Kitchen Tips

10 top tips for a successful dinner party

Cook and stylist Fiona Hugues has been gathering friends and family over meals for almost two decades. Here's her list of top tips to make your gathering a wonderful, enjoyable night. Photo by Jani Shepherd/Gatherum Collectif

1. Consider your guest list

When writing a guest list, consider whether they’ll enjoy each other’s company and what they may have in common. Greet and introduce everyone on arrival.

2. Make a detailed plan for your dinner party

Make a rough schedule in advance; plan to have dinner served at a certain time and have everything ready to go. Work out who’s doing what and when – my Frenchman usually handles drinks and I do the food. Ensure the bathroom facilities are clean with fresh soap, hand towel and toilet roll.

3. Choose a well-balanced and achievable menu

  • Choose a menu that is well balanced so the dishes go nicely together and, most importantly, suit your cooking ability
  • If you’re unsure, ask your guests if they have any dietary requirements so there are no surprises on the day
  • Never, ever cook a dish you haven’t tried at least once before
  • Keep your menu seasonal and suited to the weather
  • Work out if you’re capable of plating a dish for each guest or go with the easier option and serve platters-to-share at the table
  • Prepare as much as you can in advance so that you’re relatively relaxed when guests arrive
  • If you don’t usually serve dessert, a fruit platter and chocolate, or a board of cheeses and dried fruit, is easily prepared ahead
  • For a special occasion, print or hand-write a simple menu

4. Set the scene

Choose a space that fits all your guests comfortably. If you have a small house keep your guest list manageable and be creative – eg serve the entrée or dessert in the lounge at the coffee table. If dining outdoors in summer, you don’t always need a table – we’ve had great parties on blankets under trees with cushions to lean on and cut tree stumps to support the food.

5. Set the table

Keep the table tidy by removing unnecessary items, and avoid tall decorations so guests can see who they’re talking to. There’s no need to spend a fortune on flowers; forage in the garden for foliage or lay a piece of seasonal fruit on each setting. Put out salt and pepper and water glasses, and keep bottles or jugs of water handy.

6. Create a dedicated drinks area

Allocate an area for drinks on a sideboard, cabinet or at one end of your table to make getting your guests a drink on arrival relatively effortless. Clean glassware, dig out your corkscrew and bottle opener and have plenty of ice available.

7. Bring out some nice tableware - or borrow some!

Be sure the crockery, cutlery, glassware and serve ware you’ll need is clean and you have enough for everybody. Don’t be afraid to borrow or hire some if you are short; mixing up vintage pieces with modern tableware is fine, too. Keep to the same colour palette for a formal setting with the addition of some bright flowers (or keep flowers white if your setting is colourful). Seated dinner parties must always have good-quality napkins, fabric ones if you have them (or cut some squares out of a coordinating cotton fabric).

8. Create ambiance with lighting

Soft lighting and nice scents are my number-one considerations when entertaining. Walking into a home which is softly lit with pools of light, candles or strings of lights and a slight aroma of what’s cooking is the perfect introduction for guests. If you do need to fry anything, open a window and perhaps burn a scented candle to dispel the smell.

9. Set the playlist

Choose great background music that isn’t too loud; we use a playlist of cool jazz or lounge music for our dinner parties and Parisian or Spanish jazz or classical music for alfresco meals. As the night wears on the dance tunes come out and the volume goes up…

10. Some dinner-party etiquette

  • Make sure every guest is greeted and receives a drink of their choosing on arrival.
  • Don’t force food or drink on your guests; their reasons for not partaking may be a secret they don’t want to share with the crowd.
  • If someone offers to help in the kitchen or with clearing up and you need it, let them.
  • Don’t apologise for the food unless you have real reason to – be proud of your efforts and own it!
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