Part 3: How extra should you be?
From the series "The Art of Subtly and Benevolently Manipulating People into Having Fun or How to Host a Dinner Party"
One of the most compelling questions I received when I asked what people want to know about hosting was, “How do you know how extra to be?” This is a great (and difficult) question. There are many different elements of extra-ness to consider. In this installment of the hosting series, I will attempt to provide guidance on being extra and also discuss the ever-important aspect of paying for a dinner party.
Formality of the Meal
The first thing to decide is your level of formality. I’ll discuss formality in terms of things you as the host have control over.
As the host, you do set the tone in terms of formality. The level of formality can be indicated by things like the meal structure, plating, and overall vibe. You can make very simple food but serve it in a formal way (e.g., individually-plated spaghetti with beautiful garnishes). You can also make very fancy food and serve it in an informal way (e.g., caviar on potato chips or Taco Bell with expensive wine). If you want your dinner to feel more formal, you’ll probably want to serve everything out of serving dishes (as opposed to the pot you cooked it in), use real dishes and fabric napkins (as opposed to paper), and maybe plate the dishes yourself rather than serving family-style or doing a buffet. That all takes work.
If you want it to be less formal, let guests serve themselves or serve out of the cooking vessel. (I love setting a big pot of pasta or braised meat in the middle of my table for everyone to share.) This will be way less work for you in preparation and for cleaning.
When you’re deciding on the level of formality for your meal, choose a level that won’t be too much work for you. Making everything feel formal and perfect is a lot of pressure. Keeping it more casual is still great fun for your guests and less work for yourself.
Think about your guests’ preferred level of formality as well. If you’re hosting a party with extremely close friends or family, you might want to be less formal. If you’re hosting a party with people you don’t know as well or with guests who don’t know each other, more formality in the structure may help people feel more comfortable as they get to know each other.
Note: If you want your guests to dress formally, let them know when you invite them. I do think it's fun to have fancier parties once in a while, but typically I would not impose a dress code for a dinner party.
Building Your Hosting Confidence
The mere idea of hosting a dinner party might seem very daunting to people who don’t frequently host. If you go into hosting with the attitude that you need to pull out all the stops and be a perfect, flawless host, you are setting yourself up for failure. The best way to learn how to host is by actually doing it. In the education field, we use the term “scaffolding” to describe incremental increases in the level of challenge or difficulty for learning different skills. Do the same as you learn to host!
Start small: try hosting a cocktail party (instead of a full dinner) and opt for a majority of store-bought snacks. After that, evaluate how it went: What was the hardest part? What felt easy? What are a few things you could have prepared differently to make it go more smoothly next time?
Next, have a couple friends over for dinner. Don’t call it a dinner party, but use it as an opportunity to practice hosting - treat it as a dinner party secretly. Your guests will feel like they just had a really well-organized dinner, and you got to practice hosting a dinner party with no pressure. Again, evaluate how it went and think about how you can make things even easier for yourself next time.
Over time, you will build a good understanding of what feels easy and doable for yourself and what aspects of hosting are not your jam. Armed with this knowledge, you can plan your dinner parties in ways that leverage your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
For example, I am horrible at making sure all the elements of my meal are done at the same time. Because I know this about myself, I’m very thoughtful about menu planning and make sure I have systems in place to keep things warm if needed. I also often include sides that are served at room temperature.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Follow the words of wisdom from our lord and savior Ina Rosenberg Garten: “Store bought is fine.” You can buy things from the store and serve them. You can use paper plates. You can order pizza. The point of a dinner party is enjoying a delicious meal together with people you love. If that means you’re buying rather than cooking, so be it.
I won’t beat around the bush. Hosting a dinner party costs money. Here are some ways to approach that. Note that every friend group is in a different financial situation and some people are more comfortable talking about money than others. I recommend you choose the approach that you think your guests will find most accessible and comfortable - and err on the side of caution if you aren’t sure about someone’s financial situation and ability to contribute.
Part of being an inclusive host is making sure no one is being asked to contribute more than what is reasonable for them. It’s also important to remember that everyone has different priorities when it comes to spending money - just because one of your friends buys designer clothing every day doesn’t mean they also want to spend that kind of money on food.
Have Everyone Chip In Food
Your guests are already asking what they can bring - so have them bring something. Not only does this reduce your workload, it also reduces how much money you spend. A potluck is probably the most balanced way to split costs since each person brings a dish. This is my usual approach.
Have Everyone Chip In Money
One way your guests can support the dinner party without bringing food is to contribute money to cover the costs of the party. If you’d like guests to do this, it’s best to set that expectation right away when you invite them and give them an estimate of how much you’d like each person to contribute. If you’re asking people to chip in, I think it’s courteous to keep expenses in check. Unless the group has specifically agreed to all chip in on luxury items, like caviar or real champagne from the Champagne region, stick to more moderately-priced items.
I tend to have only one or two dinner parties a year where we get something expensive and special and everyone helps pay; these are for special occasions and everyone who attends plans to contribute financially.
If expenses end up being more than you initially told guests, let them know well in advance and give them the opportunity to bow out - and better yet, make a budget and stick to it. (If you’re in a place where you can plan to eat the extra costs, that works too.) Making a person pay for something they didn’t choose to have and didn’t plan for is rude and makes people uncomfortable.
Chicken Thighs are Delicious
I tend to stick to more affordable menus, especially for a larger group. Lots of inexpensive foods are very delicious. The value-add of a dinner party isn’t expensive food - it’s getting together in a cozy atmosphere with fun people and sharing a meal. You can dress up inexpensive dishes with fun sauces or garnishes, beautiful plating, and cooking skills. I also tend to shop at Costco and Target for big dinner parties as opposed to a high-end grocery store.
Next Up: The next installment of this series will be about all the preparation you can do the week before your dinner party to make things easy the day of the party.