Photo: Johnny Miller; Styling: Sarah Smart

If you've made it your 2017 goal to actively increase how often you invite friends and family into your home, you're probably going to need some help. These hosting tips and tricks will ensure seamless dinner party planning.

January 04, 2017

Food gets a lot of attention at the start of a new year, and it's not all fad diets and weight loss resolutions. For many, the goal of becoming a more skilled and comfortable home cook or simply cooking at a home more often presents an opportunity to embrace a new--and, in my opinion, invaluable--hobby, rejuvinate love for an old one, or simply slow down life's lightening-fast pace to spend more time with friends and family though breaking bread together. I absolutely love cooking and baking for others, but oftentimes it's hard to find the time to dedicate to it and the inspiration to veer outside of my comfort zone of the 15 favorite dishes I like to make. But if there's one thing I can say about spending the extra time and energy to serve people good food, it's that it's extremely rewarding.

If you've ever attended a good dinner party, and I'm talking, a really good dinner party, you don't forget it. Note, really good doesn't need to mean ornate, elaborate, or over-the-top. The moments you remember and cherish are those when the home was warm and inviting, the drinks were so sippable, the dinner was heartfelt, and the conversation was enlightening, engaging, and hysterically funny all at the same time. I'm a firm believer that food brings people together more than almost anything else in this world, which is why I'm your new #1 fan if you've made it a goal to connect people through hosting more casual dinners, happy hours, and other events in your own home this year.

I've learned quite a few tips and tricks over the years both by attending other people's parties and putting on my own, and the biggest barrier I've found to being a regular home entertainer is the idea that having people over is going to be a huge investment of time, money, and mental energy... but here's they key to remember: it doesn't need to be. I promise, a little planning and practice will eliminate this concern over time. Now, here are my top 5 top tips for feeling more confident about inviting folks over, then hosting a party that people will be talking about for months and remembering for years.

1. Invite guests individually and follow up

Sure, group texts, Facebook invites, and mass emails are easy, but I'm 75% more likely to attend a party where the host actually checks in on me and wants to know if I'm coming. Yes, me. The #1 way to get people to actually show up and feel excited about their commitment to doing so is to reach out to them individually and express your desire for them to be there. While we're on this point: Don't expect an answer right away and don't take it personally when you don't receive one. Humans (most all of us) have this strange and unbelievably frustrating ability to procrastinate, and it's almost never intentional. It's the dreaded, "Let me check my schedule" response, with no follow up for the next 10 days. And as the party-planner, it could be a major stressor... but you don't have to let it. After you send out the initial message, give your invitees their space, and follow up with them several days before the event. That still allows you plenty of time to make sure you are adequately prepared with enough food, drink, and seating. 

2. Clearly communicate intentions

So what's this party about? I can't stress communication enough while I'm on the subject of invitations. No matter what vehicle you choose, a good (nay, great) invitation is clear, concise, and gives the following information: date, time (start and end), location, purpose, and overall plan for the event. Oh, and this is a biggie, also be sure to include what you need from guests--i.e. an RSVP, suggested attire, or what they should plan (or shouldn't bother) to bring. Whether you plan to cook and serve an entire meal alone, want a few friends to come early and help, or plan to go potluck-style and ask others to contribute, clearly communicate expectations for the evening to give your guests plenty of time to prepare.

I know what you're thinking--this sounds like overkill--but trust me, a little formality in this sense is super helpful. Your guests will appreciate the communication, and this small tip will go a long way towards building up your reputation as a fantastic host. On this note: Never feel bad about asking for help. Asking guests to contribute something is perfectly fine--hosting can get overwhelming and expensive, and they'll be glad to pitch in as a thank you for spearheading the event.

3. Be ready when guests arrive

As a host, it can be super stressful when guests arrive and you're still finishing up cooking, prepping, or just getting dressed. People always congregate where the action is, so if you're still running around the kitchen like a crazy person, they'll either:

  1. Ask to help you--which, depending on who you are, might stress you out even more. 
  2. Get nervous watching you frantically work and won't be able to relax and enjoy.

That said, do everything in your power to fully prepare well in advance of when you expect guests. Give yourself more time than you anticipate actually needing and organize it wisely. Additionally (and unfortunately), there's always that one person who shows up to everything painfully early. And while you don't need to change around your entire schedule for that one person, you should, at the very least, be dressed and well into the final stages of cooking and preping  by the time they show up--sometimes up to an hour early. My friend and fellow editor, Kimberly Holland, is also an avid party host and shared a great tip with me a few months ago. She always gets completely ready--makeup done, hair styled, and fully dressed--before she gets too deep into the cooking process so that she doesn't have to stop what she's doing halfway through to go ready herself. It's her trick for never resorting to looking like a complete mess when people start to arrive. Of course, don't forget to throw on an apron.

4. Don't run out of food

This tip I learned both from personal experience and from Hunter Lewis, the editor-in-chief of Cooking Light, who always stresses to prepare more food than you think you'll need. Dealing with leftovers isn't the worst thing in the world. And just like you will always remember a great dinner party, you'll always remember the party you left starving. Seriously, all of my memories relating to bad parties include a lack of good food or food period; don't be that host. That said, just remember that there's no need to stress yourself out over cooking the entire meal from-scratch. I'm a huge fan of utilizing smart, time-saving and/or store-bought ingredients when appropriate. Just incorporate as much homemade lovin' as you can without completely overwhelming yourself. 

5. Mix and mingle, with everyone you invite

As the host, it's your goal to have one conversation with everyone at your party--it doesn't have to be long, but it does have to be authentic--i.e. more than "Hi, how are you?" Obviously, this isn't an issue if you're just having your new neighbor over for snacks, but if you're having a full-fledged get-together at your home, you absolutely cannot just talk to a few select people throughout the night (even if everything is going as planned and people are mingling fine on their own). I've seen many a host make this mistake, and although it's not the end of the world, the hosts who really stand out to me are those who float around the room throughout a party checking in on everyone, participating in tidbits of conversations, and making sure everyone is having a great time.

So here comes the question of the ages: How do you get out of a conversation with a long-winded person? This is a common occurrence, not just in hosting but in life, and it takes practice. Fom my experience, you have to find a balance between being a genuine listener and valuing the other person, while also being intentional and firm. If you're the host, communicating that you've enjoyed the conversation but need to chat with your other guests too should be enough. Next time you're stuck in an endlessly long conversation, just keep it simple and straightforward: "I'm sorry to cut this short, and I've loved talking to you, but I haven't gotten a chance to catch up with *insert name* yet, and I want to grab her/him before they leave." If you don't want to leave the guest stranded, introducing them to another guest and starting the conversation with something they have in common is a great transition, but takes a little practice.

Related: Need dinner ideas for your feast? Check out our Company-Worth Chicken Recipes, 25 Irresistible Beef Tenderloin Recipes, and 10 Company-Worthy Dinners.

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