The Ultimate Dinner Party GuidePublished on 20th December 2016
The Ultimate Dinner Party Guide
90 tips to impress your guests with a dinner party to remember.
What’s the point of having a beautiful new addition to your home if you can’t show it off? Having friends over for dinner is a tradition that’s been part of British culture for decades, but managing all the guests, the cooking and the planning can still send us into a panic.
Our dinner party guide is crammed full of 90 tips from experts, helping you to ensure that your dinner parties are something to remember – for all the right reasons.
The Guest List
1. Don’t over-reach before you’ve even started. How many people can you comfortably cater for? You might want to invite all twelve of the guests from the last dinner party you went to, but if your dining table can’t stretch beyond six and you don’t have the lounge space to accommodate everyone, you’re setting yourself up to fail before you’ve started.
2. Consider your guests wisely. Will they all get on? Do they have something in common, a mutual interest? Sophia Breene from Greatist.com says there’s no harm in inviting people who don’t know each other, but take care when choosing an “exciting” wildcard to keep things interesting – the last thing you want to do is make the rest of your guests uncomfortable.
3. If you’ve got one particular friend who’s always popular at dinner parties, consider building the list around them as an “anchor guest”. Bon Appétit’s Amanda Hesser recommends choosing someone provocative or funny to keep conversation lively.
4. When inviting guests, the general rule of thumb is that the more formal the event, the more formal the invitations. A casual get-together can be managed over email, but a formal dinner party would benefit from a proper invitation through the post. Take a look at Pinterest for some DIY inspiration, or go for an online printing service for a professional design and finish.
5. However formal the invitation, it’s important to make sure you invite your guests early enough for them to have the evening free, but not so early they could forget about the event before the day comes around. Amanda Hesser suggests that three weeks notice is the optimum.
Choosing a Menu
6. Check for dietary requirements first. You don’t want to spend hours slaving away over a delicious menu only to find out that some of your guests aren’t able to enjoy it (or won’t eat it). There are plenty of great recipes out there for every possible diet, so the sooner you know, the more time you have to prepare!
7. Don’t try a recipe for the first time on the night – especially if it’s complicated. Make sure that the end result will be something delicious that your guests will love by practising and tasting the dish for yourself first.
8. Consider your cooking space. Smaller kitchens won’t have the preparation space necessary for lots of canapés, or the oven space for cooking multiple dishes at once. If you’ve got a larger kitchen, or a kitchen extension, you’ve got a lot more space to play with and can be more creative with your menu.
9. Strive for balance. Courses that will require a lot of attention on the night should be balanced out by a course that can be prepared ahead of time. Knorr recommend contrasting spicy dishes with something milder, and heavy dishes with something light
10. Don’t forget it’s a social event – choosing a menu that requires a lot of work on the night will keep you away from your guests, which isn’t ideal. BBC Good Food points out that you don’t want to create huge gaps between your courses or leave your guests alone to amuse themselves, so try to plan a menu that you can prepare ahead of time.
11. It’s OK to cheat a little. For example, if you’ve got a labour-intensive main course, you could buy in a charcuterie board for an appetiser, or get a prepared dessert delivered in advance. If you’ve got a particularly large guest list, it’s often the logical solution, as Gourmet Food Revolution suggests.
12. Work out how much food you’re going to need. Whilst having a few leftovers isn’t the end of the world (providing the food keeps), having lots will leave you eating the same meals for days – and not providing enough will leave your guests unsatisfied! When you’re working out how much you need per person, Anna Duttson recommends the following quantities as a guideline:
- 225g meat
- 200g fish
- 60g vegetables
- 85 – 115g potatoes
- 60g rice
- 30g cheese
Dealing with Dietary Requirements
13. One way to navigate the various dietary requirements of guests is to get them all involved. Giselle Rochford of Diary of an ExSloth suggests a pot-luck style dinner party, where each guest brings one dish. Not only does this ensure that everyone has something that they can eat, but it means less work for you and provides a great talking point.
14. Cooking for a vegetarian. Usually vegetarian requirements are pretty straightforward – stay away from the meat! There are a range of meat substitutes available, like Quorn, so you can adapt an existing recipe to make it veggie-friendly, or you can follow one of our favourite vegetarian recipes to really impress!
15. It may make things easier for you to make at least one of the courses vegetarian, as Sainlo Events recommend. It can mean less time in the kitchen for you, and vegetarian meals are often healthier, helping you tick two boxes!
