The Stress-Free Way to Throw a Dinner Party

These hacks and menus will help you streamline the evening so you can eat, drink, and spend time with your guests.
Published June 6, 2017

Whether you’re inviting the gang for a roll-up-your-sleeves BBQ or a semi-formal evening of French dishes, fancy sandwiches and poker, or a glittering Oscar-watching fete, these entertaining tips—and brilliant host hacks—will help you plan ahead.

Aim for variety. Mix and match flavors, colors and textures. If you’re using olives in the appetizer, leave them out of the entrée; don’t serve snow-white halibut with beige cauliflower and pale mashed potatoes; steer clear of velvety mushroom bisque followed by creamy fettuccine Alfredo. Take Points values into account while planning, too—you might have one dish that’s utterly decadent, but go leaner elsewhere.
Host hack: Always have a Plan B. Stash sorbet and cookies in the freezer, or extra olives and breadsticks in the pantry. This way you won’t panic if dessert falls on the floor or the hors d’ oeuvres burn.

Think drinks. Your options are endless. You might pair wines with each course, offer a full bar, or mix up a pitcher of one signature cocktail. Valerie Peterson, author of Peterson’s Happy Hour: Spirited Cocktails and Helpful Hints to Brighten Daily Life, offers an idea for perking up even a pitcher of ice water: Drop blueberries and strawberry slices, or mint and raspberries, into an ice cube tray. Add water to barely cover fruit and freeze until solid.
Host hack: Clean and set out serving dishes and utensils well in advance. Attach labels saying what will be served on which dish. Now if someone wants to help, you can just point.

Stagger your prep. No host wants to be sweating over a hot stove when the doorbell rings. Include some recipes that can be prepared ahead of time—Some dishes, like chili or Boeuf Bourguignon, taste better after the flavors have mingled for a day or two in the fridge. Top-quality prepared food serves the same purpose: buy charcuterie and good bread for the appetizer, or perfectly ripe, in-season fruit for a simple, stunning (and Points values-friendly) dessert. You could even buy the entrée and cook an impressive side or two—we’ll never tell.
Host hack: Start that lemon tart the day before the party—this gives you plenty of time to redo it if it hasn’t set properly.

Shop smart. Your objective: Avoid shopping on the day of the party unless you’re preparing something where absolute freshness is crucial, like sushi. Scour your recipes’ ingredients lists for anything not already in your kitchen, and buy shelf-stable items as well as meat—which you can freeze and defrost— in advance. Even fresh produce, except for delicate items like raspberries, can be bought several days ahead.
Host hack: Depending on your schedule, this could be the moment to try a local grocery home delivery service, like Fresh Direct, Amazon Fresh, or Peapod. 

Set the table. Let your menu inspire you. For a party reflecting recent travels, “Use postcards as place cards,” says Peterson. "Or turn a street map into a table runner.” Use cloth table linens, real dishes, and real stemware. (Don’t be afraid to mix patterns, as long as the colors coordinate.) As for the centerpiece, it might be as lavish as a drop-dead floral arrangement or as rustic as a half-dozen shiny apples in a glass bowl.

Host hack: Set aside clean glasses, dishes, silverware and table linens ahead of time, so other household members don’t inadvertently dirty them on the day of the party. 

Whether you’re considering a vegetarian feast for a crowd or splashing out on steaks for a few friends, we’ve got you covered. Each of these menus has plenty of wow-factor for guests, and the right dose of guidance, ideas and help for hosts: