The Dinner Party: 10 Tips to Make Cooking for Company Fun and Easy

My goal for today’s post is to help you with cooking for company, and to share tips and advice that I've picked up over a couple of decades of hosting home-cooked dinners for groups large and small.

Maybe you'd like to invite a few friends over for a casual dinner at home. Or perhaps you need to scale up a huge meal for a large family reunion. Either way, preparing food for company can be one of the most satisfying things about learning how to cook. It's where you take everything you've learned about cooking and put it all together.

Best of all, throwing a dinner party is a heck of a lot easier on the wallet than eating out, especially in a major metro area like New York where we live. If you do things right, you can cook an entire multi-course dinner for four to six people for less than your portion of the check if you went out to eat.

That’s the good part about cooking for company. The bad part is that cooking for guests can be surprisingly stressful. Not only does the food have to come out right--you have to get the timing and rhythm of the entire meal right as well. If you choose a too-ambitious menu or have a logistical snafu with your preparations, you can really ruin the experience.

One of the primary goals I set when I started Casual Kitchen was to share ideas on how to make cooking less intimidating, less stressful and more fun. So with that goal firmly in mind, I'll share with you some advice that has worked for me over the years on how to make it fun and easy to cook for company:

1) Do Almost Everything Ahead of Time:
One of the best things you can do to make throwing a big dinner an easy job is to do as much of the work ahead of time as is reasonable. Certainly you can do basic, but time-consuming jobs like setting the table long before dinner time. You can make a big salad earlier in the day and have it sitting in the fridge, ready to go.

But let’s think a little bigger here: Can you actually make your main course a day or two ahead of time too?

You certainly can. Certain dinners, like chili, Braised Pork in Guajillo Chile Sauce or my own Chicken Mole sauce actually taste better the next day, leaving you only with the staggering responsibility of firing up your rice cooker when the guests arrive. Pasta sauces, like my Pasta Puttanesca, can also be made a day or two ahead of time, and then only the pasta has to be cooked fresh for the guests.

Obviously this logic breaks down at certain points. For example, nobody should serve their friends two-day-old pasta. Or a wilted salad made yesterday. Or guacamole made six hours ago that's turning a distinctly unappetizing brownish color. Some dishes simply must be made fresh. Just don't center your meal around too many of them.

2) Cook Scalable Meals:
We've talked about this concept ad nauseum in this blog, but it remains one of the most time-saving cooking techniques I've found: If you’ve ever made a double batch of anything, you’ll find that for many dishes it does not take twice as much work to make twice as much food. Instead, it's more like 1.2 times as much work to make twice as much food. That’s a huge incremental benefit in terms of food made per unit of work, and this can save you tons of time if you are making a meal for a large group of guests.

Don't make dinner a nightmare of painstaking prep work. Try and find recipes that can be doubled (or even tripled) easily so that you can capitalize on this scale benefit.

3) Write down a Schedule:
If you’re a beginner at hosting dinners, a written schedule is a must. It simply makes the whole event less complicated and less stressful.

Here's what works for me: a day or two before the dinner, I'll write down on a piece of paper a detailed schedule of the logistics of the evening. I'll list when I expect to start the prep work for each dish, when they go into the oven, and even who does which job. This helps me work out all the details of the evening ahead of time, so I can be confident that all the food can be ready at the right time.

When you work out your own schedule, be as detailed as you think you need to be to help you stay organized and on time. When the guests arrive you won't be scrambling.

And don't think that this is a procedure only for beginners. Even though I have years of experience serving dinners to groups of all sizes, I still write down a basic schedule and keep it nearby on the counter for reference. I’m sure this single step has saved me from plenty of dinner party disasters.

4) Bake In Some Margin of Error:
It’s rare that any dinner party comes out perfectly. You’ll inevitably have some problems that come up: a main course that takes longer to make than expected, a side dish that comes out poorly and isn’t fit for guests, a shortage of beer or wine (tragedy!), etc.

So don’t plan on perfection when you map out your dinner. Instead, leave some margin of error for things to go wrong.

Here are a few examples: First, when you’re making up your schedule of events, add a few 10-15 minute blocks of extra time here and there, sprinkled throughout the schedule. This way, even if you get behind in your preparation, you know you’ll never run out of time before the guests show up. Also, be sure to make extremely generous assumptions about how much your guests will eat and drink. If you guess too low and run out of food or booze, the results are catastrophic. But if you overestimate massively and there’s too much food, well, then you have leftovers and you don’t have to cook (or buy beer) for a few days.

