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HOW TO HOST A DINNER PARTY

by jenellewitty@gmail.com
how to host a dinner party

How to host a beautiful dinner party at home. Tips and tricks to get it just right.

plates at the dinner table
lemons on bar table
outdoor balcony table set up for a dinner party

HOW TO HOST A DINNER PARTY

Of all the things, I love having people over. Yes, I also love dining out but there is just something so nice about not having to book a restaurant table or deal with noisy tables nearby. As I tend to book in a lot of big group brunches, lunches and dinners, I am always struggling to find places to accommodate a big group with various dietary requirements. Instead, I much rather invite people over to enjoy a beautiful relaxed dinner at home.

As we live in a small apartment, it isn’t something we get to do very often. I look forward to having more space to invite bigger groups in the future. As you can see pictured, this was from our pre-Christmas dinner. If you hadn’t noticed, there are some subtle Christmas decorations and a few gifts.

SO WHY HOST DINNER AT HOME?

As I mentioned above, a big desire of mine to host is to avoid booking noisy restaurants! But, it’s actually something I have always loved. When our family ever had people over for dinner or even just the Christmas lunch, I loved it. I’d help set the table, cook a desert, tidy my room, plan a nice outfit and so on. Having family over was always so fun. For my birthdays, I loved the excuse to have friends over for a dinner party too. I’ve hosted afternoon teas, even hosted a Fringe show! Any chance, I love it.

One great thing for me now is that Mario is known for being a passionate and excellent cook. He just LOVES food. I’ll share our kitchen appliances at some point in a YouTube video because I swear, we have almost got it all. He will point out that he still wants an air fryer and dehydrator but we have basically reached our storage limit for appliances!

Plus, there is such a nice homeliness to having people over, making your space feel more used, than a private hideaway.

1. PLANNING MAKES PERFECT (OR CLOSER TO IT!)

Pre-organising as much as you can will make the day itself much less stressful. Particularly when time never seems to be on your side and there is always more to do than you think. Plan the menu and purchase the ingredients in advance, just in case. My only exception to this is grabbing freshly baked goods the morning of. The same thing goes for your decorations, tableware, and so on. If you know you have everything ready to go, it saves a lot of time. On the morning of, I end up foraging in our area for any last-minute foliage I want to decorate the table with, but tend to buy any fresh flowers or plants the day prior to be safe.

Plan who does what and delegate tasks. Who will clean the house? Make up a playlist? Cook each meal? Set the table and decorate? Making sure you are communicating is key to just about anything. If something needs doing, it’s best to discuss as much as you can first. We’ve learned the hard way that some tasks can take longer than we anticipated, and often other things spring up you didn’t plan for. If you are organised, the less you have to stress over when the clock is ticking.

how to plan a dinner party

2. PREP YOUR FOOD

Now, when it comes to the menu and food ideas I tend to discuss this with Mario since he will be doing much of the cooking. Sort out what you want to cook and try to even things out so one person isn’t stuck doing everything. If you want to invite your guests to bring a dish, make sure to message a few days ahead and organise who brings what. Avoid double-ups and over-catering! And of course, make sure you know about any dietary requirements and plan accordingly, making sure there are options.

carrots and vegetables for dinner

3. TIPS ON WHAT TO SERVE

When it comes to what to cook, Mario has some tips…

The first, being not to over cater. We have all been there.

Plan food in stages so it’s ready when you want to serve it.

Focus on a hero dish to impress.

Pre-cook the menu items sometime beforehand as a trial to know you can nail the cooking.

Include dishes that can be pre-prepared so you aren’t cooking a lot at once.

Think about what needs oven space/ fridge space and make sure it’s all going to fit. Using a BBQ creates an additional cooking area that helps especially with small kitchens.

In The Roundhouse plates
White dining table set up for dinner party

4. COMFORT IS IMPORTANT TO CONSIDER

Obviously, there are a bunch of different options, a million ways to set a table and no two dinner parties will be the same. My rule of thumb is to start by making sure there are enough seats for all the guests (obviously!) and to make sure they are comfortable.

