How to Throw a Great Dinner Party at Home
A memorable dinner party leaves a lasting impression–a warm feeling of community and rambling conversations, peppered with flavors that fill the stomach as well as the soul. Food has the power to bring people together–whether you’re serving family members, business colleagues, or new friends. To help you create a dinner party that your guests will always remember, we’ve put together a list of guidelines and elements every great host or hostess follows.
The recipe for a successful dinner party is very simple–a classic combination of food, friends, drinks, and meaningful discussions. Every choice you make–from theme to menu to music–should center around creating this atmosphere of warmth, openness, and discussion. However, every host or hostess adds their own personal flavor to the event–a sprinkle of fun, a dash of competition, or a heaping spoonful of classic elegance.
In this article, a professional caterer and chef will take you through the process of hosting a dinner party, starting with overall guidelines, then breaking down into actual timelines, processes, and checklists. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert who just needs help organizing, this guide will ensure you have all the details you need to throw a low-stress dinner party your guests will keep talking about for years to come.
1. Everything begins with the theme
A theme is the foundation of a memorable dinner party. It determines everything from your menu, to your choice of entertainment, to how your invitations will be decorated.
So how do you choose a theme? First, think about the reason for your dinner party. Are you entertaining close friends, or trying to impress new colleagues? Are you celebrating a holiday, or hosting a game night? Will the event be kid-friendly?
Also, consider the atmosphere you’d like to create. Is this a formal dinner, or a casual gathering? Would you like your guests to feel calm and relaxed, or excited and boisterous? Will this be an intimate event with close friends, or will the evening be an energetic introduction of many new acquaintances?
Atmosphere and theme work together. Even a theme as simple as “Christmas Dinner” can be interpreted many ways. Is it a classic, elegant, Charles Dickens-style Christmas? A Southern charm Christmas? A fun, whimsical, snow wonderland Christmas with elves and sparkles? A gingerbread and candy Christmas?
Once you’ve decided on the atmosphere you hope to create, you can really narrow down your theme. Many factors can determine a theme. Perhaps you have a new French recipe book you’d really like to try. Maybe you want to host a fresh Springtime gathering with colorful flowers, chilled soups, and napkins folded into doves–or an Autumn gathering with harvest foods, butternut squash souffles, and rustic decor. You can do something as traditional as a Summer tea party, a standard 5-course meal themed around cultural cuisine–or really stretch your creativity by serving only foods found in Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.
The theme is the party’s foundation. Now, it’s time to build upon that theme. Menu items, decorations, music choices, entertainment options, conversation starters, and even the font you choose for invitations — all of it stems from your party’s theme. Every choice you make should further the theme and atmosphere you’re creating for your guests.
2. A memorable menu sets the tone
Good food creates community and brings people together. Every memorable dinner party tells a story, and the menu is the plot hook. Each course carries guests through a culinary experience, unfolding the story and keeping guests engaged throughout the meal. A great menu is a conversation-starter.
Just because a menu is memorable doesn’t mean it has to be complex. Some of the best advice is very simple:
- Choose dishes you’ve already successfully cooked in the past.
- Choose menu items that are in-season; seasonal items bring nostalgia
- Choose foods you can easily cook ahead-of-time. This frees you to focus on hosting.
Your menu should also make sense together, with complimentary flavors. For example, serving sushi as a side dish would likely clash with spaghetti and meatballs as a main course. Likewise, the menu should offer a mixture of heavy and light dishes. Guests may feel sluggish after eating heavy, hot hors-d’oeuvres like miniature quiche, followed by thick clam chowder, and a dense cheese casserole. If you’re serving a dense main course, try offering lighter fare for the first two courses. Likewise, if the main course is very light–like cous-cous, white beans, and veggies–guests may still feel hungry. A heavier soup or hors-d’oeuvres would be appropriate.
Choosing Each Course
A typical dinner party has five courses, but an ambitious host or hostess may prepare as many as seven courses. Depending on the culinary culture, each of these courses may vary. Here is an example of a seven course meal:
- Amuse-bouche (mouth-pleaser)
- Hors-d’oeuvre (appetizer)
- Potage (soup)
- Side dish
If you choose to stick to three or five courses, you can simply remove items like soup, salad, or the amuse-bouche.
In a classic dinner party, the amuse-bouche and hors-d’oeuvres are served during cocktail hour. Then, guests can be seated, as each following course surprises and delights, working together to tell the story of your overall theme. Each course should have a common thread, which ties back to the party’s theme and atmosphere.
3. Decor, music, and place-settings create ambience
Your tablescape and decor creates the tone for the evening. If each course tells a story, then your tablescape is the background for the theatre of your menu.
How do you want your guests to feel? A relaxed and elegant evening may require dim lighting, white candle centerpieces, baby’s breath flowers, with linens folded into crisp doves. Likewise, a tablescape full of color and whimsy will create a more exuberant and energetic vibe. Everything from lighting, to centerpieces, to music will set the tone for the evening.
Depending on how formal the dinner party is, there are varying levels of how to set a table. But a beautifully-dressed table will typically have:
- A table cloth
- A table runner
- A centerpiece
- Properly-arranged plates and silverware
- Folded linens
- Name cards
There are thousands of creative, whimsical, elegant, and classic ideas for decorating a tablescape, which can easily be found online. Sometimes just browsing through photos can help you brainstorm the perfect theme and decor for your dinner party.