16. This tomato & asparagus frittata from the Happy Foodie is a great option for a veggie-friendly starter, or sliced small as a vegetarian canapé. Frittatas aren’t difficult to make, so it won’t cause you too much stress, and you can adapt the recipe by adding whichever vegetables or other fillings you like.
17. A perfect veggie-friendly canapé comes in the form of these delicious crispy fried halloumi bites. Best served hot, these treats will work well on their own or as part of a mixed platter – remember to provide plenty of napkins if you’re serving these as finger food, or you could end up with greasy fingers all over your glass extension!
18. Remind yourselves of warmer times during the chilly winter months with this meat-free Spanish chickpea & spinach stew from Lazy Cat Kitchen. A twist on the classic dish garbanzos con espinacas, this recipe doubles up as a gluten-free option, keeping everyone happy!
19.Cooking for vegans. If you’re not used to cooking vegan-friendly food, you might think that there isn’t much you can do, but you’d be wrong! There are plenty of recipes that recreate some classic meals but without any animal products, and a fair few of them without tofu. If you’re not entirely sure what your vegan guest does/doesn’t eat, it’s always best to check rather than to assume – but remember, vegan doesn’t just mean no dairy, it means no animal products, including eggs, and for some vegans, honey.
20. Asian inspired vegan canapés. These sticky sesame cauliflower wings are a great alternative to chicken wings, and the recipe includes gluten-free instructions too. Like with the crispy fried halloumi bites above, you’ll want to ensure you’ve got napkins on hand, especially if you’ve got a heavy hand with the sticky sesame sauce.
21. For a filling vegan main course that you can easily prepare ahead of time, try this beetroot & squash wellington from BBC Good Food. There’s a fair bit of effort involved, but it’ll be worth it to wow your vegan guests with more than just a meat substitute. It’s also a great option for Christmas dinner.
22. For a vegan main that’s a little less labour intensive, and can be served alongside meatier alternatives, try Vegan Insanity’s vegan enchiladas. The recipe is from a Canadian author, so you’ll need to remember that zucchinis are courgettes and that cilantro is coriander, but once you get past that the recipe is very straightforward.
23. For another vegan Christmas main, or something that will go nicely as part of a classic roast dinner, try this butternut roast from the Veg Space. You’ll be able to make this ahead of time, and just heat it through before serving, making it a perfect option for a dinner party when you’ll have other things to be busy with.
24. No dinner party is complete without a dessert, and avoiding dairy products doesn’t have to stop that. Thanks to the use of vegan margarine, this toffee apple upside-down cake will keep all your guests happy.
25. For a lighter dessert that’s still vegan free, this grape and rosemary sorbet will do the trick. The grape and rosemary complement each other beautifully, and the unique pairing will impress any foodies.
26. Any guests on gluten-free diets won’t be able to eat anything like bread or pasta – any prepackaged foods that are made with wheat flour. Coeliac UK has a great guide on preparing food for those cooking gluten-free, as well as a recipe database for members, if you’re going to be regularly cooking gluten-free.
27. A hugely popular solution to pasta-free dishes is to whip out the spiralizer and make your own vegetable spaghetti. So popular is this option that you can now pots of pre-spiralized root vegetables in supermarkets – our favourite? Courgetti spaghetti.
28. This gluten-free crazy dough can be used for a huge range of different dough-based bakes, like pizza, focaccia, bread rolls, cinnamon rolls… you get the idea. It is also freezable and easy to store, so you can make ahead of time, perfect for dinner parties.
29. For pasta substitute that isn’t made of root vegetables, try using grains, seeds and pulses, like lentils or quinoa (keen-wah). This garlic shrimp and quinoa recipe is interesting enough for a dinner party dish, and easy enough to prepare ahead
30. If any of your guests have nut allergies, that’s definitely something you need to be aware of before planning your dinner party menu. Check labels carefully, and if your guest is very sensitive, it’s best to stay away from nuts for everyone, rather than preparing them a separate meal. It’s also worth remembering that things like pesto can trigger allergies too, so check your recipes carefully. Sites like Allergy UK have information that can help.
31. Religious guests? Many religions have specific dietary rules that your guests may or may not follow strictly – again, ask! Etiquette scholar has some very handy guides to dining etiquette for the major religions that may come in useful.
32. Cheese boards are the classic way to round off a meal. You don’t need to have a huge cheese selection available, just a couple of really good cheeses. The classic combination is a blue cheese, a soft cheese and a hard cheese.
