a simple menu. I promise: Your guests won't have a better time if you serve a seven-course dinner instead of your family's favorite lasagna and a big tossed salad. The best time to experiment with an exotic new recipe is over a lazy weekend—not when you’re expecting guests.

4. Sometimes Less is More

Don't go overboard on the appetizers—especially if you've got a prime rib roast and twice-baked potatoes in the oven. Just a couple of simple nibbles, like a spicy and sweet nut mix and a dish of Mediterranean olives, are all you need before a hearty meal.

5. Keep it Seasonal

Fresh fruit and vegetables are tastiest—and cheapest—at the peak of their seasons. So, featuring them in your menu will give you the best bang for your culinary buck, while making sure your dishes have the best ingredients possible. Try picking up a bunch at the farmer’s market, then having a make-your-own pizza bar or best-decorated-salad competition.

6. Take Advantage of Time-Savers

A great hosting secret: You don’t have to do it all yourself! Items such as rotisserie chicken and pre-packaged salads or pre-cooked side dishes and fancy mini desserts picked out of the deli case can take you a long way toward a fabulously full buffet table with minimal effort and skill. (Just throw the packaging away before everyone gets there!)

7. Rock the Do-Ahead Dishes

To save yourself time and anxiety on party day, pick recipes that can be made a day or two ahead. Some dishes—lasagna, cheesecake, cocktail meatballs—actually taste even better when you make them a day or two before serving. Trust me, you don’t want to be in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a home-whipped lemon meringue pie while your guests sit starving in the dining room without food.

8. Show Off Your Personality

A little culinary ingenuity will put your stamp on a menu built around already-prepared foods. Dress up a basic pasta dish by sprinkling shards of fresh basil and parsley and finely chopped tomatoes on top, or cut store-bought brownies into triangles and drizzle them with melted white chocolate and warm raspberry preserves.

9. Just Relax

Let your attitude define the party. Believe me, your guests will notice if you’re running around franticly—and they will feel frantic for you. Do what you can ahead of time, but don't be too proud to turn down an offer of help in the kitchen. They’re your friends, after all! And if the chicken is too dry or the pasta overcooked, take it in stride and be the first to laugh at the situation. You'll put everyone at ease.

Finally, remember that a memorable dinner party isn’t really about the food. Fancy menu or fun finger foods, your party is an opportunity to be with friends you love to be with— friends who aren't there to judge your cooking abilities or event planning skills.

Photo courtesy of Elvert Barnes.