The second part in this series will focus on arguably the most essential element of hosting a dinner party: the dinner itself. I typically begin planning the menu 2-4 weeks before the party, but that might be excessively early. I wouldn't wait to plan it less than a week ahead, however.
Decide what food you'll serve. Consider your guests' dietary restrictions and preferences. If one guest has a deadly peanut allergy and another person hates spicy food, this probably isn't the night for spicy peanut noodles.
My menus usually include the following:
Snacks for while guests are arriving, such as charcuterie, crudités, or chips
Signature cocktail, wine, beer, and or NA drinks
Appetizer or salad (sometimes I omit this if the snacks are substantial)
Main course, typically protein-forward
2-3 sides, typically at least one vegetable/fruit and one starch
When deciding what dishes to serve, I like to start with a cuisine or theme to narrow my options. Sometimes I’ll choose a specific cookbook to draw from. Using a theme or genre makes it much easier to choose from all the millions of dishes out there. It’s also helpful to consider how labor-intensive and expensive you want the meal to be. Here are some questions that can guide your decision-making process:
What dietary restrictions, preferences, or other constraints am I working within?
What cuisine(s) do I want to serve?
How much time do I have to spend cooking on the day of the party? The day before the party?
What equipment is required for the dishes? How long will everything take? Note: It’s not advisable to choose three dishes that all require the oven at different temperatures. Unless you have three ovens, you won’t be able to have all those dishes ready at the same time. Same goes for equipment like a mixer, dutch oven, or food processor. Sure, you can wash these items between uses, but that takes time and energy. I also tend to choose a balance of dishes that require active time and others that are “set it and forget it” - this allows me to focus on one dish while the others take care of themselves.
How confident do I feel about trying a new recipe vs. preparing something I’m very familiar with?
What dishes have I already cooked for these guests? (Avoid repeating unless it’s a fan favorite that people have specifically requested.)
What season is it? What ingredients will be most delicious? What might people be in the mood for? Note: No one wants a hot, rich soup on a humid, 90-degree day. Conversely, no one wants a BLT made with mealy winter tomatoes. Making dishes that use in-season ingredients will be more delicious and often save you money.
When I plan a menu, I usually page through my cookbooks for inspiration and leave post-it notes on the recipes that I want to consider. As I look through the books, I narrow down the focus for the meal and identify dishes with complementary flavors.
Here’s another approach: order food from a restaurant or pick up prepared foods from the grocery store. As Ina Garten always says, “store bought is fine.” There’s no shame in buying food if you don’t like cooking. (I do recommend that you let guests know that so they don’t show up expecting a fully-homemade meal prepared with your love and get a Costco rotisserie chicken. Everyone loves a Costco chicken, but if they are expecting something else they may be disappointed. Expectations can be a powerful thing.) It’s also fun to do a mix of store-bought and homemade items - for example, pairing a Costco chicken with homemade mashed potatoes as a side.
Once you decide what you’ll make, write it down so you don’t forget! Remember, we’re still a few weeks out from the actual party.
What should guests bring?
Many people, when invited to a dinner party, will ask the host what they should bring. If it's a potluck, this is your opportunity to assign a type of dish to each person. For example, have one person bring a main protein dish, a couple people bring sides, one person bring an appetizer, another bring dessert, and another bring drinks.
If it's not a potluck, plan to make the main elements of the meal yourself. This will ensure the meal is cohesive. When I'm making the whole meal myself, I assign each guest to bring a different supplemental item that won't impact the meal overall but will add to the overall experience: drinks, a dessert, and snacks to eat during cocktail hour are great options.
It's also okay to tell your guests they don't need to bring anything! If you like to cook and want to prepare everything (or enjoy being in control, like me) feel free to tell guests "thanks, but no thanks" when they offer to bring something. If someone won't take no for an answer and still bring something despite you telling them not to, my only suggestion is to improve your communication skills with your friends.
GUEST TIP: Help! The host told me not to bring anything but I’m incapable of following directions! What do I do?
If you can’t take no for an answer, here are some suggestions for host gifts you can bring. However, I’d encourage you to consider that if someone is inviting you over for dinner, they are likely a close friend of yours and aren’t going to lie to you. If they said they don’t need you to bring anything, they don’t need you to bring anything. (But they will probably appreciate a present regardless.)
To me, a great gift is something that the recipient will enjoy but that they wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves on the regular.
Next Up: Deciding How Extra to Be
The next post in this series will help you decide on your level of commitment to the dinner party, including thoughts on level of fanciness, effort, and of course costs.