Virtual Dinner Parties Are the Best Way to Bring People Together Right Now

Make an Online Celebration Feel as Special as a Real-Life Get Together

illustration featuring a "virtual" dinner party on laptops, ipads and phones

The Spruce / Lara Antal

At least once a quarter, I host a party, ranging from intimate gatherings to watch the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race to big blowouts at the holidays (including Dipmas, my all-dips potluck). I love to host and as an aggressively extroverted Libra, being surrounded by friends and making everyone happy with homemade food and hospitality is my favorite way to spend time.

But as I head into the second quarter of 2020, I won’t be able to host any in-person group gatherings due to the spread of COVID-19 and our collective need to socially distance for the foreseeable future. That means that the beautiful pork sirloin roast I got from Primal Supply Meats to make for an Easter party is going in the freezer and the next time I want to make dumplings, it will have to be alone instead of with an assembly line of friends gathered around my small kitchen’s butcher block counter. It’s a sad reality, but I won’t be able to share food with friends for a while.

After sitting with that sadness for a few days, I realized that entertaining doesn’t have to just be about gathering around the same table. My friends and I can sit at separate tables in different cities and still have a party together—it just has to happen on the internet. With the many ways we can video chat (FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype, and more), it is actually easier to coordinate a digital dinner party than one IRL. There are no scheduling conflicts other than making sure it happens after we clock out for the day from our jobs; I don’t have to clean the entire house; and if I burn the chicken, only I have to suffer eating an accidentally-blackened piece of meat.

When normally I would spend weeks or months planning a party, for my first one, I made it completely impromptu. I texted a few friends the day before I planned to host, and we all settled on a 6 p.m. start time to cook, drink, and eat together. We started later than anticipated and we didn’t all end up eating together due to staggered cooking times, but it ended up being a lovely way to create a sense of community and togetherness for a few hours. The food wasn’t even the main event, but it did make me feel like I was hosting a dinner party and a cooking show as I showed off the various stages of my cream cheese chicken enchiladas and unveiled the dish’s final bubbly, bronzed, cheesy top at the end of the call.

While in self quarantine, I’ve decided that I’m going to host these dinner parties once a week. I learned some valuable lessons from my first and am sharing them and some other key tips with you below, but remember that this isn’t about following rules or making it perfect. Have fun, connect with people you love, and don’t worry about overcooking your roast chicken.

Prep in Advance

Mise en place has never been more important. Ask yourself if a task would be boring to watch in real time if you were watching a cooking show—for me, it was chopping onions, grating cheese, and shredding cooked chicken—or dangerous to do while maintaining conversation. It’s fun to cook while on the phone, but try to keep it to parts of a recipe that are easy to do while multi-tasking or fun to watch someone do.

Let People Show Up When They Want

It’s ideal to have everyone on the call when you start the party, but if a friend is finishing work, let them text you and join in later on. It’s like being fashionably late to the party, and can be fun to add a new face in unexpectedly.

Get Out of Your Pajamas and Dress Up

I was wearing a sweatsuit all week—including this very fun Thanks Phoebe Waller-Bridge sweatshirt from The Silver Spider on Etsy in honor of the worst guest at a dinner party, Fleabag—but got into a jumpsuit, washed my hair, and put on full makeup to feel human again. It made me feel like I was getting dressed up for a real party, plus I looked good on camera.

Don’t Fuss Too Much Over What People Are Cooking

I found it fun to cook at the same time as friends to see what they were making. My friend Karen was making roast chicken and blanched greens for her and her roommates; my friend Elizabeth was eating a chimichanga from Mexican takeout in North Carolina with her family; and my friend Sam was just making herself a tequila soda. (We all voted on what flavor seltzer she should use, and we picked mango.) But even if people are just watching you cook and enjoying time catching up, that’s fine. Don’t worry too much about the actual food at the dinner party. This is a time to laugh and connect and not feel so alone when the world around us is so crazy.

But You Can Definitely Create Theme Parties

If you have some time to brainstorm and want to be creative, set a theme for the party! Try a ‘50s dinner party, a murder mystery party, a tiki-filled luau, or a sleepaway camp shindig with nostalgic, kid-favorite food. If you do that, you can ask people to put on a quasi-costume if they feel like it, cook a dish that goes with the theme, or just send out a fun Paperless Post evite so it feels more special.

Bonus: Turn Dinner Into a Full Game Night

f you already have everyone on video, you can hook up online games like Jackbox on a shared screen (using Google Hangouts, Zoom, or streaming on Twitch) and play together over a glass of wine or as you are finishing up dinner or dessert. Then, suddenly the hours tick by and you’re having so much fun that you don’t realize it’s well past midnight and time to go to bed. Just like all of the other best parties you’ve ever had.