Hosting a dinner party is something that most of us do every month of the year. But, now that we’re fully immersed in the festive season and Christmas Day lunches, Boxing Day gatherings and New Year’s supper parties are just moments away, knowing how to be the hostess with the mostest feels particularly relevant. Good preparation, giving yourself room to be creative and try something new, and borrowing ideas from the most memorable dinner parties you’ve been to are three areas to begin with. But you can also steal the secrets from some of the most seasoned and successful party people around. Here, Aerin Lauder, founder of global lifestyle brand AERIN, divulges her seven top considerations on how to host a dinner party.
1. Sending out dinner party invitations
“My favourite thing about hosting a dinner party is bringing different people together. I think the best dinner parties are the ones with people of different ages and backgrounds,” says Aerin. “For a formal dinner party, I always send out an actual cardstock invitation. For a casual dinner party, I either invite through email or text.”
Formal dinner party invitations
It’s generally perceived to be good dinner party etiquette to send some form of invitation to whomever you decide to invite. It makes it feel like more of an occasion than tagging it onto the end of a text exchange or mentioning it in passing. With the rise of e-invites and social media events, the written invitation has very much lost its popularity which means that a personal invitation is surprisingly unexpected. Of course, the level of formality of your dinner party might be at either end of the spectrum, and so you’ll want your invite to match the tone of the event. For very formal dinner parties, you might invest in the help of a fine stationery brand to craft bespoke invites. A degree down from that is to buy a set of ready-made invitations, hand-writing them yourself.
Casual dinner party invitations
Sending written invitations is still a lovely touch for more casual dinner parties, but equally there is nothing wrong with sending these invites out over email or text, as Aerin does.
Whether your invite is printed or not, it will also give you the opportunity to state any plans to have drinks and canapés beforehand so that guests aren’t surprised when they’re not seated straight away. You can also more easily ask for RSVPs by a certain date. This too will elevate the message so that guests are clear this is an event not to be missed.
2. Choosing the perfect dinner party menu
When determining your dinner party dishes, it’s wise to always cook something you’re familiar with. You want to feel relaxed and confident and so sticking to a tried-and-tested classic will hopefully prevent any mistakes that would lead to you feeling flustered and under pressure. Another thing to consider when deciding what to cook for a dinner party is to avoid anything too out-of-the-ordinary, unless your guests are aware of a theme. And always plan a little extra food to cover for if something does go awry or for last-minute guests who come along.
Formal dinner party menu
But how to choose which recipes to include from your culinary repertoire? Much like with invitations, you’ll be guided on whether it’s a formal dinner party menu or a casual dinner party menu. A more formal menu might begin with canapés before a traditional serving of three courses followed by cheese and coffees. Try guiding your menu by season, as Aerin suggests: “My go-to food always depends on the season but I always like to make my guests feel cosy and at home. During the summer, I love serving paella with sangria. In the winter, I like to serve roast chicken or beef with vegetables and potatoes.”
Casual dinner party menu
Casual dinner party ideas, on the other hand, are likely to involve sharing dishes and small plates and won’t necessarily consist of three courses, which should help to narrow down your options.
What beverages to serve with the food?
Aside from wine pairings for your food, a dinner party is also the perfect occasion to serve cocktails. This is where it’s fun to try something new. You could even order a classic cocktail book, such as The Savoy Cocktail Book, for inspiration and then choose one for that particular evening. When you host a party, you want to be sure you have all bases covered, so be sure to have an alternative for those who don’t like whichever spirit’s in your chosen cocktail. Champagne or crémant are good choices so that nobody feels as though they’re missing out on a special aperitif.
3. Setting the dinner party table
Where your guests sit, what they see in front of them, and what their meal is served on, is almost as important as the food itself. The dinner party table setting is all part of the experience and you want people to feel mesmerised or wowed by what they see. Aerin suggests to always begin with the decorative elements: “Flowers are always an essential in any of my tables. Flowers add life and colour to the table. They make all of the difference.” These can be artificial if you prefer – especially if you have allergy sufferers attending or are concerned about their scent mixing with the aromas of what you’re serving. And using multiples of vases in different vessels creates height and drama to build atmosphere and differentiate your table from having a singular, central vase as it may do every other day of the week.
