Wednesday, September 29, 2010

how to throw a dinner party and live to tell about it

I recently had a conversation with my friend Sarah about entertaining large groups of people. Last weekend she threw a brunch party for a large group of friends including Dan and me. There were mimosas and bloody Marys, homemade waffles and a really rich and eggy breakfast casserole. When we'd all gotten a little tipsy we played bingo with a box of old buttons until well into the afternoon. While I thought everything had that just-so Sarahness about it, she said she felt a little deflated after everyone had left.

I know that feeling. You spend a week menu planning, rush around shopping and cooking, then everyone arrives and you rush around some more, filling glasses, putting out more nuts, checking in on the people sitting in the corner, catching up with everyone just barely. And then it's all over as soon as it began and you're left with a sink of dirty dishes, wishing you had more time to enjoy yourself. (Anyone who's ever planned a wedding can relate to this as well.) It's hard to relax and be in the moment when you're trying to make sure everyone else is having a good time. But entertaining should be fun for you too, otherwise why bother? 

This conversation got me thinking about my own dinner party-throwing style, and how I've made things easier for myself over the years. Here's what works for me:

-Keep it small
Dan and I have a tiny apartment, so I couldn't have a big get-together at home even if I wanted to. But even though I could find a few extra chairs and squeeze in more people here and there, I almost always limit my guest list to six people. To me, six is the perfect number because everyone can actually spend time together, but there are enough people to keep the party lively. Added bonus: most recipes serve six to eight people.

-If you can't keep it small, keep it close
Some people like bringing strangers together. I am not one of those people. I almost always invite people who already know each other, and even better, really like each other. You'll never have a lull in conversation and there's instant camaraderie. Which is one less thing to worry about.

-Make at least one familiar recipe
I use dinner parties as an excuse to try new recipes and play around in the kitchen. But when you're making a four-course menu of dishes you've never tried before, it can be a little crazy-making. Instead, why not dress up your tried-and-true roast chicken with some new side dishes? Or start the party with that nut mix that everyone always asks for. (I do this with deviled eggss all the time.) Maybe it's not the most exciting thing to you, but it's sure to be good since you've made it many times before, and frees up your attention for that complicated dessert recipe you're trying out.)

-Recruit friends to help
Appoint someone to be the bartender to mix drinks or keep peoples' wine glasses full. Put a trusted friend in charge of the iPod. Grab a few people to help you plate or serve food. Dining in someone's home is not the same as dining in a restaurant. People like to help and feel useful.

-Let people bring a dish to share
I struggle with this point, but it's a good one. When someone offers to bring dessert, or a salad, or something else to share, let them! People who offer to do this kind of thing usually enjoy doing it. And it's one less thing for you to think about.

(These are the big, general things I try to keep in mind, but there's more specific party tips here, here, and here.)

How do you throw dinner parties and still manage to have a good time? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


Anne said...

Okay, this may sound totally selfish, but I try to enjoy the preparation for the party as much as possible, so I'm not as disappointed if the actual party doesn't go as swimmingly as possible. I love preparing for a dinner party - doing the shopping, choosing the dishes, arranging the flowers, (not so much the cleaning though). If the actual event isn't pulled off without a hitch, at least I enjoyed all of the elements that I put into it.

I recently used this technique with work affair. I haven't had the most enjoyable time in my current job, but I decided that I was going to create a fabulous table setting for our last Christmas party, not because any of my colleagues would necessarily appreciate it (and, in turn, change their behavior in order to make my life easier!), but because I was going to do something that was enjoyable to me, and in doing so, reclaim some positivity that had long been missing from my work experience. I thought my table setting was Martha Stewart-worthy, and it was a therapeutic exercise for me!

Sorry if this is a bit far afield, Lisa, but yours and Sarah's posts totally reminded me of this experience and the importance of working for the enjoyment of yoursef, not just your guests.

Lisa said...

Hi Anne! Not far afield at all. I think you really summed it up. If you don't get any pleasure out of doing it, why bother? If you love cooking/setting a table/etc. that's half the battle to throwing a fun party. Finding fun friends is the other part. :)

Dana said...

Those are some really helpful hints! I've definitely made the mistake of making a meal of all new recipes... things took longer than it said they would so that there was a bit of a juggling act in trying to keep things warm while other things finished cooking... that wasn't a fun night. But you are so right, entertaining is supposed to be fun!


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