You’ve mastered the art of the cocktail party and you know how to behave at a formal and informal dinner. Now you want to invite your friends over for dinner or a new years party. You want to feed them more than hors d’oeuvres. And you want some time left in your weekend to prepare for the upcoming week (or not spend the entire week preparing for Saturday night dinner). Welcome to the dinner party.
The informal dinner party requires an ever changing skill set combining the arts and sciencs of entertaining and manners. Unlike a cocktail party, in which scores of people may come and go throughout an evening, the informal dinner party requires your skills at preplanning, cooking and timing. The informal dinner party also requires your skills at people: you are in charge of the invitation list and you must bring together one or two old friends and new, who you know will find good humor and conversation as they get to know one another; you are also in charge of conversation and moving things along if they take a turn for the difficult.
The planning and execution of the meal and the easy mingling of guests make informal dinner parties both a challenge and a reward for a gentleman. Perhaps the best dinner party idea or advice for informal entertaining comes from the great purveyor of fashion, Coco Chanel: Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.
The Art of the Informal Dinner Party
The Guest List
Begin with a number you are comfortable with. Four to six people offer achievable challenges. Once you’ve mastered the small, informal dinner party, think about expanding your guest list, but not before. If you have a friend or two who are more extroverted than not, invite them. With aplomb they engage people and have a natural ability to make all feel welcome. Then invite friends you want to introduce.
Deciding who to invite, just like knowing what to wear, is about context. What type of experience do you want to create? Why do you want to bring a particular group of people together? Friends who both love opera may seem like good choices for your list; if they can only discuss opera, they will act like insufferable bores. Some traits to keep in mind: are the people you are bringing together good conversationalists? Good listeners? Widely read? Well traveled?
There is no guarantee your list will prove successful; but if you know why you brought this particular group of people together, you will stand a great chance of keeping the flow of conversation at a steady pace when conversation lulls or topics become too heavy.
As the host, you want your guests to shine. A couple of don’ts should suffice:
- don’t bore people with any single topic
- don’t interrupt people
- ask open-ended questions (what do you think about or what surprised you most)
- don’t be too nervous if the conversation turns to politics or religion. It is more than possibly to have strong, friendly disagreements on matters of opinion. Should you need to, your role is to move guests away from ad hominem attacks and back to facts. A little humor doesn’t hurt, either. Rest assured
The Science (and a little bit of art) of the Informal Dinner Party.
The informal dining party runs the gamut from buffet-style to three or four-course meals. Buffet-style may be a “bring a dish to pass / pot luck” style or one in which you cook everything, mostly. A special table, or even the kitchen counter, is used to hold the serving dishes. Guests help themselves to food. There is also family-style dining, where guests pass the food between themselves. This style of dining was most popular among the Romans. Both buffet-style and family-style dinner parties allow for second helpings. Unless you are going to plate the entire meal from the kitchen and serve it to guests individually (or pay someone to do that for you), your guests will be serving themselves.
Whether you choose to cook most or all of the meal yourself, or purchase prepared foods, you will need to become adept at estimating food proportions, a topic addressed below.
Food stores in the U.S. join shops in London and Paris in the array of prepared foods one may purchase for consumption at a later time. In densely populated cities with small apartments, purchasing prepared foods may your best option. Your kitchen may be a hot plate. If you do want to cook, and have not, you might start off preparing just the appetizers. Or you may ask a trusted friend who knows how to cook to assist you. Don’t overdo things. Start small with success as your goal.
Like the cocktail party, you may wish to have a theme, or not. Don’t get so caught up in the theme/event that you forget your guest’s comfort. Inviting six to eight people over to share a meal provides more than sufficient bedazzlement. If you’re new to informal dinners parties or have little experience cooking, planning and sharing the meal will provide ample challenges. Strive for simplicity. You want to set yourself up for success. Start small (four people is perfectly fine). Plan well. Execute with precision. You can then attend to your guests in a calm, helpful, open-hearted manner.
As the host you want to be seated with your guests for all but a few moments of the dinner. During the period when guests are arriving, it is acceptable for you to be in the kitchen. While not ideal, if you guests will be seated in a combined kitchen/dining room area or you have a large kitchen or you have a partner or friend who can greet guests, take coats and prepare drinks, then spending some time in the kitchen is acceptable. Again, I can’t empahsize this enough, your job as host is to be with your guests, not the kitchen. So pare down the menu, ask for help or do anything else necessary to ensure you can act the calm host.
Only your palate and imagination (and to a lesser degree, your skill) limit your menu. A man new to hosting a dinner party and confident in the kitchen may want to dive in with eggs. Long relegated to a breakfast food, the egg takes its rightful place as a dinner food in both French and Italian cuisines.
