I've been meaning to write this post for a long time. I rarely have people over for dinner on a work night unless it's super casual. Meaning, you're probably going to have to help me out in the kitchen and we're probably only eating one thing. But sometimes Friday night or, God forbid, Wednesday night dinners happen. All of which are great, but if you're planning to have a whole mess of people over after work and want to eat before midnight, it's best to approach things a little differently.
With that in mind, here are a few tips:
Keep it casual
I'm a casual-kind-of-gal pretty much all the time, but even if you're not, weeknight dinner parties are the time and place for it. Don't worry about place cards, wine pairings, fussy flowers--unless any of those things make you happy. Serve food buffet-style, enlist a friend to help bartend or pour wine, use disposable plates and napkins (eco-friendly if you can) if the thought of doing dishes at 3 AM on a Tuesday makes your heart palpitate.
Set the table the night before
Whether everyone will be eating at a dinner table with pretty place settings or sitting around the living room with plates on their laps (don't laugh, that's what we do at our house), it will save you a lot of time to set this up in advance. Put out each person's place setting, or stack dishes on a buffet table or wherever the food will be. Don't forget the flatware, napkins, and glasses. It might seem a little OCD to do this the night before, but you'll thank me when people arrive and it's one less thing to think about.
Make things in advance if you can
If you have time, choose dishes that can be prepared the night before and reheated later. This extends to other types of food and drinks as well. Many desserts (especially frozen ones) are best made in advance. If you're serving a pitcher of mixed drinks, you can do that the night before. But if you must make everything on the spot (why?) at least do your prep work ahead of time. Wash and pre-chop vegetables and herbs, shuck corn, make dip, etc.
Did you refill those ice trays in the freezer? No? Do that now. (This is always my fatal error.)
Put things in their place
If I know I'm going to be serving tortilla chips in a big bowl, I'll just take the bag of chips and stick it (unopened) in the bowl. That way, all I have to do is rip and pour when people come over--no hunting for the bag or bowl. You could also do this with things that need to be refrigerated. For example, put dip or salsa in the bowl you want to serve it in and cover it with plastic wrap. Seems like a no-brainer, and it is, but these little steps really save time.
Let people help you
I'm going to assume your friends and family are nice people. Usually nice people offer to help out in some way, be it bringing wine, a pan of brownies, or some cheese and crackers. Although it's tempting to carry the weight of the evening on your shoulders like a dinner party superhero, let people help you. They want to help, it lowers your own expenses, and helps you cross one more thing off your to-do list.
This is just my personal preference, but firing up the iPod while I am getting things together helps put me in a "party" mood. Even if I'm still in my work clothes and haven't had a drink yet.
Above all, if I can impart any lasting knowledge: do not freak out. No one has higher expectations than you. (This is good advice for life in general, but especially for dinner parties.) Whenever I go to someone's house for dinner, I'm so thrilled to be fed and curious about what is on the menu that I am rarely disappointed. And the same goes for you. Most people are so excited to have someone cook for them that they are not going to care if something is slightly burnt or if they have to use paper towels because you ran out of napkins. Especially on a weeknight, which allows for a huge amount of error, I think. We're all tired--so let's just eat and drink and have fun.