Planning Your First Dinner Party

Planning your first dinner party can be fun. Follow these guidelines to ensure that your first dinner party is a memorable social occasion that won't leave you broke.

You're out of school, you've scored a promising entry-level position, and you've settled into your first apartment. While you still may call an evening with fast food, cheap beer and some close friends a great night, you're ready to expand your horizons.

You're ready to throw your first dinner party.

Planning and carrying off your first dinner party doesn't have to be a stressful or intimidating experience. Follow these simple guidelines, and before long, you'll be known as the best host in your social circle.

Plan Ahead

Even before you begin to think about the menu, you'll need to select a date for your soiree. Since this is your first attempt at feeding your friends, you'll most likely want to have your get-together on a Saturday or Sunday. Everything will go more smoothly if you have all day to prepare for your guests. Try to choose a day that will be convenient for your guests, as well. You'll want to keep no-shows to a minimum.

For your first foray as a culinary host, don't complicate things with a theme, invitations, or a dress code. Keep everything as informal as possible. Trust me"¦you won't have much time to decorate or get yourself into costume, and you can save the fancy stuff for a later evening. Remember, this is your first dinner party, not your last.

Although it may be tempting to invite all of your closest friends, you'll want to keep the guest list for your dinner limited. Be sure that you can fit everyone you invite around your table; even you if can accommodate additional guests, you'll want to limit the guest list to six people or fewer. Choose your guests wisely. It's disheartening to prepare a wonderful meal and have several people fail to show. Select people that you truly trust, both to show up, and to be good sports if anything goes wrong.

Once you have a date set and confirmed guests, it's time to start planning your menu. While it may be tempting to try that exotic recipe that you read about in a magazine, you don't really want find yourself in unfamiliar territory when you're facing the added pressure of guests to feed. Select menu items that you've prepared before, or dishes that are very close to ones that you've cooked previously. If you've invited people who are following special diet, be certain that you'll be offering something that fits into their plans. If possible, choose items that can be partially prepared early in the day so that you minimize the scrambling around necessary just prior to mealtime. Be sure to think about what you'll need to prepare the meal"¦it's easy to discover at the last minute that you'll need five burners to cook everything, or that you don't own the soufflé pan that you need to cook your dessert. Try not to include any items that require longer than thirty minutes or so in the oven. If you have to start cooking an item prior to the arrival of your guests, you run the risk of having that item end up dried out in your oven if the dinner runs behind schedule. If you stick to items that have a cook time of thirty minutes or less, you can fire up the burners once everyone has arrived, and spend that time socializing with your company. Once you've settled on a menu, put together a shopping list immediately so that you don't forget any key items.

Stocking Up

Once you've taken inventory of your pots and pans, you're ready to think about your pantry. While you may not like to pepper your food, a guest may not be able to enjoy a baked potato without it. Scrutinize your pantry and refrigerator to ensure that you've got the basics on hand. Milk"¦butter"¦a few salad dressings"¦condiments. It pays to make certain that your guests will be able to have things that they like.

It's always a good idea to have a low-effort appetizer on menu. Whether you set up a small spread of cheese and crackers, or prepare a bowl of vegetables and some dip, you'll want to give your guests something to snack on as they arrive. You'll find appetizers to be a lifesaver if you end up delaying dinner due to a late arrival, or a ruined dish. Think about what sort of pre-meal plate would work well with your menu, and put these items on the list, as well.

By the day before your dinner party, you should have guests lined up, a full grocery list, all the kitchen equipment that you'll need to prepare the meal, and a clean house. That's right, a clean house. Yes, your friends will forgive an untidy apartment, but you'll feel better if everything is in its place. Put out hand towels in the bathroom, set out votives in strategic locations. Run the dishwasher so that everything you'll need is clean and ready to go for the next day.

The Day of the Dinner

It's finally arrived"¦you're just a few hours away from your first attempt at entertaining like a grown-up. There's no need to be nervous; you're going to pull everything off like a pro.

Start your day off by getting out and making your purchases. This way, if the gourmet cheese that you just must have isn't available at your usual market, you'll have plenty of time to track it down across town. You don't want to do this earlier in the week, however, because you'll want to ensure that you've obtained the freshest possible ingredients. If you have a little extra cash on hand, pick up some fresh cut flowers to brighten up your apartment.

Once you and your groceries are safely at home, do as much food preparation as you possibly can. Grate cheese, cut vegetables, pre-cook anything that calls for it. You'll be surprised at how busy you'll be when dinnertime arrives, and you'll be glad that you were smart enough to stay ahead of the curve. If you've dirtied enough utensils, run the dishwasher again so that you have all of your kitchen tools available for the final meal preparation.

After you have all the food prep out of the way, take the time to set the table. This is another time consuming task that you don't want to have to tackle once your guests begin to arrive. Besides, a set table just looks nice, and will help set the atmosphere. Once the table is set, think about how everything will fit on the table once it's full of people and food. If all of your serving dishes can fit on the table along with everything else"¦great! If not, think about where you should sit to best be able to serve your guests once the meal gets underway.

Since you'll be doing some food preparation even after your guests arrive, it's a good idea to set up your appetizers and a beverage station near the kitchen. This will keep things more social, and will keep you from running back and forth at the last minute. Find a stretch of counter space for these items, and clear it off well before your guests are scheduled to arrive.

Once you've finished with everything outlined above, you have some time to breathe. With any luck, you've paid attention and do not have much last minute straightening up to do. Now is your time to relax. Take a nap, read for a while, or take a walk. Draw a bath, or indulge in some last minute pampering. After you finish resting, get yourself dressed and ready for your guests to arrive, planning to finish your primping no later than thirty minutes prior to the time you expect people to knock on your door.

At thirty minutes before you expect people to arrive, make the rounds to the votive candles that you set out earlier and get them burning. Then, set out your appetizer spread, along with some small plates and napkins. Get the kitchen ready, so that all you'll have to do when the last guest arrives is turn a few knobs. Set out your beverages and some glasses, and if appropriate, put out a bucket of ice and tongs. Pour yourself a drink, put on a quiet album and wait for everyone to arrive.

In Case of Emergency

Since you've planned so thoroughly, there's a minimal chance that anything will go wrong. However, if something does go awry, you should handle it swiftly and with grace. If you forget about the bruschetta and burn it to a crisp, don't worry. Open a window, shut off the fire alarm, and laugh it off.

If everyone sits down around the table and you find that one of your main dishes is less than stellar, don't let this put you in tears, either. Remember, you invited people you trust for a reason. If you have enough food available to feed everyone without the less than palatable dish, set it aside. If the ruined food is your entrée, stride confidently to the phone, and order some pizza from a place that delivers. Move past the foul-up, and wow your guests with a flavorful dessert.

After the Meal

If you've decided in advance that the post-meal activities are to consist of watching an event on television, viewing a film, or playing some cards, casually proceed to these activities once the meal is over. However, if you didn't have anything planned, take cues from your guests about what should come next. If everyone seems content to sit around and talk, certainly let that happen. However, if the conversation starts have a few uncomfortable pauses, feel free to suggest a game or some other diversion. To keep things flowing, clear the dishes off the table, but don't take yourself away from your guests to do all the dishes. Save that duty for after everyone has gone home.

That's all there is to it! After hosting a few dinner parties, you'll have the entire process mastered. You'll be able to throw one together at the last minute with complete confidence.

© High Speed Ventures 2011