Our bench table and chairs are great, we love them. But, we have had family over and they have not liked the bench seat arrangement, finding it uncomfortable and too hard to get in and out of. Furthermore, they complained the bench seat was too hard. So, I had to find decent outdoor cushions that weren’t too bright but were comfortable and easy to clean. If any guests have back issues, they tend to need that back support, so we end up including some additional outdoor chairs on either end of the bench table.

It’s often things like this that get overlooked, or only pop up over time. The more you host, the more you can anticipate what your guests might need.

5. HOW TO SET THE TABLE

  • Plates – I love the opportunity to decorate with my plates! They are from an Australian brand called In The Roundhouse who have the coolest designs. I wanted to go with a classic French bistro theme, and picked the three designs you can see pictured. They are bone china and come individually boxed, which for me had been super handy as I only bring them out for special occasions. We break too many of our everyday plates so I end up looking forward to the excuse to use my nicer ones. Haha, the risk is always up to you, if your guests are likely to get carried away or break one, be warned, it happens.
  • Cutlery – You also might want to go all out and invest in some special cutlery just for occasional use. We personally haven’t done as we were kindly given a nice large cutlery set by Mario’s Mum when we moved in together. Actually, it is such a big set we have only opened half of it, so there’s plenty spare if we need them. Either way, as long as everything matches and it’s all clean and polished, you are good to go. Don’t forget serving spoons and forks!
  • Glassware – I have a thing for crystal glassware! In 2020 I’d had enough of our cheap ‘it’ll do in the meantime’ glassware from when we first moved in together and took advantage of the sales to redo our glassware. Again, as long as you have enough for everyone, it’s all clean, and there are options for various drinks, you should be good. Don’t forget to include a water glass along with your beverage glass per setting.
  • Napkins – After not having decent napkins, I was determined to have nice linen ones on hand. I bought twice as many as I needed just to be safe, in case we had terrible spills. I prewashed them and set them up with a sprig of olive for decor.
  • Place Cards – This one is really optional, but it can be kind of fun. Since it was Christmas at the dinner pictured here, I had a little gift for the guests which acted as their place cards. The gifts were small, but one idea I liked was giving sets of card games that we love and play all the time. Keep it under $10 ea and you have a useable memento from the party. Place cards can of course be as simple or as involved as you like. Handwritten cards can make a cute touch and elevate the table to feel more special. Keeping it casual? Go without. People will sit where they like anyway. Want to get fancy? Print individual menus and add each guest’s name to the top.
  • Serving Dishes – It’ll depend on what you are serving but it doesn’t hurt to invest in some extra serving dishes to stretch across the table, so people aren’t leaning over one end to another to reach entrees. Serving bowls that match can be a nice touch, but again, if it is a bit of a miss-match that’s okay too. Personally, I opt for plain white dishes to make the food stand out.
dining table set up
kangaroo paw flowers in small pots

6. HOW TO DECORATE

Again, this can be anything really. Personally, I like having foraged branches, small vases of flowers, or potted plants to keep things fresh. I also add candles and string fairy lights on a battery pack and dot them through the branches.

As you can see pictured here, I added grapes I picked on my forage trip, silver-grey gum branches, and olive branches. Instead of buying fresh flowers, this day I opted for potted flowers, which saves a bit of money but also saved them wilting as it was a hot day. The bonus? The yellow kangaroo paw I chose has flowered all year long on my balcony and brought in a fresh vibrant colour. I trimmed some flowers for the small vases to carry the colour through the table. On our side table, I also added one of my orchid plants and a bowl of lemons, ready to be cut for drinks but tying in the yellow too. In the end, I wore a yellow dress to keep up the theme.

yellow kangaroo paw
Jenelle at our dinner party

7. LIGHTING IS KEY

This little balcony is so nice, its fresh white walls are lovely, though BRIGHT during the day. At night, it can get really dull, given there is only one outdoor light and it’s not very powerful. I bugged and bugged Mario to let me invest in festoon lighting for so long and eventually he caved. Sadly we can’t leave it up all the time, as it falls down in strong winds. But what a difference these lights make! Lighting is key to setting a mood. Opt for LED lights like these which are lightweight, dimmable and easy to connect together.

