You know the feeling – mounting panic as the number of days between now and the night you receive your guests for what they are hoping will be a memorable evening grow ever fewer. Next thing you know, you’re frantically looking up recipes on the internet the day before, trying to find something different and exciting, yet not too challenging. But it’s easy to make the whole experience an enjoyable one, from start to finish, not just for your guests, but for yourself! So, here are seven tips to make it happen seamlessly.
Rule Number One:
PLAN WELL AHEAD: This means just what it says. Start planning the event, and who you want to come to it, at least two or three weeks beforehand – longer, if possible. Some people’s calendars are always full, usually the very people you would most like to invite! Think of the individual guests. Who would be likely to get on with the others? Is this one a foodie, that one a bit of a loose cannon after a few drinks? I once had a friend make me promise never to invite her again if a certain person were present – that’s how offensive she had found someone whom I had always just taken with a pinch of salt. So make sure that you choose your guests with care. Next up; Is it a casual gathering of old friends? An event where you will be introducing new people to each other? How far up the Smart Scale do you want it to be, or how casual? A more casual style of entertaining is easier on yourself as host, with guests helping themselves to food from serving dishes, and even making their own cocktails. But if you want to do something a bit more impressive, then planning is even more important.
Rule Number Two:
DECIDE THE MENU EARLY ON: Pretty obvious, isn’t it? But it’s all too easy to remain undecided until it’s too late to plan properly, and it’s all done in a last-minute scramble. So when the guest list is decided and they have accepted, ask each guest if there is any dish he or she is not partial to. Increasingly, people are vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, etc., but most often it’s a simple case of likes and dislikes, and some ingredients can be tricky. Many people don’t like oysters, for example, so if you’re planning on serving something that is a love-or-hate sort of dish, just make sure they will be happy to eat it. Another one to watch out for is foie gras – many object to it on moral grounds. If even one guest is averse to a certain dish, don’t serve it. You don’t want the trouble of preparing separate courses for certain guests. And stick to three courses tops, excluding coffee.
Rule Number Three:
CHOOSE YOUR DISHES WISELY: Try to choose dishes that are either a) reasonably easy, or b) you know from experience you do well. Why make life more difficult than it need be? However, if you are one of those people who like to live on the edge, and can’t resist a challenge, then confine yourself to one challenging course, don’t attempt three! You’ll be grateful, trust me. Top tips: Choose at least one dish, say a dessert, that can be made in advance and frozen. Opt for a starter that can be prepared a little earlier on the day itself, so minimal time is needed before serving it. Avoid dishes that need a lot of prep or last-minute cooking – you want to spend as much time with your guests, and as little time away from them in the kitchen, as possible. Dishes that are baked, roasted, braised or casseroled are ideal.
Rule Number Four:
DON’T EXPERIMENT ON YOUR GUESTS: I have a friend who loves to cook for people and goes to a lot of trouble. He’s also partial to being inventive and likes to test himself and his culinary skills on his guests with hitherto-unknown combinations of ingredients. Sometimes it works – and sometimes it doesn’t. Your guests are there to enjoy a nice meal, not to be guinea pigs, so save your experiments for a solitary supper. For your dinner party, follow a trusted recipe, not blind faith. You want those compliments on your cooking to be genuine ones, right?
Rule Number Five:
MAKE A LIST: Actually, make two. One is for the ingredients needed for the dinner itself, along with the drinks on the menu, and the other is a list of things that need to be done in preparation for your guests. Things like setting the table, placing candles, getting the guest bathroom spotless and furnishing it with clean towels. Flowers, perhaps? Make sure you have enough napkins, dishes, cutlery, glasses. It’s easy to think you have more than you actually do. If you need to buy more, do so well in advance as it’s not always easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. Remember too that the glasses that you’ll be using will need to be washed and polished. There’s a lot more to giving a dinner party than just cooking, so get as much done before the day of the party as you can. It will make your evening so much more relaxed and enjoyable if you’re not running around the house looking for candles and matches as the first guest rings the doorbell. Having been in that position myself, I don’t recommend it!
Rule Number Six:
GET THINGS DONE THE DAY BEFORE: A very simple way to free yourself up on The Day so you are not pressured is to set the table the evening before; also set out candles. Prepare the guest bathroom. And get that dessert out of the freezer. Send reminders to your guests, with directions to your house. People have been known to totally forget that they were invited to dinner! Sort out your music now. Choose CDs and tracks with mellow, relaxing music. Nobody enjoys gulping down food to a fast beat. Chillout albums, soft jazz and blues, and classical are all good choices. Get it all ready the day before – all you will have to do on the night is press ‘Play’.
Rule Number Seven:
ENJOY THE PARTY: If you have followed all the above steps, you will find you have delightfully little to do on the day itself, just prep the starter, assemble the main course, and dessert is already defrosted. Just make sure cooking timings are exact – it’s safer to use a kitchen alarm, as otherwise the garlic bread may end up a smoking ruin. Set out the pre-dinner nibbles. Don’t add the dressing to salad until just before serving, or it will wilt. Have the white wine and any dessert or sparkling wines chilling in the fridge. Set out the pre-dinner drinks bottles in one place with the accompanying glasses, and a bowl of ice. Know what your guests like and have it ready for them. Sparkling wine or Prosecco are the ideal aperitif, so easy to serve! And talking of serving, an inexpensive hostess trolley really cuts down those trips to the kitchen. Finally, light the candles.
Now, allow yourself half an hour to just chill out, sipping your first drink of the evening. Enjoy. When your guests arrive you can greet them relaxed, smiling, and all set for a great evening. Get ready for those compliments!