How to Plan a Dinner Party

On Your Mark, Get Set ...

Place setting and wine on rustic wood table
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Planning an entertaining menu and an evening with guests can be quite intimidating. But with these tips and some planning, you will have a wonderful time at your own party.

How to Plan a Dinner Party: On Your Mark!

  • First decide on the date of your party, guest list, and theme. If you choose to entertain around a holiday, many of your decisions will be easier, if you incorporate traditional decorations and food. Invite guests to your party early, preferably two or more weeks ahead of time. This will give them time to RSVP and will give you more time to plan. The comfort of your guests is your primary goal, so think about compatibility, tastes, ages, and the ambiance you want to create.
  • Make a realistic assessment of your cooking and baking skill levels, and the time you'll be able to commit to the party. There are ways to make things easier - takeout and deli foods are absolutely acceptable, and you can have a cookout, picnic, or a potluck party if you are really busy. A sit down dinner party is more formal than a cookout or a buffet, so think carefully about what type of party makes you the most comfortable.
  • Get ready to make lists! Lists are absolutely essential for any party, as you can jot things down as you think of them. Once you have the basics well planned and written down, your mind will be free to be creative with the food, fun, and decor.
  • Make your guest list and invite them. Calling is the easiest way to invite, and you will most likely get an immediate response. Another advantage of calling is you can ask (as I always do) if your guests have any food allergies or preferences. For larger parties, like a surprise birthday party, you can send out invitations.
  • Plan your menu. Have fun with this, but don't overreach! If you are a beginning cook, choose a main dish that you have made before and enjoy. It's a good idea to never make a recipe for the first time for a party.
  • Take inventory of your supplies: table and chairs, serving pieces, cutlery, crystal, plates, candlesticks, serving areas, and of course your kitchen. Think about renting or borrowing items you don't have. Make sure the things you own are sparkling clean and in good repair.
  • Think about how you want to decorate. Decorations for a party can be as simple as candlesticks on the table, or more elaborate streamers, balloons, flower arrangements, tablecloths, and even chair slipcovers. Decorate with the seasons too. Fresh flowers in the summer, a bowl full of polished apples and spruce twigs in the winter, or a vase with colorful leaves and cattails in the fall are simple, inexpensive, and beautiful.

Get Set for the Party

  • Now plan your countdown. Block out time on your calendar for house cleaning, shopping, decorating, and setting the table. Make sure to save some time before the party so you can get ready and relax before your guests arrive. Check which recipes can be made ahead, and make sure you have freezer or refrigerator space to store them. You may be able to borrow space in a friend's refrigerator or freezer before your party - especially if you invite them!
  • Go over your menu, gather your recipes, and plan shopping lists directly from the recipes. Don't rely on your memory for this! Check your pantry too. If you are low on staples like baking powder, sugar, or flour, add those to your list.
  • Notice that I said lists? Shop for foods and supplies that can be purchased in advance (like staples), those that need to be bought the week of the party or special ordered, and the last minute purchases like fresh berries.
  • Plan for heavy cleaning, if needed, well ahead of party time. If you need carpets shampooed or windows washed, take care of those chores at least a week ahead of time.
  • Write down a timetable for the day of the party, counting back from party time. Leave plenty of time for food preparation, baking, cooling and decorating, setting the table, arranging flowers, planning music or games, and getting yourself and family ready!
  • You can do shopping for staples, like napkins, paper towels, and cleaning equipment, well ahead of time.
  • Clean, clean, clean! A clean house is not only welcoming, but you will feel more comfortable knowing that a guest isn't going to come upon an unexpected mess. The kitchen and bathroom are the rooms I pay special attention to.
  • Setting and decorating the table and the dining room for your party is really fun. If your dining room can be closed off, set it a few days ahead of time. Keeping kids and pets away from a set table is important, so close the doors!

    How to Plan a Dinner Party: Go!

    • Shop first. If you buy as much as possible well ahead of party time, you will be assured of best quality as well as a well-stocked pantry. You may have to revise the party menu if you can't find certain ingredients, and if you don't want to do this, you may have to order foods.
    • Write down all of the recipes you'll be making for the party, and the time it takes to make and bake, or chill or freeze them. Then count backward from serving time and decide when you want to start preparing the food. It's best to choose some recipes that can be made well ahead of time, and are just served cold or at room temperature, or heated at the last minute. Planning this well will help make sure that all of the foods are ready to eat at serving time.
    • Prepare foods that can be made ahead and store in the refrigerator or freeze.
    • Follow your timetable, go over lists and make sure to check off each task for the party as you complete it.
    • I like to set out each serving dish along with its utensil and place a small card next to it with the name of the food that it will hold. This way you can calmly take foods out of the oven or fridge and just place on the serving tray, then start eating!
    • Try to plan so you have very little to do on the actual day of the party. Take time to relax, take a bubble bath, go for a stroll, or sit in your beautiful, clean house and enjoy before the guests arrive.
    • And have fun! A relaxed host and hostess are key to the best party. If you're enjoying yourself, your guests will be happy and relaxed too.

    This sample menu, with recipes and timetable, will help you plan a dinner party to perfection. You can adapt it to your own schedule, recipes, and parties by working backward from serving time. Choose your eating time, then subtract the time each recipe takes to bake and prepare. Write down your timetable, allowing extra time for possible problems, and build in time so you can relax too. Figure out what time you need to start preparing each dish, then follow your timetable carefully.

    Sour Cream Pesto Dip 

    Overnight Fruit Salad

    Ham Manicotti

    Easy Sourdough French Bread

    Simple Chocolate Cake


    Two Days Before Party

    • Purchase food and supplies, except strawberries.
    • If melons aren't quite ripe, place together in closed paper bag on the countertop.
    • Set table if your dining room can be closed off, clean the house.
    • Prepare meat sauce for the Manicotti, cover and refrigerate.
    • Prepare salad dressing for Fruit Bowl, cover and refrigerate.
    • Prepare French Bread, wrap well and freeze.

    Day Before Party

    • Prepare Chocolate Cake, cover well and store at room temperature.
    • Finish cleaning.
    • Check over recipes and make sure you have correct supplies and enough of each ingredient, as well as ice and drinks.
    • Purchase strawberries and other last minute items.
    • Prepare Manicotti, cover well and refrigerate.
    • Prepare Fruit Bowl (except for strawberries), mix with dressing, cover and refrigerate.

    Morning of Party

    • Put last minute touches on table settings.
    • Arrange centerpiece.
    • Prepare crudites (fresh vegetables) for the Pesto Dip, arrange on platter, cover and refrigerate.
    • Prepare Pesto Dip, cover and refrigerate.
    • Take time for yourself, to relax, think about the fun you're going to have, go over your lists one last time.

    Party Time

    • Welcome guests.
    • I like to have appetizers set out just as guests arrive. When the doorbell rings, pull out your prepared Pesto Dip and platter of crudites and set it on the coffee table in your living room.

    Just Before Serving

    • Bake Manicotti.
    • Put French Bread, wrapped in foil, in oven for last 25 minutes of Manicotti baking time, on rack next to Manicotti.
    • Pour drinks on table, light candles.
    • Wash and dry strawberries; slice.
    • Pull Fruit Bowl out of refrigerator, add strawberries, and place on table.
    • Slice warm bread, arrange on platter.
    • Eat and have fun!