33. Pair your cheeses with seasonal fruits or veg, as well as some good quality biscuits or crackers. This Autumn harvest board is a great example, with figs, pomegranates and olives accompanying the artisan cheeses.
34. Remember to take the cheese out of the fridge an hour or so before serving. The flavours work best when served at room temperature.
35. Keep carafes of water available throughout the evening, so guests can top up their own water as they wish. Not only will this cut down on requests for water, but it can help to moderate the amount of alcohol consumed. Add some lemon slices or other fruit for a touch of flavour – try this pomegranate, ginger and lime water from Jamie Oliver.
36. Greet guests with an aperitif when they arrive. A glass of Champagne or prosecco is a classic, or add some peach purée for a bellini instead. Another classic is an Aperol Spritz, or try a dry wine or cocktail. These rose, raspberry and mint fizz cocktails offer a nice twist.
37. For a Christmas drink, try this delicious punch. With whisky, Benedictine liqueur and clementines, this warming mixture adds a festive touch to any dinner party and when served in a punch bowl adds a great opportunity for conversation.
38. If you need some advice on picking the right wines to pair with each meal, visit a dedicated wine shop and speak to one of their experts. Bring a copy of your menu with you to make sure you’ve got each course covered!
39. For a less boozy party, have a look for low alcohol or alcohol-free wine. You can also get a free spirit measure cup from DrinkAware when you register for their online shop, helping you to keep track of the amount of alcohol that goes into each drink.
Preparing Your House
40. Get the inevitable cleaning done in advance, so you’re not trying to cram it all in on the day of the dinner party. The bathroom, kitchen, dining room and lounge area should all be cleaned and tidy, and make sure you’ve cleaned the glass in your conservatory – grubby fingermarks will take away from the beauty of the structure!
41. Make a timed to-do plan, working backwards from when your guests are due to arrive. Vegetarian Ventures’ Shelly Westerhausen advocates splitting up to-do lists by time, with steps for recipes, errands to run etc., helping to keep the whole event organised.
42. Make sure you’ve got a place to keep your guests’ coats when they arrive, or you could end up with piles near the door.
43. If you’ve got a sideboard or console in your dining room, use it to store wine, water, spare cutlery and anything else you might need during courses so it’s all within arm’s reach. This will cut down on the time you have to spend out of the room, missing out on the party.
44. Wash your dishcloths and tea towels and dry them thoroughly. The NHS recommend doing this regularly, as dirty and damps tea towels are an ideal breeding ground for germs – and you don’t want to give your guests food poisoning! There are plenty of tips for avoiding food poisoning on the NHS Livewell website.
45. Martha Stewart recommends using a ‘silencer’ underneath your tablecloth, to mute the sounds of plates and cutlery on the surface. If you don’t own one, you can make one out of thick felt.
46. If you’re not sure how to set a formal dinner table, or you’re just a bit rusty on which cutlery goes where, Martha Stewart also has this convenient how-to guide which will show you.
47. Using candles and low-lighting creates a nice atmosphere and also helps to make everyone look better. Avoid using scented candles, as they’ll interfere with the tastes and smells of your food.
48. If you’re doing a large dinner party (say eight or more guests), or one when the guests don’t all know each other, having a seating plan can help everything run more smoothly. Think carefully about the placement – traditionally, you should alternate between men and women, and seat yourself at the head of the table, as the host. Also consider separating couples, seating based on mutual interests, and accounting for individual needs, like hearing difficulties or those who may need to make more frequent trips to the bathroom.
49. Place cards help to keep your seating plan on track, but they can also add to the decor. Typography inspired design is particularly in vogue at the moment, so try experimenting with different fonts to create a modern look, or take a look at some of the DIY ideas on Pinterest.
50. When you’re planning centrepieces or flowers, consider how they’ll affect interactions during dinner. They shouldn’t get in the way of the meal or obstruct anyone’s view of the other guests (or of your garden, if you’re hosting in your conservatory).
51. Sara Elliot from HowStuffWorks advises rehearsing the different elements of your table setting in advance, so you have a good balance and one less thing to think about before your guests arrive. To be extra prepared, set your table the night before, as Sophia Breene from Greatist proposes.
52. For an impressive dining area that will be the envy of your guests for years to come, consider a modern glass extension for your home. It’ll afford you the space to host more often, as well as offering a dramatic focal point.
53. If you want to showcase your creative side, give off a restaurant style vibe or give your kids a way of getting involved in the event, try a few napkin folds. Try the classic standing fan, these quirky pinwheel napkins or the ultimate origami challenge – the swan.