Estimating Food Portions
6 bites when preceeding a meal.
4 – 6 bites per hour when hors d’oeuvres are the meal.
The longer your party and the larger your guest list, the greater the number of selections you should offer.
-Chips and dip: for ten people, about one pint of dip and 16-ounces – 500 g of chips
-Crudités: about one pound / 500g of vegetables for ten people (or about eight vegetable pieces per person)
The Main Meal
Poultry, meat or fish – 8 ounces when you have one main dish, 6 ounces when you offer two or more main courses. But you will need to alter your portion sizes according to the type of meat you are preparing. According to the Everything Barbecue book: For a boneless cut, you’ll want about four or five ounces per person (though many caterers recommend at least six ounces per guest.) For cuts with some bones — like steaks, chops, or a rib roast — you’ll need to up the amount to between five to eight ounces per person. And for meats with loads of bones like spare ribs, lamb shanks, or brisket, figure between 12 and 16 ounces.
Rice, grains – 1.5 ounces to two ounces as a side dish, 2 to 2.5 ounces in a main dish such as risotto.
Potatoes – 2 – 3 per person
Vegetables – about 4 ounces
Pasta – 2 ounces for a side dish, 3 ounces for a first course, 4 ounces for a main dish
Green Salad – 1-2 ounces undressed weight
- During winter months, a hearty cheese fondue or meat fondue can be an outstanding dinner party idea because you can literally eat for hours without getting full too quickly.
- Another fantastic dinner idea for new years parties is Raclette. Invented in Switzerland the best Raclette cheeses come from Switzerland and France. Basically, you have two choices to serve it.
- The traditional way is to have half a wheel or a quarter wheel heated with a special raclette machine. Once hot, it is shaved on to a potato on the dinner plate. However, with 6-8 guests that can be rather cumbersome.
- Instead, you can use a raclette grill with little pans. Not only can you now add all kinds of condiments, vegetables and meats but you can also add seafood or herbs and everybody can create their own dinner selection. Just like with fondue, you can easily eat for 3 hours because you will have to heat up the cheese individually leaving plenty of time for interesting conversation. Best of all, you’ll be cooking with your friends, not just for them.
-Pie, cake, pastry or tart: One slice per guest
-Pudding or mousse – 4 ounces
-Cookies: For standard sized cookies, 2 to 3 per person
-Ice cream: Five ounces per person
If you’re serving more than one of these, you can reduce the amount for each by about half.
For parties of 25 people or more, the Farmer’s Almanac provides amounts.
Wine 1/2 bottle per person Beer 2 – 3 bottle per person or more if you know your guests like to drink.
The Preparation Timeline
If you entertain for the first time, leave yourself enough time. 3 weeks as outlined below should be plenty. If you are experienced, you can do all of that in just a week or even less but it can be stressful, so take your time and enjoy it!
3 weeks before
Create guest list and mail invitations. Ask people to RSVP within one week so that you may plan accordingly. Determine if you have all the dishes, flatware, glasses you will need for the party. If necessary purchase or borrow what you need.
2 weeks before
Plan your menu. If you are cooking, prepare a menu of easy-to-make as well as more complicated recipes. Consider adding something that is store bought, too. Plan your beverages. Are you serving red or white wine? Or both? What about a dessert wine? If beer, what kind? And always have some non-alchoholic options available. Plan the music. If you are playing music, get to work on the playlist.
1 week before
Buy non-perishables including candles, napkins, baking soda and the like. Purchase wine, be
er and liquor and club soda.
3 days before
Purchase perishable items 2 days before Write out your cooking timeline. This is especially helpful if you are preparing dishes that require the stove, and at different temperatures. Begin food prep according to your timeline. Clean your home.
1 day before
Continuing prepping food according to your timeline. Purchase flowers Set the table and arrange flowers Decide on a seating plan (even at small events, this is important. You want to mix new and old friends (and separate couples) and also ensure that guests know where to sit without asking you.)
Day of the event
Prep final dishes according to your timeline. Refrigerate the white wine (if you are serving it.) Determine where you will put guests’ coats. Clean out the front closet if necessary.
Six hours before: Do a quick sweep of the floors in the entry way, the kitchen, the living and dining rooms.
Three to fours hours before: If cooking meat, start. Run dishwasher and empty it or hand wash all dirty dishes, dry and put them away.
Ninety minutes before: Get dressed
Thirty minutes before: Open red wines Turn on music Wait for your guests and enjoy! Set out flowers