HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY

Party planning is time consuming and to be effective it takes lots of advance preparation and a good deal of practice. I’ve been throwing dinner parties for decades and over the years I’ve gone from a frantic, moody hostess to a relaxed and skilled hostess (if I do say so myself) who’s even able to enjoy my own parties. This skill did not come overnight, and to be frank, it also involved my husband learning how to be a good host as well. Together we make a pretty good team, so today I thought I’d share some of our party planning skills in this post entitled, How To Plan A Dinner Party.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Give Careful Thought To Your Guest List

Last week was my friend Cindy’s birthday. I invited our usual cast of characters (4 couples who are the best of friends) over for dinner to celebrate Cindy. In jest we call ourselves “The Homies” because all 4 of us girls are pretty much inseparable. And what’s unique and special about our relationship is that all of our husbands are the best of friends too. We are very lucky that way. Parties are so much more enjoyable if you invite guests who have things in common, can contribute to lively conversation and enjoy eachother’s company. To insure that’s the case, I generally use place cards to assign seating, giving careful consideration to who sits next to whom. But because this was a small party of 8 I simply told everyone where to sit as they arrived at the table, making sure to put Brad and I closest to the kitchen.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Set The Table Well In Advance

I like to enjoy my parties so I do as much advance prep as I possibly can. I always set the table a day or two in advance which leaves one less thing to do on the day of my party. For this tablescape I got to use my new monogrammed napkins, given to me by my oldest son and his wife for Christmas. I love them.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Make Flower Arrangements The Day Before

Don’t leave flower arranging for the last minute. This is one of those things that can easily be done in advance. Plus it may also make for a more attractive arrangement the day of the party, as it gives flowers a chance to revive themselves in fresh water and allows blooms to fully open for party day. The lilies you see closed up in my arrangement were fully opened and beautiful on party day. Your centerpieces should be short enough for guests to see over them or tall enough to see around them. I generally prepare 3 arrangements:

  • 1 for the Dining Table
  • 1 for the Kitchen
  • 1 small arrangement for the Powder Room

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Plan The Menu & Prepare A Shopping List

Dinner party meal planning is time consuming so I plan the menu well in advance as well. I gather the recipes I’ll be using and write my shopping lists from the recipes. I usually compile 3 lists: 1 for Costco, 1 for Trader Joe’s and 1 for my local supermarket. Then I dedicate a day to drive down the mountain to shop.

In planning my menu I always try to choose dishes that can be prepared in advance. Then I pop things in the oven according to a schedule I’ve jotted down that lists the cook time for each menu item.  So, here’s what I served up that night…

Cindy’s Birthday Dinner Menu

Golden Bell Pepper Soup with Basil Oil

Brazilian Cheese Bread

Spinach Salad with Caramelized Red Onions & Crisp Bacon

Halibut en Papillote

 Tricolore Roasted Potatoes

Garlicky Haricot Verts

Chocolate Chip Cookies & French Vanilla Ice Cream

Prep & Stage All The Food & Drinks In Advance

Everything gets prepped and staged, leaving me with as little as possible to do after the guests have arrived. I refer to my menu as I do all my advance prep, first making what I’ll serve first, then moving on down the menu until I have done absolutely everything I can do beforehand. By the way, I leave a copy of my menu out to refer to when I serve the meal. This way I don’t forget to serve something, which is easy to do.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

So, the first thing I prepared was the Golden Bell Pepper Soup and the Basil Oil.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY |Yellow Pepper Soup with Basil Olive Oil | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY |Yellow Pepper Soup with Basil Olive Oil | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Next I prepared the Brazilian Cheese Bread, which is terrific for a party because the little balls of goodness can be prepared ahead of time and then held in the fridge until they are baked and served hot out of the oven.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY |Brazilian Cheese Bread | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY |Brazilian Cheese Bread | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Once the bread was made I moved on to caramelizing the red onions and frying the bacon which I’d need for my Spinach Salad. I also prepared a homemade dijon mustard red wine vinaigrette for the salad.

Next on the agenda was to prep the Halibut en Papillote, my main course. The fish was sprinkled with herbs, doused in basil oil, topped with lemon & lime slices and crowned with a handful of edamame before being tied up in crisp white parchment paper and placed in the fridge for later.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | Halibut en Papillote | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Finally I cubed the Tricolore Potatoes, dressing them in herbs, spices and extra virgin olive oil so they too would be all ready to go in the oven at the appointed hour. The Haricot Verts were placed in a pot, ready to be steamed just before serving. I also diced fresh garlic that would be needed later for my Garlicky Haricot Verts.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY |Tricolore Roasted Potatoes | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Do The Dishes

Once every dish is prepped as much as it can be I wash and put away all the dishes so that my kitchen is sparkling when guests arrive.

Delegate Only When It Makes Sense

Leaving behind tradition, our birthday girl asked for her favorite; Chocolate Chip Cookies for dessert in lieu of a birthday cake. This I delegated to one of our dinner guests who asked to contribute to the meal. While I often decline offers of food contributions when planning a dinner party, if you have a guest you can count on to provide something attractive and good tasting then I say go for it. I love how my friend turned cookies into an approximation of a cake, with a birthday candle to boot.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | Chocolate Chip Cookie Birthday Dessert | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Stay tuned and very soon I will be publishing the recipes for the dishes I served at this Birthday Dinner Party.