Mario's cooking for a dinner party
dining table set up at a dinner party

8. SET THE MOOD

Personally, I am all about a good playlist! I’ve made them since I was a kid, back when we made mixtapes in the 80s, burnt CDs in the 90s, and created playlists in the 00s for Myspace, our iPods, and now Spotify. Having a pro-Spotify membership is essential, I HATE the ads. I’ve even been to cafes where they have a free account and had to listen to those annoying ads. It kills the mood.

Even better, if you don’t love curating playlists as much as I do, Spotify is full of them! You only have to search to find various genres, themes, and ideas to have running all night long. When we do an Italian night, I play an Italian favourites playlist that goes down a treat. A French brunch? I’ve got playlists for that too. It can really make a night more fun and memorable to hear fun dinner music. Into jazz, blues, or classical? You can play that too.

I have a Megablast Speaker that I can move around the apartment and even connect to other Ultimate Ears speakers if you need more than one set up. They have a really long battery life too, so there’s no running out.

drinks station at our dinner party
Yellow accents for a dining setting

9. CREATE A DRINKS STATION

It always helps to have an area set up with drink prep. Have lemons, limes, a juicer, fresh mint and other garnishes you may want all ready to be cut up with a chopping board and knife. You can add an ice bucket, or simply set up wine bottles/ spirits/ a water jug etc ready for guests to help themselves. Most people will bring something to drink with them, so it can also be a spot for them to pop their drinks down too.

dinner party table set up
desert!
plates set up for dinner

10. DEDICATE A SPACE FOR GUESTS BAGS OR COATS

As a woman who’s always carrying a handbag, I tend to find it awkward when I go to someone’s house and there isn’t an obvious spot for me to leave my bag. I won’t want it with me at the table, so if I can’t ask the host, I’ll look for a spot to stash it out of the way somewhere. On SO MANY occasions I’ve later noticed as the house fills up, that my bag will somehow get in the way. Got a jacket or coat? It get’s even more in the way.

To try and solve this, aim to create a dedicated space for your guests to put their bags or coats. Tell as many guests as you can when you greet them. If you end up missing a few people as they come in, as long as the majority can point them in the right direction, it’s easier. Pile them on a bed, a dedicated chair, an entryway bench, whatever you have.

Bonus tip: If someone has a baby with them, make sure to point them in the direction of a room they can escape to if they need to.

11. DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

What if something goes wrong? It’s all good. Don’t sweat the small stuff. We have run late, had guests arrive early, had people drop entire red wine bottles, Mario set the table on fire… you name it. haha for this dinner, we were behind on getting ready, I didn’t do my hair or possibly my make-up. The lights were tricky to install that day and our guests arrived before we were ready. Still, it doesn’t matter. You get better at organising with practice. Just get the music going, let people mingle, and let them know you are almost ready to dish up. Have entrees ready to go. And avoid apologizing if the food is a little overcooked, or something else unforeseen comes up. People can deal.

12. FINAL BONUS TIPS

When it comes down to it, the humble dinner party is meant to be fun, not a huge headache. If you need help with something, ask for it. Make sure you clean up before you go to bed! Nobody wants to face a huge mess the next morning when you had spent a full day preparing the day before too. Games can be a nice touch. Keep guests away from the temptation of sitting on their phones or asking to go watch tv. Offering dessert is a good way to signal that the main part of the meal is over. You might want to hang out all night, but some guests will need to head home and you still have to clean up.

DO YOU HOST? OR WOULD LIKE TO?

Over to you, what are some of your tips for hosting a dinner party? What do you like to cook? Got a favourite dish? We love theming ours, we’ve done Mexican food nights, Italian, etc. Do you ask guests to bring a dish? I’d love to hear in the comments below. Had any major fails? It happens to everyone! haha it’s all a learning curve! The best tip is to make sure you sit down and eat and have fun.

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Photographed by Jenelle Witty and Mario Recchia.

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