Follow these simple guidelines and your friends are sure to leave your dinner party in a food coma.
Start with a Theme
Get the ball rolling by choosing a motif. Pick a destination (India) or a passion (salsa music), and use it to tie all the elements of your evening together -- from the decor to the drinks, dinner, and dessert. Doing so will add some panache and ensure all the parts complement the whole. (FYI: Egg rolls don't mesh with spaghetti and meatballs.)
To set a cozy French bistro tone, for instance, dole out plenty of red wine. As your table's centerpiece, place lots of votives around breadbaskets filled with sliced baguettes. Instead of a tablecloth, use large sheets of white paper. For the menu, serve a coq au vin for the main course, followed by the salad (as they do in France), and then offer cheese for dessert. Have Edith Piaf or Maurice Chevalier warbling in the background.
Create the Menu
The earlier you sketch out your course of attack, the better. Try to nail down your theme and preliminary food options at least 14 days in advance -- this is really important if both you and your fellow chef have 9-to-5 gigs and time is limited. Part of being a good host is ensuring that your guests enjoy themselves and go home with full tummies.
If a guest is vegetarian and you end up serving roast beef, chances are he or she will go home unsatisfied and grossed out. So play detective and call each guest as you're planning the menu to learn about any special requirements or food allergies. After you've sussed out any diner particularities, you're ready to finalize your carte du jour.
Take InventoryAdvance Prep
Once you have your menu planned, make a shopping list of ingredients you need and a checklist of things to do; stick these lists on the refrigerator door. Check off items and tasks as you go along. You'll definitely have to run to the grocery store at least once, and you'll need to stop by a wine or liquor store to pick up the booze. Remember that all the elements of your feast, including the munchies, should complement one another. Go with fares that are relatively simple to prepare, like lasagna, and include dishes that can be prepared a day or two in advance (you'll have enough to do on the day of the party, so go easy on yourself).
Starters like cheese and crackers or sliced veggies and dip, sides such as couscous or potato salad, and desserts like pies can be made ahead of time and stashed until the dinner. You don't want to be slaving away in the kitchen while your guests (and your partner) are enjoying cocktails and snacks in the living room. If you're not a seasoned pro in the kitchen or have too much on your hands to prepare everything from scratch, don't sweat it. In this day and age, it's absolutely acceptable to buy prepared foods.
One rule of thumb to keep in mind when drawing up your meal strategy: Never use your guests as guinea pigs for a recipe you've never made before. If you live on the edge and want to try your hand at something new, absolutely do a test run to get all the kinks out.
Ensure you have enough place settings for the number of guests you're expecting and make things really official with a tablecloth and cloth (not paper) napkins. For decor, hit a thrift store or discounter to get cheap mood enhancers like candles or knickknacks to create the centerpiece (which every well-dressed table includes). And don't forget to pick up some fresh flowers the day before. If you plan on putting a bouquet on the table, keep it low and not monstrously huge so guests won't have to crane their necks to talk to the person sitting across from them.
The cocktail hour (notice the operative word "hour") shouldn't last more than 60 minutes. Your guests will probably arrive hungry, and having hors d'oeuvres at the ready is essential. Plus, you don't want everyone sloshed by the time you sit down at the table. (This is supposed to be a memorable meal, remember?) Snacks are designed to stave off starvation, not to kill appetites, so beware of portion control. Doubtless, you or yours will be in the kitchen fussing over last-minute details, but try to avoid spending all your time at the stove. The whole point of this happy hour is to give everyone a chance to break the ice, get to know one another, and relax.
Having a blast hanging out sipping martinis? Tough. Always start your dinner on time (no more than one hour after the first guest shows up). If no one is budging, gently coax them to the dining room regardless, or you run the risk of ruined appetites -- and tipsy friends. If someone is MIA, too bad for him. Begin the meal without him. Delicately mention to a perpetually late pal, when calling to invite her, that dinner starts at such-and-such a time and you want everything to go smoothly, so please show up for drinks on time to offer support.
Though you no longer have to juggle a hundred tasks (like sweating over last-minute prep work, pouring drinks for guests, and answering the door) alone, don't be a control freak and take advantage of your mate. Assign tasks. Put one of you in charge of making dinner and the other in control of the cocktails, greeting the guests, or running to the store for any last-minute items. The more evenly the work is spread out, the smoother your party will go.
And remember, friends love to help, so keep a couple of easy tasks -- arranging the hors d'oeuvres on a platter, lighting the candles -- available for them to do. Though, ultimately, everything may not turn out exactly the way you want it to, the point is to have a good time and socialize with your guests.
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