4. Seating arrangements encourage discussion
Remember – the highlight of any dinner party is the memorable conversations! As the host or hostess, you have the power to create an engaging seating arrangement, setting your guests up for success by creating an atmosphere of openness and discussion. This begins with your table-setting and seating.
Create name-cards that coincide with your chosen theme, and place them where you desire each guest to sit. Name-cards can be creative, tucked inside a linen folded to look like a flower, or simple, resting on each guest’s plate. You can find a ton of creative place card ideas online.
You can seat the guests however you wish, but if you hope to spark memorable conversations, some experts suggest a few guidelines:
- Don’t seat spouses or romantic partners next to each other. This creates temptation for guests to only talk within their comfort bubble.
- Follow etiquette rules, such as seating guests of honor at the head of the table at special events.
- For a networking event, seat guests who share common interests near each other, to spark conversation between them.
- You know your friends’ personalities! Try sitting an introvert next to an extrovert, so even the more quiet guests can be drawn into conversations.
- If you have a great conversationalists with amazing stories, let them take point! But don’t let them bowl over everyone else.
- Consider your guest list – if you have a guest who doesn’t know anyone, make sure you invite a friend for them so they don’t feel uncomfortable.
- Find lots of interesting ideas for seating different personality types online!
However good the food, however fine the drink, and however fun the atmosphere — the highlight of a dinner party remains memorable and meaningful conversation among friends.
5. Games and conversation starters help get discussion started
Since conversation is key to a memorable dinner party, a wise planner prepares ice-breakers and conversation-starters to help generate discussion. Something as simple as conversation cards can add a sense of fun and whimsy to jump-start the evening. Many websites offer free printables, some with different themes to match your party!
It’s also helpful to have a handful of questions in your back pocket, to pull out if conversation begins to lull. “How did you two meet?” is a great question to generate discussion amongst couples. Here are a few other examples:
- “If you could have an alternate career, what would it be?”
- “Let’s all try to learn from each other. What’s one life experience or piece of advice you’d share with the world?”
- What books are on your summer reading list?
- If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
- What is your one big life dream?
If you plan a few questions beforehand, you won’t be stuck in a rut if the conversation starts to dwindle. Deep, meaningful conversations over wine, candles, and good food — this is the stuff memorable dinner parties are made of.
6. Make a shopping list – check it twice!
Once you’ve determined your menu, take a few moments to write down each and every ingredient you’ll need for each course. Any event planner or caterer will tell you – staying organized is key! You’ve got a lot of things to think about: cooking, decorating, invitations, seating arrangements, games. It’ll be far easier and less stressful if you take a deep breath and take the time to organize. The last thing you want is to run back to the grocery store two or three times because you forgot a small ingredient!
On a separate document, make a list of every decor item you need. Put a checkmark next to any items you already own.
Most event coordinators will tell you: Begin planning early. Give yourself at least a month to plan. Here’s a simple checklist of your timeline for planning a dinner party.
One month before:
- Check Pinterest for unique themes
- Brainstorm desired atmosphere and decor items
- Create guest list
- Begin planning menu
Three weeks before:
- Design and send invitations
- Determine theme
- Create shopping list of required decor items
- Begin shopping for decorations
Two weeks before:
- Guests RSVP; finalize list of attendees
- Check dietary needs for guests
- Create seating arrangements
- Finalize menu
- Create shopping list for ingredients
One week before:
- Choose music; begin creating playlist
- Create name cards
- Create ice-breaker question cards
- Clean house – trash out, restrooms clean, interesting table books
Two or three days before:
- Use finalized shopping list; buy ingredients
- Purchase alcoholic beverages – wine, champagne, beer, or cocktail mixes.
- Purchase bottle-openers and corkscrews for opening wine.
- Create ice-breaker question cards
One day before:
- Prepare as much of the menu as you can, so you can easily heat and serve the next day.
- Begin decorating and laying out centerpieces, tablecloths, candles, flowers.
- Hook-up playlist to make sure music plays
- Go ahead and set your table as much as possible — one less thing to worry about tomorrow.
- Prepare any remaining menu items
- Warm up previously-prepared foods
- Lay out hors-d’oeuvres and drinks for cocktail hour
- Arrange all prepared courses in the order you’ll need to serve them
- Set the mood by lighting candles, turning on your playlist, and staging your home for guests.
- Finally, get dressed for the evening.
Ideally, all of these early-preparation will leave very little work for you to do on the actual day of your dinner party. Be sure to take some time for yourself. Drink a glass of wine, watch your favorite TV show, and take a few moments to unwind.
Simple is still memorable
Your dinner party should be as distinct and unique as you. The games, atmosphere, themes, and menu should reflect who you are. Likewise, a host or hostess shouldn’t have to stress out; a dinner doesn’t have to be complex to be amazing. Remember: All of the lace, flowers, and candles on earth won’t make an evening memorable–at the end of the evening, what guests remember most are the connections and conversations.
For hosts or hostesses who are overwhelmed by the prospect of cooking so much food, there are options like competitive potlucks, taco buffets, or desserts-only themes that are equally fun and memorable, but allow for guests to help with the cooking. Likewise, professional caterers or personal chefs can manage all of the menu-planning, cooking, and serving, which allows the host or hostess to focus on guests.
Cheers. Here’s to an unforgettable night of good food, meaningful conversations, and lasting memories.