Finally, if you're a serious pessimist and you really want to protect yourself from a worst-case scenario, consider making a back up side-dish and have it sitting in reserve, just in case you have some colossal food failure and you need a last minute substitution.

5) Ply Your Guests with Alcohol and Easy-to-Make Starters:
The minute your guests arrive, instantly begin plying them with alcohol, and set out some easy-to-make appetizers for them to nibble on. A simple cheese tray with a few varieties of cheese and an assortment of crackers would be perfect here.

This “plying method” serves a few useful purposes. First, everybody will have more fun. Second, if dinner runs a bit behind schedule, nobody will ever notice. And having some finger foods and various lubricating beverages available for your guests will make them all the more comfortable.

6) Delegate:
In our home, I typically do most of the cooking. But I’m not above outsourcing some responsibilities to Laura, such as making a salad, setting the table, or making a side dish. Another one of her jobs is also to "run interference” for me and protect me from distraction by chatting up our guests and refilling their wine glasses while I do a few finishing tasks in the kitchen.

Think about ways that you might team up with your spouse, kids, or significant other to put dinner on the table.

However, if you live alone, not to worry: you can always…

7) …Exploit Your Friends!
If you didn’t have any friends, you wouldn’t be hosting a dinner party in the first place. So ask one or two if they’d like to come a bit early to pitch in on the cooking. If your friends enjoy cooking or want to learn more about cooking, they’ll probably be pleased to be asked. Of course, be sure to offer sufficient rewards so that it’s worth it to them (free beer always works with me), and don’t give them only the crappy prep work jobs to do. Remember, you want to keep these people as friends, so don’t take me too literally when I say to “exploit” them.

Also, be sure to put some thought into the best ways to allocate jobs and cooking tasks--it can be quite challenging to figure out how to divvy up cooking jobs without turning your cooking space into a complete free-for-all. If you want more advice on this subject, take a look at my series on How to Team Up in the Kitchen.

8) Never Cook a Dish for the First Time for Company:
If there is one rule in this list that you must follow, it is this one. Trying a brand new recipe out on company is a rookie error. There's no other way to say it.

Whenever you try a new recipe, there’s always something unpredictable that happens. The dish takes longer to make than you expected, or there are extra steps that aren’t clearly described in the recipe. And of course, imagine the worst case: what if you make a mistake and the dish comes out totally wrong--or even worse, what if the recipe simply tastes terrible even when made correctly?

Do not do this. There is no greater source of dinner party stress. There are enough things that can already go wrong with a dinner party--don’t add the risk of a failed main course to the list of potential catastrophes.

9) Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew:
Hosting a dinner party is an art that can be done at many levels, ranging from the “Casual Kitchen level” where you concentrate on preparing scalable, straightforward and relatively easy meals, all the way up to the “Martha Stewart level” where you can greet your guests with hand-made party favors, blow your friends away with a flawless meal (set under diffuse lighting of course), and then send everyone home with a hand-crafted wicker basket.

But if you are relatively new to hosting dinner parties, consider leaving the pressed-flower party favors and hand-crafted wicker baskets aside for now. Remember, Martha has a huge staff of people who can do these things for her. You don’t want to put a 20-hour workday in just to nosh with some friends. And if you try for that much overkill in your first attempt, you might be burned out from ever hosting a dinner party the rest of your life.

Instead, concentrate on the important stuff. Will people have enough to eat and drink? Will dinner be ready on time? Should I cook one or two things? No need to wow people with six different appetizers and a seven-course meal. What’s important is the quality time you spend with your friends.

10) Practice:
Our final tip is probably the most obvious one: Practice.

Practice on a sympathetic audience, like your best friends or a few close family members. And start with small groups, maybe dinner for two or three guests to start.

As you grow in cooking experience, you can take on new challenges, like cooking more complex meals with more courses, or hosting larger groups. And that's the fun part about cooking--at every level there are always new things to try, new dishes to cook and new challenges to take on.

This is why one of the best ways to get better at hosting dinner parties is to, well, host dinner parties. Invite a few friends over for dinner, plan a menu, and see how it goes. It’s a great example of outflow, where you give your time and energy to your guests and enjoy their company in return.

Good luck with your future dinner parties! And please feel free to share your experiences (or war stories...) in the comments section below.

Related Posts:
Seven Rules to Ensure Mistake-Free Cooking
Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking
Eight Tips to Make Cooking at Home Laughably Cheap
How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Cooking

7 comments:

Lady Di said...

