Pick a good group. Of people, that is. Choose friends who get along well, have similar interests, and have at least some things in common. If you’re looking to spice things up with a wild card invitee or two, make sure they'll fit in and won't make the rest of your guests uncomfortable. Handwritten mailed invitations are nice if you’re feeling fancy, but emails or phone calls work fine, too.
Read the newspaper. Dinner parties have a life of their own, and like fingerprints, no two are exactly alike. The secret for me is to think about the people who are coming, and gear up for great conversation. I like to read a few current newspapers ahead of time, it's good to be up on current events. If the conversation begins to lag, I always have topics to bring up for discussion. Another good idea is to find a list of questions on the Internet. If you have new friends in your home this is a great way to get to know them better. And never forget — people like to talk about themselves!
Go with what you know. Make dishes you have whipped up at least once or twice before the big event. If you’re used to cooking that famous casserole, practice making it in a larger, party-worthy size, sometimes volume can affect cooking time. If you’re determined to impress guests with a fancy new dish, give it a test run a few weeks in advance.
Check your inventory ahead of time. Make sure you have all necessary serving dishes, glasses, plates, silverware, etc. the weekend before the party so you’re not rushing around the day of trying to buy, borrow, or steal ‘em. Lay everything out the morning of to make sure it’s all present and accounted for and clean. Do the same with your recipe ingredients a day or two before the party. Mr.P hates last minute trips to the store for ice. I always forget the good ice!
Set the table for the occasion or season. Set the table before your guests arrive so everyone feels like they have a place, and use cloth napkins always. I without fail, set my table the night before, making the day of the party a little easier. If you're not decorating for a special occasion use what is in season to guide the tablescape: Shells for summer, pears and small pumpkins in the fall, pomegranates, holly berries and evergreens in winter, and blossoming branches in the spring. Add votive candles and get creative. Utilize things you have around that go with the theme.
Plan your menu decisively. Prepping for a dinner party isn’t quite the same as tossing together some pasta and veggies on any given weeknight. Plan the menu strategically — avoid a table laden with dishes that require last-minute prep, exotic ingredients, recipes with long prep times, or items that need lots of time in the oven or fridge. Remember you are striving for stress-free!
Do the hard work ahead of time. Try to get as much prep work as possible out of the way ahead of time. Look for recipes that include instructions on how to “plan ahead” and mention what can be prepared up to a day or two early. Two easy tricks are to chop veggies the day before the party and to make baked desserts a few days prior to the big event.
Clean as you go. This tip goes out to my Mother! She is a firm believer in cleaning as you go. It might seem like a pain in the moment, but it’s usually a good idea to wash pots and pans as you finish using them. That way, you won’t have a scary pile of dirty dishes at the end of the night. Starting the evening with an empty dishwasher is always a good idea.
Choose some sweet tunes. Make an awesome playlist to set the mood, or save yourself some time and let Pandora, Spotify, or Sirius radio do the job. I have playlist for every occasion. My Christmas playlist is 12.6 hours alone —yes. But I also have fun late 70s - early 80s, jazz, reminiscent Summer tunes, classic Sinatra and the boys...... and the list goes on. Make sure the volume is low enough to easily talk over. Great music fills in silences, and adds a sense of motion to the evening.
Turn the lights down low. Light some inexpensive candles. Candles add movement and warmth to the table. I keep stacks of them around, in all shapes and sizes. This doesn't need to be an expensive habit; I buy candles at Hobby Lobby when they are half price. You could also buy in bulk and save.
Give yourself a 30 minute window. Aim to be complete with cooking and other chores, with the table set and your hosting clothes on, 30 minutes before the guests arrive. This helps you breathe a little, giving you time to sit down, rest and put your feet up. You will be fresh and ready for your guests — to ensure you look fabulous, after all you are the hostess!
Finishing strong. Don't rush your guests out the door once dinner is over. Give them some coffee, conversation and some relaxed time to digest your well-played meal. Coffee and after-dinner drinks make the party last after the dishes have been cleared — and will leave your guests with lasting memories of a happy end to your get-together. Leave the cleanup until after your guests have gone. Visit with your guests and enjoy the relaxing end of the party with them.