Dinner Party Planning Guide

This can be adapted for any time frame, whether you are taking weeks to prepare for a huge thanksgiving or a half hour to prepare for an impromptu Sunday dinner. What separates a great party from a cooking timing disaster (I even still have them periodically), is planning.

Emily Weinstein, the producer of the Bitten blog at the NYTimes.com who now chronicles her own adventures learning to cook, put it best in her post on “The Dinner Party“:

…my friend Nick…told me, though, was that it was precisely that strain of getting-it-rightness that allows him to stay calm: it motivates him to plan ahead.

Planning ahead. I see…

And the thing is that Nick hadn’t even planned that far ahead. We talked on the phone that morning. We still didn’t know how many people were coming as of mid-afternoon. He just took a few minutes and thought about the meal about more carefully than I would have, and with a sense of logic.

A few minutes and the right direction for your thoughts is really all you need. Just run through these steps, no matter how quickly, and your next dinner will be that much smoother.

Cover Your Basics

  • do you have a party ready kitchen?
  • table space and chairs
  • enough plates, spoons and silverware
  • mixing and serving bowls (a need not to be underestimated!)

Define Your Parameters

  • number of guests
  • type of guests
  • theme for food
  • number of courses
  • is there a need for appetizers?
  • are you celebrating something and in need of a fancy dessert?
  • what kind of drinks will you need?
  • do you have time to go out and get complex ingredients or do you have to make do with what you have?

Invite People

  • plan your guest list for variety, compatibility of personality, and general socialness/congeniality
  • methods: email, evite, phone call, in person, with paper invites
  • have a second tier list in case of cancellations
  • find out people’s food restrictions
  • if guests ask what to bring, give them a few suggestions for a wine pairing

Plan Your Menu

  • brainstorm recipes
  • balance the proportion of old recipes to new
  • try things in advance if it is a large event and these are new recipes
  • make sure you have your bases covered for food restrictions (vegetarian, lactose intolerant, gluten-free, allergies, or things people just don’t like to watch out for: cilantro, too much spice, overly foreign tastes, raw onions)
  • make sure you have enough dishes, serving items, and flatware for what you want to serve

Plan your shopping

  • list every ingredient needed for each recipe
  • check your pantry for items you already have
  • divide up what can be bought in advance and what needs to be purchased day of or right before (meat, fish, eggs for souffles, etc.)
  • batch your shopping by store for maximum quality and savings
  • schedule out some time and go get it done!

Plan your cooking timeline

  • read all your recipes carefully ad familiarize yourself with the steps
  • take note of any items that need soaking (like beans) or other overnight preparation many hours or days in advance
  • make a loose plan of attack by figuring out which items need to be made directly before serving and which can be made further in advance
  • factor in anytime needed to clean or decorate your house and to arrange the table

Get your party on

  • try to do dishes as you are cooking and make sure there is space in the kitchen for used dishes
  • plan who will greet guests and encourage pre-dinner conversation and appetizer eating
  • have your cleaning, set-up, and any decorating done before guests arrive, with any beverages and appetizers out – anything else can be done after guests start arriving
  • pick and set-up music
  • most important of all – have fun!