54. Festive dinner parties need this adorable Christmas tree napkin fold. You’ll need to pick up some star napkin rings and green napkins to do it right, but it adds a delightfully festive touch to any table.
55. Always, always put salt and pepper out on the table.
56. If you want to take it easy on the alcohol during your dinner party, try putting out small wine glasses and leaving the wine in the kitchen. A large wine glass could hold the equivalent of your entire alcohol unit allowance (as recommended by the government), so you’ll find it much easier to end up drunk.
57. For organised cooking preparation, practice “mise-en place”. Lay out all of the ingredients you’ll need, in the right quantities before you start cooking – like you tend to see on cookery programmes. This is an ideal way to find out if there’s anything you’re missing before you need it and get stressed!
58. If it all seems like it’s going to be too much, hire in extra help for the event. You’ll be able to hire in a professional chef (if you don’t fancy ordering the meals in ready-made), or you can hire a butler to look after the service aspect of the evening, so all you have to do on the night is relax!
59. For background music, a well chosen playlist can really help to set the mood, says Greatist Food Editor Jamie Webber. Services like Spotify and Amazon Prime can help you out with pre-made playlists on a wide range of themes, or create your own – remember, during dinner the music should be an accompaniment, rather than the main focus, so loud and lively isn’t necessarily the best choice.
60. Your guests are likely going to want to socialise with you, so make sure your kitchen is ready to receive. Real Simple recommend dedicating some of your kitchen space to appetisers so guests know where they can hover without getting in your way. Of course, for this to work well, the more kitchen space the better!
61. It might seem obvious to wash your hands before you begin cooking, but it’s also important to wash regularly and thoroughly throughout cooking, especially as you move between raw and cooked foods – even if you’re not preparing any meat. It can make the difference between memories of a delightful evening and a nasty bout of food poisoning.
62. What can you do in advance? Where possible, prepare as much as you can ahead of time, so you’ve got more time to socialise rather than cook during the party. Make sure you’ve got enough space to store all your pre-prepared food too – larger kitchens, like those with an Apropos kitchen extension, will have more preparation space, but you’ll need refrigeration or freezer space too.
63. Clean as you go along. You’re going to have enough washing up to do at the end of the night once the meal is finished, so cleaning pans or utensils as soon as you’re done with them will help to reduce the load you face at the end.
64. Invest in a meat thermometer to help you check that the food you’re preparing is cooked through before you serve it – you can pick them up relatively cheaply. For an accurate measure, insert the temperature probe deep into the muscle of the meat – Marco Pierre White gives guidelines for the ideal temperature of different meats on the Knorr website.
65. Use separate chopping boards and utensils for raw and cooked food, or wash thoroughly and dry well between uses. As well as preventing the spread of potentially harmful bacteria, this practice is particularly important when cooking for those with food allergies or intolerances, or those with specific dietary needs.
66. If you’ve planned ahead, you should already know how long it’s going to take you to cook everything – especially as you’ll have cooked each course before. Remember that the more people you’re cooking for, and the more dishes you’re cooking, the more time you’ll need to add to your cooking time. You can only do so much at once, so give yourself more time than you’d expect to cover any delays or issues.
67. Presentation is key for an impressive dinner party meal. Your guests will gain their first impressions of each dish by looking at it, so put a little effort into making sure they all look fabulous. A tip from BBC Good Food is to avoid food that’s all the same colour – add a garnish in a contrasting colour to create a dish that’s more appealing to the eye.
On the Night
68. Be ready when you said you’d be ready. It might be acceptable for some of your guests to be fashionably late, but it’s poor form to keep people waiting – something Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of the etiquette queen Emily Post says happens far too often.
69. Greet your guests at the door as they arrive, take their coats, and make introductions when people don’t know each other. It’s simple, but it goes a long way to making people feel welcomed and comfortable.
70. If one or more of your guests is known to spend more time looking at their phone that at the faces of other people, try a mobile phone amnesty or dedicated storage area to keep the technology at bay. Offering people a place to leave their beloved device on charge somewhere out of the way achieves separation whilst being hospitable (you may need to provide chargers).
71. There will often be those guests who want to help you out, whether it’s because they’re no good at small talk or they feel guilty at sitting back whilst you work. Employ these people to share out the canapés, fold the napkins or other such small tasks – ideally, there won’t be many of these to do, as you’ll have prepared ahead and be ready to join the party.
