‘Tis the season for, well, lots of things, but dinner parties is certainly up high on that list. Between all of the holiday hustle and bustle, decompressing with good food, a group of friends, and copious amounts of alcohol is pretty much the only way to survive the grind this time of year. But as fun as sitting down to a meal with people you love can be, playing hostess can be seriously stressful.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. Dinner parties aren’t about trying to impress your friends—and stretch your skills—by being obnoxiously fancy. This isn’t the time to try out those new molecular gastronomy techniques you learned on YouTube or worry about finally investing in nice china. If you’ve got the basics covered, no one’s going to care whether or not the napkins match the plates or that you’re using plastic forks. These eight tips will help you host a stress-free and awesome dinner party that all your friends will agree was totally the best of the year.
Be realistic with the menu
If you’ve never made beef Wellington before, a dinner party is probably not the occasion to spend tons of money on a whole tenderloin that you’re going to potentially ruin for all your friends. Instead, show off something you’re already good at, like the crispy roasted chicken you’ve been perfecting all year or your mindblowing hot wings sauce. If you’re serving a large crowd, perhaps one bigger than your kitchen can handle, consider offering a buffet of fancy bites and snacks. It’s easier to make dips and arrange cheese plates for 15 than trying to sear individual filets of salmon.
But get fancy with the details
Dinner parties are still, at least a little bit, about showing off. You don’t have to go all-out and make a six course dinner, but a fancy touch here and there will let everyone at your party know that you’re a way better cook than they are. Add a little freshly-grated parmesan and truffle-infused salt to popcorn for an appetizer, or garnish deviled eggs with inexpensive caviar and dill fronds. Creative presentations (oyster shooters, anyone?) and exotic dishes can also be a good way to convey your culinary prowess.
Find a theme
Themed parties can be cheesy, but when done well, your Moroccan feast or build-your-own French crepes bar will look really impressive. You don’t have to go all-out with costumes and decor, but choose a loose theme, like the season or a style of cuisine, and stick to it. Once you’ve got a framework, you can easily build a menu, pair with the right wines and cocktails, and bring a sense of cohesion to your dinner party.
Accommodating all of your friends’ dietary choices is a nightmare, but it’s easy enough to provide a variety of options so that everyone can enjoy at least one or two dishes. Provide a vegetarian side or appetizer for your meat-averse friends, vegetable sticks for dips for the gluten-free crowd, and a healthy snack or two for those counting calories. That way, you won’t feel guilty when your ex-roommate’s obnoxious vegan girlfriend is scowling at the bacon-wrapped scallops and holding an empty plate.
Serve punch or pitcher cocktails
Craft cocktails are totally en vogue, but stocking a full bar is expensive, and you’re never guaranteed to get your picks right. Choose one or two libations—“signature cocktails,” if you’re fancy—and mix them in large batches before the party starts. If you didn’t inherit Grandma’s nice crystal punch bowl, drag out your fanciest tea pitchers and set out plenty of cups. As long as the booze is plentiful and tastes good, people aren’t going to care what it’s served in.
Mise en place
Any restaurant chef will tell you that having everything in its place is important, and that’s because they’re experienced with cooking for a crowd. If you try to chop all the carrots and onion for your mirepoix an hour before the guests arrive, you’re going to be stressed out and scrambling to get dinner ready before the doorbell rings. Many recipes can be prepared a day or two in advance, and will leave you able to take care of the minor details on the day of your big shindig.
Make sure you have the right serving dishes and utensils
If you’re not used to hosting dinner parties, you may not have all the supplies you need. Whether you’re serving a buffet-style, potluck, or seated dinner, each requires unique supplies and utensils. Aside from making sure that you have enough forks, plates, and water glasses, ensure that you have enough tongs for serving, spoons for serving dips, and trivets to protect counters from warm dishes. Don’t be afraid to take the cheap route and buy plastic—no one is going to judge you for avoiding the dishes.
Chill the hell out
No one likes a tense, stressed-out dinner party host, and you’re not going to be able to enjoy your party if you’re freaking out over whether or not everyone gets your food. Pour yourself a big glass of wine (or stiff cocktail) just about the time that your guests are going to arrive, and let it be. You’re probably going to deal with some minor issues—everyone runs out of ice—but everything is going to work out. If the turkey pinwheels are a flop but everyone raves about the mac n’ cheese bites and no one dies, call it a win.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor. She throws a mean dinner party.