How To Throw A Fun Dinner Party

You probably used to do it with your family: Sunday Night Dinners. Nowadays, it’s easy to just eat out or grab something pre-made at the store. But when you make and create a meal with friends, it’s a fun, affordable, memorable bonding activity. And when you read the below, you’ll see how to in 21 easy steps.

Save money.

This should be a given, but many people don’t realize how much money they’d save if only they made dinner more versus buy it out. Plus, you can create the main dish (like chicken piccata) and if guests bring side dishes, dessert and wine, the meal gets even more economical. (Plus, no one will get stuck in one of those awkward “let’s-split-the-atrociously-expensive-bill-ten-ways-even-though-some-of-you-only-had-a-salad” situations!)

Make it healthier.

You can make the meal with low-fat butter instead of full-fat, and so on and so forth.

There is no wrong recipe to make.

After all, cooking is all about experimenting! No one will know if you went off book and did not follow the recipe 100%! (Unless the final result tastes terrible, of course.)

Send out invitations in advance.

There are several online options, like Paperless Post or Punchbowl, but there’s nothing like getting an invitation in the mail (after a quick trip to Party City for the right invites). If you fear your friends don’t check their mail much like mine, then go the email or Evite route. (I do not recommend the Facebook Invite route, simply because “private” events often still show up as “public,” and you don’t want anyone to feel left out. Besides, assuming this dinner party is a success (which it will be if you follow my template), they’ll eventually get their turn to be your dinner guest, too.

Don’t invite too many people.

When I first started having dinner parties, I’d think, “the more, the merrier”—I’m cooking anyway, what’s one more person? But, smaller dinner parties are easier to manage, easier to cook and time dishes for, and everyone will get to mingle with everyone else for a good amount of time versus each guest spending just five minutes talking to someone, like an awkward night of speed dating.

Set up a “Cell Phone Valet” by the door.

Yes, I want your guests to hand over their cell phones when they arrive. (Hosts, you can wrap up a cardboard box to look like a present, then just write “Cell Phone Valet” on it and people will get the gist, though I’m sure you’ll have to clutch some naysayers’ phones from them.) “I’m not going to her dinner party then,” I hear you saying. But wait—you’re with your phone all the time. Do you really think you can’t handle a couple hours without him (or her)? You can do it!

No TV-watching, either!

You can watch TV anytime! (So can your friends!) Besides, how can you get to know each other better if watching TV is masking your socializing?

Play dress-up!

That’s right, have people wear formal attire, because—why not?! What better an excuse to dress up, especially in front of your friends? I know that in L.A., where I live, most people are “California casual” 99 percent of the time. But, why should all those fun dress-up clothes sit in the closet? It’s time to use them!

Have a theme!

If you don’t want to dress up, per se (or maybe in conjunction with dressing up), have the dinner party around some holiday (like St. Patrick’s Day, without all the drunk people surrounding you). Or a 1940s/speakeasy theme. Or a TV show theme (like a “Mad Men” party, complete with a Jell-O mold). Or make-up-a-holiday theme. Something. Anything. You get the drift!

Have a food/drink theme.

An ex-boyfriend of mine had a pizza oven in his backyard, so guess what? We had pizza-making parties every few months, and people came to expect them—and we loved throwing them! We even mixed this theme—pizza—with the one above—holiday themes, like a Valentine’s Day Pizza Party, and so forth. Even without a pizza oven, you can use your regular oven or even your grill to cook them. With another friend, we had ice cream socials each week, with everyone bringing toppings (and we supplied the maker and core ingredients). A friend had a Saki-tasting party while another had a wine-and-cheese one. Be creative!

Set the table and decorate.

The 99-Cents Only Store is your friend. They have incredible decorations and will make cleaning up easier if you opt for paper plates and plastic forks versus China and silver. Again, this is your time to be clever (see Pinterest for inspiration). You can make personalized place cards for guests (this will help for when you tell them they cannot sit by their significant others; see below), goodie bags, centerpieces, put up streamers, type up or handwrite the evening’s menu (I’m sure someone knows calligraphy), and so on and so forth.

Get a couple friends to help set up.

Believe me, these online recipes say a dish “only takes 30 minutes” to make—but I find that is rarely the case. If you have someone else over to help hang streamers, you’ll appreciate it later when the chicken’s not burning because you were too concerned with twisting and hanging that streamer just so.

You get to know your friends (and acquaintances) better.

When’s the last time you had dinner guests over? Exactly. By sitting around the table together, doing something fun—eating—you get to know your friends better than if you’re out at a crowded bar, begging to be heard, shouting over each other through the other patrons.

That said, don’t let couples and people who come together, sit together.

When I first went to a dinner party and the host said, “You can sit anywhere, but not across from or next to your boyfriend or girlfriend,” I rolled my eyes at my then-boyfriend and thought, “WTF?! We’re never coming back here for dinner!” But, as I got to know my seatmates, I found the value in what the host did: he got us out of our comfort zones. After all, I could talk to my boyfriend anytime, but not Katie (whom I’d only met once) or the host’s girlfriend (whom I’d never met before).

Play musical chairs.

That’s right, just like you did in kindergarten! When my then-boyfriend and I started to have dinner parties of our own (because that’s how it happens—you get invited to one, then you decide to have one, then you get addicted to having them and, before you know it, you’re having people over for dinner every week and loving it), we decided to do a variation of our aforementioned friend’s dinner seating chart. We had people change seats every half-hour (sort of like an extended version of speed dating without the dating). That way, you get to know everyone at dinner in case you and Katie (see above), don’t click too well, after all.

Be a great host/hostess.

Aside from playing musical chairs, throughout the evening—and particularly before and after people sit around the dinner table—make sure everyone is comfortable and having a good time. For instance, introduce people to one another if someone has trouble approaching someone they don’t know. Be as good a host as you’d want someone to be to you. (And don’t drink too much!)

No table guilt for sitting there too long after you’re done eating.

You know that time of night when all the other tables have left and the restaurant is trying to close and the waitstaff won’t stop staring at you to leave? Well, that doesn’t exist at your house! Your guests can linger, slowly sipping their after-dinner espresso, and then go sit on the couch or the floor after a while instead of being glued to their dinner seats. (Look at that—your “restaurant” has couches and floors to sit on!)

No “closing time” like restaurants and bars.

Related to the above, you can have your friends stay as late as they—and you—want! Till 2 a.m. or later, even! There’s no closing time! (Maybe they’ll even sleep over!)

Get a couple friends to help clean up.

You’ll be exhausted by the end of the evening, from cooking, running around, drinking, and so on. So, when friends offer to clean up, don’t politely say, “No, it’s okay. You did enough just by being here.” Let them help! Plus, the more hands that help, the less time it’ll take and the sooner you can lie down and the longer you can sleep in the next day!

Send thank-you emails or cards in the morning.

Who doesn’t love a thank-you note, especially one that comes in the mail (and I’m not talking email)? Again, if you’d be sending cards to people who rarely check their mail, send out emails. But, I’d go for handmade thank-you notes!

Mix it up.

Now that you had sooooo much fun hosting that dinner party, do it again the following week, or the week after that. (If you wait much longer, the momentum will be over and it’ll take you months to do it again, trust me. Live off the above “I-hosted-a-great-dinner-party-all-by-myself!” high.) And this next time, invite different friends.

All in all, you can do this! It’ll be fun, save you all money, not force you to leave a restaurant at a certain time, and be a great bonding experience with your friends! (And be sure to save me some chicken or whatever you decide to make!)