I’ve learned that I very much view “hosting” as a skill. I was definitely not born knowing how to throw a killer dinner party, and I’m sure there’s a ton I could improve on, but let me tell you what — I freakin’ love it.
I was talking to my friend Emily about it one day and she mentioned she enjoys it because she loves to be the one providing the stellar experience to people; her thrill comes from watching people have fun. Isn’t that sweet.
But not me.
No, I like the feeling of conquering the dinner party prep. That’s right folks, I view hosting a dinner party like a battle. Sure, I may have signed up to cook eight things but be prepared for me to only bring two because it was an all out battlefield in the kitchen. And when you come over and I say “Oh my gosh, I totally forgot to make the creme brulee — I am SO sorry!” you can be absolutely certain that I, in fact, did not forget and I did in fact, run out of time (because who the hell knew macarons were so demanding amirite?)
But an hour later when the crew is either sprawled on the living room floor or slouched in the mismatched chairs at the dinner table and our conversation revolves around how uncomfortably full we all are, my internal reaction is that of a Miss America pageant contestant batting away her tears as she is crowned. Because despite the burnt food remnants etched into my stove, the flour that is now wedged in the cracks of my iPhone screen, and the mounds of dishes piled in the sink that I secretly am hoping someone else will wash, I somehow pulled it off. And beyond that, I think two of these people were actually a little impressed.
This was the case with Easter. Each time I have people over I think I do just a little bit better than the last. I still can’t hold a candle to Zach’s mom, who taught me everything I know, but it’s always fun enough to do again.
These are the tips I’ve learned (so far) that help me conquer the dinner party:
1. Plan ahead (kind of).
The key to planning ahead is to plan ahead as much as is necessary so that you don’t stress yourself out because you don’t think you have a plan. However, if you’re ever stressed because it might not be perfect or the food might come out too late, let me just go ahead and tell you that I am not on your level. The only objectives I ever have are to make food that is a) good b) gram-worthy (yeah, yeah, I’m a millennial) and c) feeds the crowd. Timing, the mixing of flavors, wine pairings, etc. is beyond my pay grade and really just an added bonus.
So to plan ahead, my absolute must is to draft the menu and grocery shop at least one day before. Also, if it’s a dish with a weird ingredient, it probably won’t make the cut because I never plan far enough ahead to secure said ingredient. Basically, if Amazon Prime doesn’t have it, it ain’t happenin’.
If you’re wanting to decorate and go all out, don’t even think about trying to do that on the same day that you’re cooking because let me just tell you: it will not happen. Same goes for cleaning your apartment. The only fight an old roommate and I ever got in was when we were scrambling to clean before our President’s Day Party (talk about a celebratory day in history, I know) when she rushed to put the vaccuum cleaner in the closet and finish tidying up as I was plating the food. We exchanged words, with those words being “ALEX!!!! WHY WOULD YOU EVER PUT A TWENTY-DOLLAR VACCUM CLEANER ON A THREE-HUNDRED DOLLAR PAIR OF SHOES?!?!?”
Don’t let this be you.
2. Overcommit and under-deliver.
As mentioned, I get real ambitious when it comes to cooking for a crowd. I treat it like Iron Chef where I have 5 hours to make 6 dishes. The only problem is that I generally have no sous chef and I, myself, am not an iron chef. Thus, 1-2 things that I wrote on my notepad don’t ever come into existence. Because I know this about myself, I rank the things that absolutely have to get done. So when it comes to that second dessert I just really want to make, if it’s that important, I need to either make it a day early or accept that it just might not happen. And generally, I find that I don’t actually want it as bad as I thought because 100% of the time, I never make food ahead of time.
3. Map out your food placement.
On my very first Christmas dinner, the biggest faux-pas was realizing I don’t live in a mansion and my oven is actually not big enough to fit a roasting pan full of pork and a casserole dish. I was stressed and all of that could have been prevented if I would have coordinated a teensy bit more. Nothing sucks more than having an amazing dinner and then realizing you have to subdivide the meal onto paper plates to fit on your table, which effectively ruins any and all photo evidence you have to prove you are adulting and can make meals other than Lean Cuisine.
This is why I suggest figuring out what food fits onto which plates and then figuring out which plates fit onto the bar or table. I actually only did this for the first time this past weekend (see: post-it notes below), but it was a game-changer. With multiple cooks in the kitchen, it was so much easier to tell people exactly which dishes to use instead of having them guess and still not having everything fit on the table.
4. If you’re gettin’ real fancy, make a timeline.
The biggest obstacle I always encounter: cooking multiple dishes at the same time. Balancing chopping with reading a recipe with making a sauce generally results in at least one stovetop boil-over. The very first Christmas dinner party I hosted was a complete nightmare because I could not get the timing right. For the second Christmas dinner, I came prepared:
In a notebook, I wrote down all the dishes that required the highly-coveted oven. Alongside each dish, I wrote down how long they needed to cook and the corresponding temperature. Once I had all that, I figured out what could be cooked at the same time. If there was a dish that was cooked at 425º and another cooked at 450º, you can bet I threw those bad boys in at the same time and just cooked one of the dishes longer.
As for cooking order, anything that needed to be cooked but would have to be reheated went in first, followed by food that could retain heat the longest (a gratin or a casserole for example), with the main dish (typically a meat) getting cooked last. As soon as the meat came out of the oven, I’d cover it with foil and let it rest for 15ish minutes while I reheated the food that needed it.
All of this coordination and my horribly sketched notes were a massive lifesaver and Christmas II went significantly better than the first. Apparently the Martha Stewarts of the world never have to do this because they’ve gotten so good at it over time, but I have about 0 Martha in my blood.
5. Don’t even try to get fancy with appetizers.
Grab some cheese and salami from Costco (seriously so much cheaper than the grocery store it is honestly insane), a loaf of french bread, some hummus & veggies, and call it good. Maybe it’s just me, but the space in my stomach is valuable real estate and there is 0% chance of me wanting to fill it with a mediocre eggplant dip or store-bought guacamole when there is a pile of cheese and bread sitting in front of me.
6. Ask people to bring things.
I love pretending I’m an independent woman who can do it all, some unique combination of Wonder Woman and Beyonce. But when it comes to the dinner party, that thinking is out because it is impossible and 100% not fun to cook all the things. Ask your friends to bring wine, a dip, a side, more wine — whatever you want, but this will save your wallet and your sanity.
Now before everyone goes off thinking I’m missing the whole point, let’s clarify the most important thing: a great dinner party really just equates to using food as an excuse to get the people you like the most together in one room. I strongly believe food is the one common thread across cultures that brings people together and that shouldn’t be lost. If you totally bomb the dinner and end up ordering Domino’s, don’t beat yourself up. Just grab the wine your friend brought, brush it off, and remember we’ve all been there.
But if you’re anything like me and you’re able to pull off just some of the things you set out to do, you’ll feel like you truly conquered the dinner party.