How to Host Your First Dinner Party: Ultimate Guide

Nicole Austin

Come on, party people! Follow these tips to host a successful dinner party.

One of the most exciting, yet most daunting, things about getting your own place is the inevitable desire to host guests. But do you know how to host your first dinner party?

You always hear about families moving into their first home and wanting to celebrate by hosting popular family holidays, birthdays, or just a nice dinner with close friends. Whether it’s formal or informal, a dinner party is a lot of pressure on the host and/or hostess, and it can be overwhelming to know where to begin.

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You want to make sure everyone is taken care of, have everything perfectly in place, and leave a lasting impression on guests.

So, to take some of the guesswork out of the monumental task of hosting your successful dinner party, here are the answers to some of your most pressing questions about how to approach it!

Create a Dinner Party Guest List

The first thing you need to determine is the reason for your party, and therefore who is coming.

To host a dinner party, your first step will always begin well in advance by choosing the guests. Your guest list will depend on the occasion, the guest of honor (if applicable), and the atmosphere you’re looking for.

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For example, if you’re holding a birthday party for your cousin, you’re going to invite family and close friends with your cousin’s interests in mind, and you may choose to keep it casual. In this instance, you may find that people ask what they can bring or do to help, and you may choose to lighten your load by splitting up responsibilities!

On the other hand, if you’re looking to impress clients or a boss, or you’re new to a profession and want to make a good impression on colleagues, you may want to host a more formal event. (For more informal dinner parties, let guests sit where they please.)

Just want to have a great time? Consider important details like dinner guests who might get along with each other, and invite people who you want to spend quality time with — and who will appreciate the effort and personal touch you're putting into this!

Whatever the reason, deciding who to invite should come first, as many other key decisions start there! The right ambiance is essential for your dinner party’s success.

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What Time Should I Host a Dinner Party?

The time you host a dinner party will depend on the guests, their lifestyle, and what the party will consist of. People who have younger children may wish to meet later in the evening in order to secure a babysitter, or alternately want to meet earlier so they can go to bed sooner (and who can blame them?).

If you’re having close friends and family over for a casual get-together with kids involved, a weekend daytime party may work best. Consider the circumstances of the celebration and the life phases of your guests, and when in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask a few key people what works best for them.

Your guests will appreciate your consideration in the invitation when you put some thought into making it work for their schedule.

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What Should I Serve at a Dinner Party?

When choosing the menu for your dinner party, be sure to ask your guests if there are any allergies or other dietary restrictions. There’s also a chance this has changed recently for a guest, so it’s worth double checking.

I like to offer a few items that are good for just about anyone. In a casual setting, I make sure that I have corn chips that are gluten free, for example, whereas a more formal dinner party may consist of providing gluten-free biscuits.

You want to make sure that each of your guests has something they can eat that will keep them satiated. I plan a lot of appetizers and, when applicable, snacks for children, for example, as they may not want to eat the main course.

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(By the way, here are our favorite fancy appetizers for a sophisticated party feel. Don’t forget to check out our appetizers for backyard parties as well!)

I’ve also grown accustomed to serving vegetarians or vegans along with people who eat meat, so I have kept side salads meatless, or offered a meatless pasta dish like pasta primavera as an alternative main course. If you’re making something like lasagna, you may want to consider making two (one with meat and one without meat), or just one large cheese or veggie lasagna.

Sometimes people with food allergies or other dietary needs offer to bring their own food so they can eat freely without concern — you may feel the desire to tend to your guests, but anyone with severe restrictions is probably better off bringing their own food if they offer it. Your goal is a nice, relaxing time at your home.

I strongly suggest accepting this without a fuss if they offer, and asking if you can provide anything specific to supplement their meal choices. There are several scenarios where this may come up, such as a guest who keeps kosher or someone with a serious allergy.

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Tips for the Best Menu for Your Dinner Party

Here are some of our essential tips for the perfect dinner party that will go a long way towards making you look like a seasoned host!

Don’t try experimenting with new things.

You may be tempted to serve up a bunch of brand-new recipes that caught your eye, but go easy on the experimentation. Tried and true recipes may feel “boring” to you, but if this is your first time hosting a dinner party, it won’t be for your guests!

And how many movies or sitcoms showcase someone burning the main course or running out of time to get everything ready before people arrive? Don’t stress yourself out unnecessarily.

You can always play around with some new foods before your party to make sure you like them and want to include them, or you can add one new, surprising dish or dessert to keep it from being overboard.

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Choose dishes that are simpler to juggle.

You’re going to be busy making sure everyone is satisfied and happy, while still trying to get food to the table in a timely manner.

Try choosing foods that can stay warm longer without being ruined, like a large pot of vegetable soup or hearty baked potato soup, paired with cold or room temperature foods, like homemade biscuits or cornbread, salads that range from cucumber tomato to arugula blackberry, and more.

This also has the benefit of not requiring you to cook three different things in your oven at different temperatures or lengths of time, which will make your life much easier.

As you think about appetizers or hors d'oeuvres, remember that a charcuterie board is a popular choice to have out as guests arrive. A prepared spread like this is a great way to help the experience be a stress-free dinner party and keep guests from stressing about when the main meal will be served.

(And with this example, the good news is it requires zero cooking skills!)

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Make a complete shopping list.

Don’t rely on your memory to get everything you need! Write out a detailed shopping list, or use pick up or delivery so you can organize your items ahead of time.

Purchasing your ingredients in advance will allow you time to pick up anything you may need to supplement or replace.

Check your spice cabinets and condiments before shopping — don’t just assume you have enough of everything that your guests may ask for. This will save you from spending time running to the grocery store the day of the party.