Aerin also sees table settings as having several stages of thought: “Setting the table is like a project. I always think about the season, the celebration, my guests and therefore chose the most appropriate entertaining pieces for the occasion. In the summer, I love to entertain with straw in the country. In my NY home, I like to keep it more traditional, elegant and formal.” Your table setting should therefore reflect the architecture of your room, the season, and also the theme of your event – if you’ve chosen to have one. An easy example to consider is if you’re hosting a party for a golden wedding anniversary. Here, you might wish to lay your table with gold accessories and cutlery, burnished brass candlestick holders, and even table linens with a gold-bronze hue.
4. How to serve your dinner party dishes
When serving a formal, plated menu, Aerin will still always bring some dishes to the table to create a more relaxed experience – “This gives each guest control over their portion sizes (great for not making them feel uncomfortable for eating too little or too much) and allows them to abstain from anything which they don’t like or are allergic to without any awkward refusals.” Serving platters and bowls means you can respect your guest’s etiquette and they yours – one of the markers of how to be a good host. And there are no rules about which food you choose to present in which vessel. Perhaps one time, you’ll only serve your accompaniments in dishes and other times the entirety of the meal will be placed centrally on the table. Give yourself some freedom here to do what suits the dish best and what atmosphere you’d like to build. “I serve food differently in every occasion, but I especially love my grandmother [Estée]’s china. She passed it on to me and it is still in her home in Long Island that now belongs to my family,” Aerin shares.
Additionally, present some of your dishes away from the main table to encourage guests to mingle and to be sure they’ll always feel looked after. Decorative trays that hold further servings of your cocktail as well as dishes of smaller snacks means that they can help themselves as and when they please.
5. Dinner party entertainment ideas
Delicious food and drink and good company do not a dinner party make. They’re the foundations, but on top of this, you’ll want to conjure some dinner party entertainment ideas to keep the laughter and the conversation going all night long. Dinner party entertainment can take the form of games and music, but Aerin always goes one step further: “Every time I host, I love to surprise my guests with a little gift.”
Dinner party games
Formal dinner party games needn’t differ too much from the ones you’d play at a more relaxed event. If you have more people attending, try choosing a game that doesn’t require too many components or explaining. Any pen and paper game is the easiest to set up and low stress – and oftentimes the most fun! Other classics such as Pictionary and charades always go down a treat too.
Dinner party playlist
You can choose to build a playlist specific to the dinner party you’re hosting, or you can take the time to curate several with different moods attached to them to reuse time after time. It’s a good idea to mix well-known songs with ones your guests might not have heard before so you have a blend of recognition and discovery (which is a great conversation starter). You can make this part of your dinner party entertainment collaborative by inviting guests to the playlist for them to add their ideas, or as Aerin does, involve any friends or family members with excellent music taste: “At any dinner party I like to put playlists that my teenage sons make for me.”
6. Dinner party etiquette
When hosting a dinner party, there are some key areas of etiquette to make sure you satisfy. Asking for dietary requirements and allergens is the first, providing an alternative drink for those who are driving or don’t consume alcohol, and making sure at all times everybody is warm and comfortable (nobody wants to feel as though they have to ask for the heating to be put on) are the basics. It’s also established etiquette for guests to bring along a gift of thanks or a bottle of something, but it’s wise to not assume this will happen. Relying on guests to bring extra ‘stock’ of beverages for the evening is a high-risk tactic that could mean you end up running out – one of the biggest dinner party faux pas there is.
7. Do’s & Don’ts for the Host or Hostess
Above all, a dinner party should be enjoyable and something you want to repeat again and again. Being faced with too much guidance can be overwhelming and take some of the fun out of it, and so Aerin always keeps three dos and three don’ts in mind whenever it is her turn to play host:
1. Always make your guests feel at home
2. Always have a vegetarian option available as a backup to your menu
3. Always have name cards and a seating chart
1. Do not stress. That will make your guests feel stressed.
2. Do not sit couples next to one another. It is fun to mix the seating around to make the table feel more dynamic and unexpected.
3. Do not make it too loud. No one likes to shout over music.