72. Make sure you don’t try too hard to persuade people into certain things. If someone turns down something you’re offering, accept it, or you may inadvertently be pressuring your guest into announcing their pregnancy or diet says Bridget Moloney.
73. Try and steer conversation away from controversial or dull topics (like Brexit for example). Neither heated debate or tedious topics are particularly welcome at dinner parties, so politely change the topic by asking for people’s opinions on something different.
74. Spend the majority of your time with your guests, not in your kitchen. They’re here to see you, not to visit a restaurant, so try to minimise the amount of time you spend away from the group.
75. The night doesn’t need to be focused around the dinner table – ensure there’s a lounge area for your guests to mingle with drinks and canapés, or to retire to after the meal has finished. These beautiful spaces can provide some inspiration.
76. Even the best planned guest lists don’t always work out. If your guests aren’t all meshing, try moving the meal into another room for dessert or after dinner nibbles, where guests can mingle and socialise with other people. Alternatively, a simple change of seating arrangements can solve the issue, as Debretts recommend – be careful not to single specific people out, or you could make them feel uncomfortable.
77. Whilst they may not be suitable for every dinner party, having a party game or two can be an enjoyable addition, as well as helping to stimulate conversation where it isn’t flowing naturally.
78. Blindfolded wine tasting could be a good idea where you’re serving multiple wines with the meal, or if you’ve got a good selection in your wine cellar. Those who know a lot about wine will enjoy showing off their skills, whilst the less experienced can give it a try to test their palate.
79. Memory games become particularly entertaining in the later stages of the evening if the guests have been making full use of your wine or cocktail selections. Try the schooltime classic “I went to the shops, and I bought…” where each guest must add a new item to the list created on previous turns. It starts off easy, when there’s only a small number of items on the list, but trying to remember twenty randomly chosen items is a lot more difficult!
80. For a traditional dinner party classic, try the famous Victorian game of charades. It may have been done before, but it’s lasted the test of time for a reason – and it will give you a great insight into your friends’ entertainment choices and acting ability.
81. Another dinner party classic goes by many names, but is universally known and understand. Simply write the name of a famous person on a sticky note, and stick it on the forehead of the person next to you. They then have to ask yes or no questions to try and deduce the name of the celebrity on their sticky note. Cue plenty of debate along the lines of “Well, she has BEEN on TV, but it’s not what she’s KNOWN for…”.
At the End of the Night
82. If you’ve got guests who’ve overdone it a little on the wine, direct them to a spare bedroom and offer to let them stay the night. It’s often the safest option for them, as Lizzie Post points out, so if you’ve got a bed spare, confiscate their car keys and sort it out in the morning.
83. Unless you’ve got an exceptionally persistent guest who won’t take no for an answer, don’t accept your guests’ offers of a hand cleaning up. More often than not, they’re just being polite, and doing the dishes is no-one’s idea of a good time.
84. When it’s time for the evening to come an end, finding a tactful way to indicate to your guests that it’s time to go home can be difficult. Lizzie Post suggests shutting down the bar – once the alcohol stops flowing, guests will often choose to either go home, or carry on elsewhere.
85. Another way to signal the end of the evening is to ask guests how they’re getting home, as Beth Zeigler of Apartment Therapy recommends. Offer to organise taxis and you’ll be bring the night to its natural conclusion without outright asking people to leave.
86. Much like in a nightclub, turning up the lights is a clear indication that it’s time to go. Couple this with a spot of tidying up, and all but the most oblivious guests will understand the signals.
87. When cutting off booze, turning on the lights and offering your guests taxis haven’t shifted the group and you just want to go to bed, you have to be direct. Start with an apology, says family therapist Roger Gil, and explain that you really do have to go to bed now. Make it about your feelings, rather than an instruction to leave, and you can navigate the event without causing offence.
88. Do start tidying up before you go to bed. It might be the last thing you feel like doing, but leaving the mess now will just mean you’ve got a big pile to face in the morning – and leftover bits of food won’t fare well overnight.
89. When it comes to leftovers, make sure anything you’re keeping has been wrapped or covered and placed in the fridge or freezer within two hours of being served. This minimises the chance of harmful bacteria taking over and adding a dose of food poisoning to your leftover dish. Refrigerated food needs to be eaten within two days, and remember not to freeze anything that had previously been frozen, unless it’s been cooked since.
90. If you’ve overindulged a little, make sure you drink some water before you go to bed. That way, when you wake up in the morning you can just feel pleased at having thrown a great dinner party, rather than a throbbing head and a sense of nausea.
Return to Blog