HOW TO PLAN AND HOST A LARGE DINNER PARTY
Greetings from Lake Arrowhead. Today I thought I’d show you how to plan and host a large dinner party. Brad and I do a lot of entertaining, and in fact, when we built our home, I designed it with entertaining in mind. That is one of the wonderful things about getting to design and build a home from scratch, as you get to make it all your own, matched exactly to the way you live.
Last weekend was my bestie, Cindy’s birthday.
She is one of the sweetest women I have ever known and she has a lot of friends because of it. Therefore, any party for Cindy is going to involve a lot of people, and in this case, the dinner party I planned for her would include 20 friends. A dinner party for 20 people requires a lot of advance planning in order to pull it off seamlessly, so I started working on the party plans well in advance.
So, let me show you how to plan and host a large dinner party.
- Guest List
- Menu & Drinks List
- Shopping List
It’s so important to be organized, otherwise you won’t enjoy the process and your party will suffer the consequences of poor planning. Plus a frazzled hostess is a bad hostess. I’m a list maker and keep paper and pen handy to jot down ideas, things I need to buy, and things I need to do as I think of them. Otherwise I’m bound to forget.
Make an Activity Timeline
Decide when you will do what. Spread your tasks out over a number of days so you aren’t rushing to get things done at the last minute. It’s difficult enough just being a hostess the day of the party, so don’t exhaust yourself by leaving a lot of work for the last minute. In fact, if it can be done in advance, do it. Stagger your efforts, you’ll be so glad you did!
For example, I knew I wanted a new tablecloth and napkins for the party. So, a week in advance I started sewing them, which is a cheap way to have a lot of napkins that otherwise would have cost a fortune. Try it next time you have a party. It’s quick & easy to do.
Set the Table Well in Advance
I always set my table days in advance of a dinner party. It actually takes me a few hours to set a proper table, and it’s such a relief to have it looking fabulous and ready to go before I get busy with things that can’t be done ahead.
It’s impossible to serve a sit down dinner for 20 unless you have hired help. Since I was doing the cooking for this party and I wasn’t hiring help, that meant this dinner would be served buffet style. So, the tables were set with chargers, napkins and flatware, with plates going on the buffet table and wine glasses were placed in the bar. I couldn’t fit all 20 guests in the dining room so I set the table located in the kitchen area as well.
Having just returned from a trip to the California wine country, I was inspired to use very inexpensive grapevine napkin rings on my homemade napkins. And since this was a casual party, the grapevines lent themselves to a less formal affair.
Decorate with Flowers, Plants, Fruits & Vegetables
It really is so easy to arrange flowers, and since I enjoy the creativity of flower arranging, I always do it myself. Flowers are so inexpensive at Costco & Trader Joe’s and by making my own arrangements as I save a substantial amount. Purchase your flowers a couple of days in advance of your party and make arrangements for as many places around your home as possible. I make arrangements for the dining tables and in this case, added limes to enhance the green and white color scheme that had been dictated by the fabric I chose for the napkins.
I made this arrangement for the table in the kitchen…
and I placed more flowers in old trophy cups on the fireplace mantle in the bar.
Another arrangement decorated the table in the foyer…
and yet another topped off the table where I would place the appetizers.
Finally, I always place a fragrant arrangement in the powder room as well.
I try to think outside the box and beyond just flowers when planning party decor. One of my favorite things to do is to arrange fruits and vegetables as decor. You would be surprised how many people commented on this easy and inexpensive tower of tangerines, limes and artichokes.
I also visit the nursery and place plants in attractive pots that match the party color scheme. Again, it’s a lot cheaper than purchasing expensive floral arrangements, and this kind of party decor continues to look great long after the party.
Set the Mood with Candles & Dim Lighting
I fill my home with candles at every turn. Candles go on the dinner tables, at the bar, in the powder room and on the buffet table. They are an inexpensive way to create atmosphere and make a room feel festive. The more the better. I’m also a big believer in dimmers on light switches. Dim lighting makes everything look better! Make yourself a note to go around and light candles about 15 minutes before your guests arrive. At the same time turn on, off or dim every light in the house where your guests might wander.