Meal Service & Cleanup

After a round of celebratory drinks & birthday toasts in the bar with some very light appetizers (so as not to spoil appetites for the meal I’ve worked so hard to prepare) guests are invited to the table.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

Once everyone is seated I retreat to the kitchen to begin plating the first course. So that I’m not searching down dinnerware at the last minute, I stack all the plates and bowls I’ll be needing in my butler’s pantry beforehand so they are ready to grab. At this point my husband is filling the water glasses and placing carafes of chilled water on the table for refills.

HOW TO PLAN A DINNER PARTY | www.AfterOrangeCounty.com

My husband then helps me serve each guest while I also explain what is being served. I say for example…

This is a Yellow Pepper Soup made with roasted yellow bell peppers, sauted shallots, chicken broth and a touch of fresh cream. It’s topped off with a dash of fresh basil oil. Enjoy!

Once enjoyed the soup bowls get removed from the table and are quickly rinsed and placed in the dishwasher by my husband while I plate the next course. We repeat this process until each dish is served and removed from the table, placing as much as we can in the dishwasher as we go along. This makes me so much happier the next morning.

Drink Service

When we entertain my husband is responsible for selecting the wine to accompany the meal. He chills the white wine, opens bottles of red to allow them to breath before the party, makes sure the ice buckets are filled and that we have our guests favorite varieties of libations on hand. I also think it’s the responsibility of a good host to make sure everyone’s glasses are filled throughout the evening. So, my husband bartends before our meals and serves wine and water during the meal. This makes for a very good dinner party with happy guests who feel well taken care of. By the way, Brad also makes sure we always have some great music playing in the background.

My Cardinal Rules For Entertaining

Guests are guests, not helpers.

When I invite guests to my home I want them to be just that, guests. So, that means I don’t want them feeling like they must help in the kitchen with last minute prep or feel like they should get up from the table to help serve or clear their plates, etc.  I want guests in my home to enjoy the time, to relax and to feel pampered for a night. And, let me state for the record, I also feel this way in part for selfish reasons which I’ll explain. You see, when I’m in the kitchen doing last minute cooking I like to have a bit of quiet time to think about what I have to do next. If a guest is in the kitchen with me I feel like I still need to entertain them, and that’s a distraction for me when I’m scurrying to serve dinner. So, I actually tell my guests to sit, relax and enjoy and let Brad and I do the work. When I go to their homes that’s exactly what I’d like to be doing as well.

Guests should be encouraged to remain at the table until the conclusion of the meal & beyond.

I like to leave the heavy lifting to Brad and me when entertaining. All too often I find that if a guest or two gets up from the table to help, the ebb and flow of the evening is interrupted, conversations are lost and distractions are felt that don’t make for a good party. Once I’ve finished serving the meal and have removed the dishes from the table the party does not end there, as I love to sit and relax over an after dinner drink and let the evening flow on and on. That can’t happen if guests have already removed themselves from the table to help clean up.

I hope my tips and advice will help you plan, execute and thoroughly enjoy your next dinner party!

Looking for more party planning advice? Check out my post entitled How to Plan & Host a Large Dinner Party.

So there you have it: How To Plan A Dinner Party

Thanks so much for dropping in! 

Express Yourself!

No blog post is truly complete without a word from you. I’d be so delighted if you’d leave a comment below. 

All opinions expressed in this post are my own. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are the original property of Celia Becker @ www.AfterOrangeCounty.com and may not be reproduced without specific permission. 

Comments

  • Ann Rommel

    Celia…what a fabulous hostess you are! even after years of hosting parties I always learn something new from you! Thank you for sharing! xoxo

  • Celia Becker

    Ah, so nice to hear from you Ann. I’m delighted to hear that I could be of help to you, the consummate hostess. I’d love to enjoy your company at a dinner party again, despite our distance. Maybe we should work on that soon!

  • Therese

    Well said! You are such a gracious hostess! I agree about the well-meaning guests wanting to help in the kitchen….I wish I could seat-belt them in their chairs, sometimes! Lol

  • diane

    Great advice. I, too, have a rule that when at my house you do not help clean up and when I am at your house the same rule applies. This is hard to enforce at times but once everyone understands they can enjoy the evening. After all, isnt that the point? Your parties sound lovely!

  • Oh, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one that thinks guests should be guests. It is hard to enforce because people really and truly are well meaning. But isn’t it nice when the same favor is reciprocated?

  • Thank you so much Therese. Yes, guests in chairs makes for a much better party:)

  • Wonderful advice from such a gracious host. Planning ahead and thinking of every detail sure does make a guest feel special. I love your monogrammed napkins. I am a sucker for a great monogram…what a wonderful Christmas gift.
    xo- V.

  • Thanks Vanessa. Yes, I hit the jackpot with lose monogrammed napkins. And they even gave me a dozen so I can use them for larger dinner parties.

  • Juliet Russell

    Love this post, as I do all your entertaining advice. I’m so with you on letting hosts be hosts and guests be guests. We’ve just moved into our new house – after 18 long months of building – and I’m excited to get organized and host our first dinner party!