Don't overlook essential items like toilet paper and think about if you want an added touch like fresh flowers or other table setting items for this special occasion.

Holiday Wine Guide 2022

Determine drinks ahead of time.

Consider what pairs well with your main course, such as a couple varieties of wine, and then decide if you want to wow your company with a signature cocktail such as a summery sangria or winter staple such as mulled wine.

Keep track of the drink offerings to inform your guests ahead of time, especially if they ask what they can bring. You can always suggest a type of wine or alcohol that will go well with what you are already offering.

If you’re not sure, try asking at your local wine store (or in a pinch, Google it).

You also want to pay attention to smaller details, like how much ice to have on hand, how many glasses you need to set out, and what unique ingredients you’ll want to add to your shopping list.

Don’t forget to consider appropriate garnishes for your cocktails, such as fresh orange slices. (And don’t forget to brush up on your wine skills beforehand with our uncorking guide so you look like a pro!)

I suggest offering a mocktail for every cocktail you plan to offer — this will be a way to entertain guests while being considerate of their preferences or needs. Even people who normally drink may want to abstain for various reasons, or may just want to pace themselves.

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Prep ahead of time.

Plan your menu, but also look it over and make a list of what you can make, and when.

Try to make your day-of list a lot smaller by preparing items in advance so you can lighten the load and enjoy your party more.

The last thing you want is some last minute crisis interfering with your good time.

Strategize dessert.

Consider serving a dessert that’s easy to eat and doesn’t require a table overhaul.

Unique cookies, like our raspberry butter cookies or gluten free lemon crinkle cookies can be eaten without utensils or plates! Or our delicious cherry cream pie in a jar requires only a spoon to enjoy, saving you from having to clean off or bring out plates or bowls.

Provide napkins, decaf coffee and tea, and a tasty treat.

And honestly, this can be a reasonable place to go with a store-bought option, depending on the gathering. Nobody will fault you for grabbing a pre-made pie!

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Preparing Your Home for a Dinner Party

Here are several things we recommend doing before hosting people in your home:

  • Make a cleaning list.

Make a list of common areas that you will use during entertaining, and focus on those. (Don’t forget the bathroom!)

Consider closing doors to rooms that will not be used, both for privacy and to save yourself time from feeling like you have to tidy the whole home.

Go all out on some rooms, like the dining room, bathroom, and kitchen (you know people will end up in there!), and give yourself a break on any common areas like the living room, entry way, and other communal spaces.

A quick dusting and sweeping or vacuuming will suffice! No need to mop and scrub or scour when you’ll need to turn around and do it right after guests leave.

Small details like having enough hand towels or paper towels by sinks, closing the shower curtain, or putting out an air freshener will improve your guest’s experience.

  • Set up your space.

Place your tablecloth and dinnerware, as well as any decorations or centerpieces. Setting the table the night before, if possible, will allow you some time to rearrange for a better presentation if necessary, or to consider seating arrangements. And again, do anything you can to reduce your day-of checklist!

Is there a dinner party theme? This definitely isn't required, but try something subtle — for example, your chosen theme could be something like "Tuscan summer," built around a delicious meal outdoors and using Italian wines or this Italian farro salad.

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Your theme could also be "Winter Wonderland" and feature gentle Christmas music, a candle that smells of pine, a red table runner, and good food associated with the holidays. Don't be too heavy-handed — you can create a memorable dinner party with a gentle theme or none at all.

Clear space on a counter, table, or buffet to provide food, drinks, and dinnerware. You do not want your guests to have to dig for things they need or feel as though they are bothering you if there’s something they need.

Having a buffet-style food offering in a space that allows freedom of movement and a flow will encourage guests to eat and mingle freely and comfortably.

Even if you serve your guests their main course already plated, it’s always a good idea to leave side dishes, dips, and appetizers out for snacking or for people to help themselves to more.

  • Have a plan for guests as they enter.

Greet your guests by offering to take their coat or personal belongings to a safe space. You can meet guests at the door with a cocktail or glass of wine.

Don’t forget — you set the tone for your party! Your welcoming presence at the door, with a relaxed demeanor, will help your guests feel at home in your space — and you’ll be sure to have a lot more fun, too!

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  • Consider the senses.

We recommend having some background music playing — again, with volume and selection based on the type of gathering — and potentially some games available. If you’re having a casual patio party in the summertime, you may want to set up cornhole or other yard games, and a table for party snacks.

You can direct guests to these activities so they can mingle while you welcome others. Making a playlist or choosing from a preexisting one on Spotify, for example, can help set the tone.

Consider having a welcoming sensory element, such as a lit candle with a light fragrance that complements your offerings (no “Bahama Breeze” at Thanksgiving, please).

Dim your lights if possible to keep the atmosphere relaxed. String lights can also be a tasteful way to set the mood.

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  • Be ready to tidy up.

Having an empty, clean sink and dishwasher will make life easier for you later! You can always allow your guests to clear their plates as they finish so they don’t feel rushed.

Many guests like to at least rinse off their dishes and load the dishwasher to help out after eating — don’t deny any genuine offers! People like to help out. Set out any cleaning items, such as disinfecting wipes or paper towels, where people can find them easily in the event of spills.

Hosting your own dinner party can feel daunting, but remember this key point: people are there to see you! Not your home (yes, even if it’s their first time there), not your delicious food, but you.

Enjoy your company and encourage them to feel comfortable and welcome in your space. After all, you’re there to have fun, too!

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Nicole is a self-published author of fiction novels, and a lover of food and spending time in the kitchen with her six children. She lives in coastal Maine where she loves exploring new recipes especially those that can save time, money and wow a crowd.

Entertaining Recipes

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