Prepare the Buffet Table
Avoid rushing around at the last minute looking for a serving utensil or a trivet by setting up your buffet table in advance. I often use my kitchen island as my buffet. The salad bowl, lined bread basket, serving utensils and dinner plates go down a day or two before the party.
Organize a Self Service Bar
Cocktails for 20 guests would require the services of a bartender, but that’s not necessary for an informal affair.
Instead, I use attractive silver buckets as vessels for wine & beer.
I don’t want my husband stuck behind the bar all night. I’d rather he mingle with the guests. So, we make the drinks accessible and ask everyone to help themselves. I do ask my husband to be in charge of buying several large bags of ice to keep the wine and beer chilled all night.
I also set out wine and beer glasses. Wine glass charms attached to the glasses help people identify their glass throughout the evening, lessening the need for extra glasses, and making for less dishes to wash later.
And don’t forget cocktail napkins and some salty nibbles at the bar.
I also fill a large carafe with lemon ice water and place cups alongside so guests can help themselves.
Plan a Cocktail Hour with Easy & Light Hors d’oeuvres
You don’t want to spoil your guests’ appetites with heavy hors d’oeuvres, but you do want to have something light for them to nibble on at cocktail hour. I pick up cheese & crackers at Trader Joe’s, add a bowl of olives and place a stack of small, good quality paper plates alongside. If this were a smaller dinner party I would always avoid the use of paper plates. But with 20 dinner guests attending this large dinner party, paper plates meant lots less dishes to wash.
Plan a Make-Ahead Menu When Cooking for a Crowd
What do you serve when cooking for 20 people? Why Lasagne of course! Lasagne is terrific party food because it can be made well in advance, it serves a crowd and it doesn’t require any hands-on cooking before it gets served. I made my huge batch of homemade lasagne the day before the party. In fact I made so much sauce I had to climb up on a stool to stir the pot! After assembling the lasagne I covered it with foil and placed it in the fridge. A couple of hours before the party I took it out, placing it in the oven to cook during the cocktail hour.
I also prepared my salad fixings a day in advance. For my Caesar Salad I washed and bagged the lettuce, grated fresh parmesan cheese, made homemade croutons and prepared a delicious homemade Caesar Salad Dressing. It all went in the fridge, ready to be pulled out and tossed just before serving.
Delicious, fresh, crusty bread was sliced at the last minute by a girlfriend who lent a hand, and a tub of homemade garlic butter was placed alongside.
When it was time to eat everything got plopped down on the buffet and we called our guests in to serve themselves.
Accept Help from those Worthy of the Task
It really does take a village to pull off a fete such as this dinner party for 20. So, I accept help when it’s offered from qualified helpers. At the risk of sounding a bit egotistical, I don’t accept help or contributions of food from everyone who offers it. That’s because I want everything at my parties to meet my standard, fit in with everything else I plan to serve, and be beautiful & delicious. So when my close friend Brenda, who’s an outstanding baker offered to make the birthday cake, I gladly accepted. In order to feed 20 she decided to make not 1, but 2 beautiful cakes.
Again, don’t be afraid to use paper plates for the desert. Anther 20 plates would simply put me over the edge! Set them out in advance so you aren’t searching for them at the last minute.
Everyone, including the Birthday Girl loved the delicious and equally beautiful confections.
Set Up a Self-Service Coffee Bar
As my parties wind down the last thing I want to worry about is serving coffee. So I prepare in advance a self-service coffee bar and invite my guests to make their own K-Cup brew.
It was a lovely evening, enjoyed by all including me. By carefully planning in advance and executing each effort over the course of a week, I too was able to enjoy a well executed event that I could be proud of. YOU CAN DO IT TOO!
So there you have it: HOW TO PLAN AND HOST A LARGE DINNER PARTY
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