1. Don’t make things you’ve never made before. Be certain of what you’ll be serving. You can afford to be a bit adventurous, but don’t try out that “foolproof” souffle for the first time at your big party — save that one for yourself and a friend. Make a list of some of your favorite and tastiest dishes, and choose those that offer complimentary flavors. Be sure you can expand the recipe easily enough.
2. Clean your house a couple of days before the party. Yes, it’ll be a complete mess when the party’s over and you’ll have to clean it all over again. Save the really thorough cleaning for after the party. But don’t hew to the old wisdom of not cleaning beforehand because it’s going to be a mess within hours. You want to show your house off.
3. Set the table the day before. By then you’ll know who’s coming, so you’ll know how many settings to arrange, and you’ll know the theme (birthday, Christmas, a specific celebration like graduation). Add some simple decorations to augment the table settings if you like. But remember that the table should be somewhat clear so that food can flow around it. So don’t overdo the decorations; remember, less is more. Flowers are nice, but choose low arrangements for the center of the table; people should be able to see everyone around the table. Add candles if you like, to give your event a very special feeling.
4. Plan the guest list carefully. If you have friends you think would enjoy some other friends whom they’ve not yet met, a dinner party is a great opportunity to get them together. If you have friends who don’t get along, include only one or the other. It’s doesn’t happen often, but if you don’t take care with the guest list, a party can become a powder keg. Pay close attention to everyone’s religious and political devotions!
5. When you invite your guests, be sure to ask whether they have allergies or dietary preferences, and make a note. My Aunt Peg kept a card file on all her friends’ likes and dislikes — and that was in a day when you didn’t expect anyone to disavow meat eating. I don’t keep a file, but I do try to remember what’s what with my friends and, if I don’t know, I always ask. This way you’ll avoid someone going hungry or, worse, a party where someone doesn’t have a good time.
6. After you know who can eat what, plan your menu at least a week in advance. Be sure you take into account everyone’s needs (this can be challenging, but fun) and balance the menu accordingly.
7. Be sure you have all the ingredients you need in hand 24 hours ahead. Prepare anything that can be made in advance, like pies or certain salads, the night before.
8. Have a checklist of everything you need to do and to prepare. Try to make the list in order of what you need to do first to last. Check things off as you go. That will cut down on last-minute panic. An hour before your guests are expected, you should have just about everything done. Plan it that way — then go and take a shower and get dressed. You don’t want to be caught in your apron with your hair askew when everyone arrives. It’s all about planning. And, remember, this party is for you to enjoy as much as for your guests.
9. Delegate. If there’s a roast to carve or wine bottles to open, have in mind a couple of friends you can ask to take care of it when they arrive. If you’re alone, you have to get used to asking for help. That was a hard lesson for me to learn.
10. Stock up on a variety of beverages. If budget is a consideration, don’t serve hard liquor; it’s more expensive than beer or wine, which most people drink, and it requires other accoutrements (ice, mixers, lemons and limes). But be sure to offer several choices for those who don’t drink alcohol; seltzer water and juice usually cover the bases. It’s important to have on hand what you think your guests want. If you don’t drink, don’t impose that stricture on your guests. You’ve invited them to come and enjoy themselves, and that implies that you want to make them happy in the style to which they’re accustomed.
11. Put all drinks and hors d’oeuvres out on a selected table beforehand, with napkins, glasses, corkscrew, whatever’s needed, so people can help themselves. Make all this as automatic as possible. And set it all up in advance. As people arrive, just invite them to help themselves to a drink of their choice.
12. Pace the courses. Don’t rush the meal. Make sure there’s plenty of food so that everyone can have seconds if they want.
13. Be sure to offer coffee and tea when the meal has ended.
14. You’re there to enjoy yourself, but you’re also there to make sure all your guests are happy. If you notice that one of your guests is, for some reason, hanging back or not included, pull that person into the conversation subtly but deliberately.
15. The reason for your party will usually dictate the size of the crowd, but I’ve always felt that dinner for eight is the ideal size. It’s easy to cook for that number, and the conversation is much calmer and more focused when eight gather around a table.
Read how Edie Clark brings folks together for Orphan Holidays.