The first time I threw a dinner party, I did pretty much everything wrong. In my eagerness to impress, I’d chosen a fussy, complicated dish I’d never made before. The day of, I ran to multiple grocery stores to track down everything the meal required, then spent several hours sweating in the kitchen as I struggled to make the mess of ingredients on my counter look like the picture in the recipe. By the time I finished cooking, straightened up and changed, I was exhausted, and the first guest hadn’t even set foot in my house.
I spent the rest of the night drowning in my own anxiety. I’d spent so much time, money and energy on this party that it seemed like a waste not to stay laser-focused on making sure everything was perfect. The whole night was miserable and discouraging. After a few more attempts with similarly disastrous results, I didn’t try to host anything again for a long time.
What I didn’t realize then was that entertaining isn’t about flawlessly executing a set of planned steps. Instead, it’s a skill rooted in having the right mind-set: Be attuned to your guests’ needs and expectations, and everything will flow from there.
“Too often as a host, individuals will think about what they want to serve as opposed to what would make a great experience for their guests,” says etiquette consultant Elaine Swann. I had made my dinner party about me: what I wanted to cook, what I wanted to do, how I wanted it to come off. If I’d focused on the people I was having over instead of my own stress, all of us might have enjoyed ourselves more.
Here’s how to avoid making a similar mistake and get to a place where hosting feels natural, stress-free and even fun.
Get the big-picture items in place early
Having more than a few guests will always be easier with a rough plan in place. Dinner-party queen Martha Stewart’s website suggests starting with a few basic details to kick off planning for any event: the date, the number of guests, the location, the budget, whether there will be music or entertainment, and what type of party it will be.
If you’re struggling with that last one, choosing a theme can give your party some structure, Swann says. That might be tropical, winter wonderland, or wine and cheese, or it could be organized around a timely event such as the Oscars or a holiday — really, whatever people would enjoy. A party theme doesn’t just help you create a memorable experience for your guests; it also helps on the back end, giving you a framework for your food, beverage, decor and music choices.
If your theme is going to be based on a film, Swann suggests choosing the decor as well as the menu choices from the era of that film. Maybe you can focus on where the film takes place (say, 1960s London) or even focus on the location where a pivotal scene occurs (a jazz club, a circus).
If you’re honoring a person or marking a birthday or milestone, Swann recommends narrowing in on a favorite hobby or something unique about the guest of honor. Because her husband is an avid surfer, Swann hosted a birthday party for him at a surf museum. The food came from a Hawaiian-style restaurant. The decor was surf-related, and they even served a signature drink called a Surf-Tini.
Diane Gottsman, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas, says to take lighting into account when you consider your ideal atmosphere. “Make sure your bulbs are not extreme in one direction or the other,” she said. If the room is too bright, it can kill the ambiance of a formal dinner. And if a room is too dark, she said, it can make it difficult to see the food.
Moderation is also the way to go when it comes to inside temperatures, which can rise when there are large groups of people in the room. “Make sure there is plenty of ventilation but keep the temps comfortable, not too cool or hot,” Gottsman said.
Once you’ve come up with the basic info about when, where and how to pull off the event you’re envisioning, put together a timeline for getting everything done. I like this checklist, which provides guidance from a month before an event all the way up to the day of.
Make other people's comfort your priority
As a host, it’s your job to anticipate your guests’ needs. Attend to all the nitty-gritty particulars before the first person shows up, such as cleaning the bathroom and stocking it with soap, hand towels and toilet paper. If you’re serving alcohol, have sparkling water or other alternatives for guests who don’t drink. And if you’re serving a knife-and-fork meal rather than just snacks and finger foods, make sure you have enough places to sit.
“Focus on small details,” Gottsman says. “People remember memories rather than food.”
As guests arrive, help them get their bearings. Give a quick tour of your place and point out where to stash coats and purses, as well as the bathroom. Then offer them a beverage, food or both.
From there, you should make it a priority to check in with everyone at least once. It can be tempting to cloister yourself in the kitchen with a few of your closest friends, but think of yourself as the party supervisor. The Emily Post Institute blog calls this being “the leader and the spark” of the event: “It’s your job to run the show and let your guests know when it’s time for dinner, or dessert, or charades. Circulate among your guests, introduce newcomers, and stay with each group long enough to get a conversation going.” If everyone else is relaxed, you’ll be able to follow suit.
Keep an open mind and stay flexible
Do your best to keep things in perspective if the night doesn’t unfold according to plan. Burn a dessert so much it’s inedible? Toss it in the trash, pull out some ice cream from the freezer and get on with your night. If your roasted chicken is dry and your veggies are bitter and burned, be flexible and order a pizza. Neither choice will ruin the night.
Sometimes there will be delays in your plan that are out of your control. Swann recommends having some sort of activity available so people can pass the time. You can hand out question-based scavenger hunts and print out icebreaker questions on small strips of paper. “Have that set aside and available as a backup plan for yourself,” she says.
Swann points out that whatever you have scheduled, your guests aren’t usually privy to that information — meaning they’re less likely to notice if something goes awry. “Give yourself the freedom to be flexible,” she says. If you have to deviate from your plan and modify it for whatever reason, allow yourself to do so.
Being flexible also means being strategic about the best use of your time and energy while you entertain. For instance, “Queer Eye’s” Antoni Porowski has said that because he’s not that keen on making desserts, he’ll often bring in something premade to end the meal, freeing him up to focus on what he actually enjoys. (He also keeps things easy by only cooking dishes he’s familiar with — a lesson I learned the hard way.) If you’re visibly stressed or uptight, guests will pick up on it; making things easy on yourself is a way to ensure your party achieves the vibe you want. The goal isn’t perfection, and the more you remember that, the more you’ll be able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
Think of hosting as a muscle to be strengthened
Just as you can’t expect to be an Olympic-level swimmer the first time you take a dip in a pool, hosting requires practice, and there’s no better teaching tool than failure. You may not pull off a perfect night every time — or ever — but you’ll learn so much about what works for you as a host and what guests require.
Swann encourages people who want to refine their hosting skills to throw more parties and mix things up: different groups, different sizes and different occasions.
“The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it,” she says “And the more you’ll discover that it really doesn’t have to be so stressful.”
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