Now this is a good time for the crockpots :) Seriously, when I have a lot of people over, there's usually at least one crockpot with either a soup or a dip in it - and if it's cold, a drink (cocoa/cider/mulled wine or juice)

And don't forget one of the easiest way to do large parties: DIY. Potato, Pizza, salad, taco or nacho. You provide the base and all or some of the toppers. You can even have your guests bring some of the toppers if you want or just some of the stuff to go with it (drinks, etc). This is how I first tried Hawaiian pizza.

The Sieve said...

CK,

This is the best practical guide to throwing a dinner party I have ever seen. From planning to time management to choosing meals you can prepare confidently (ie you've cooked this thing before!), every tip here raises the chances that you deliver a great meal to your friends and that you don't spend the whole evening sweating, cursing and apologizing.

A few years ago I was honored to be asked to cook the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of one of my best buddies. 25 people up at the ski house in Killington - the largest group I had ever cooked for in my life. I was filled with nervous excitement the weeks prior. The night before I was up until 4 in the morning braising the short ribs in batches and preparing the appetizers. It all came out just fine in the end, but I did violate one of the CK rules that nearly proved fatal:

rule 8 - NEVER COOK A DISH FOR THE FIRST TIME FOR COMPANY.... about 48 hours before the evet, just as we were printing the menus, it occured to me - maple bread pudding is too rich of a desert to follow short ribs; Panic. what to do. I decided to marinate strawberies in balsamic and booze and serve them w/ cream. Ok that's easy. And I could have stopped there....... But I really wanted to violate rule 9 at the same time, so i decided to offer another desert option - Chocolate creme pots - sort of like a custard/pudding. I saw Jamie Oliver do it years ago. I had no recipe. I tried it from memory. Well, an hour before dinner they had not come together at all, were still thick and runny like chocolate sauce. Panic again!!! So after some extra-aggressive employment and enforcement of Rule 5, I remembered rule 4 and turned the desert into strawberry's w/ chocolate sauce. The only people confused were those who read the menu and saw that my deserts had morphed.

And I survived to see another day and another dinner party. Wish I had this list then. Tanks

The Sieve

Mrs. W said...

You are so right about the schedule; I regularly use a printed-up schedule (alongside a printed-up menu) posted on the fridge, and my nearest and dearest often know to look at my list when they arrive early, to see where they can help w/o stealing my attention. It's invaluable.

So is laying out party serving dishes and trays, with little post-it note labels inside. Helpers can then easily see which bowl or platter to bring me. And because I've already taken out the dishes, washed (if needed) and accounted for all serving pieces, there's no last minute thinking that needs to be done.

I will disagree with your cardinal rule, however. I regularly try new dishes on guests, and much to their delight! However I am an experienced cook, and the dishes I "try out" are ones that I have fully considered. For example, when making an African-inspired curry stew, I can tell that 2 cups of peanut butter is too much and will scale down to 1 cup. You get the idea.

Something to snack on is essential--as is having a spouse or friend keep guests out of the kitchen before all is readied.

Great article.

Daniel Koontz said...

Thanks everybody for the added insights!

Lady Di, I totally agree on the crockpots and regret the omission.

And The Sieve and Mrs W, regarding the "never try a new recipe out on company" rule: it was my mother who first taught me this concept but for a while there I was too hardheaded to listen to her.

It took a few failed "experiments" of my own, replete with plenty of cursing and last-minute scrambling (a la The Sieve's experience), to drive into my thick skull that I just don't have the psychological constitution to run risks like that. :)

Thank you all for reading!

DK

chacha1 said...

This is a great guide. I only get away with breaking the "no new recipes" rule because my friends are so very tolerant. They have survived everything from braised lamb shanks to slow-cooker duck legs and keep coming back.

My easiest, and possibly most successful (though certainly not the least expensive) dinner party was steaks for six. Filet mignon (I cut them myself from a tenderloin end) on the broiler, can't get much easier than that, and everyone likes it the same way (mostly raw).

Except the ONE person who doesn't eat red meat. I fixed her a piece of poached salmon alongside ahi sashimi, and she was tres content.

I think one couple brought starters and the other brought a veggie side, I did the entree and dessert, and that was it. As expensive as the meat was, I think the bill still came in at less than $10 per person.

Daniel said...

Great comment. Even if you serve relatively expensive food, the cost is still a fraction--often a tiny fraction--of eating out.

Thanks for sharing Chacha!

DK

Neva Modzelewski said...

Another tip on hosting dinner parties, especially if you are on a tight schedule, is to make a simple menu for the food. Cook something that you know well. Since you already know the recipe and the procedure, it will be easy for you to do the preparation and the actual cooking. Also, you will be able to avoid mistakes in cooking the dish.