Top Tips For Dining With Friends
Is there a better time for home cooking than in the fall? The air is crisp, cozy sweaters abound, and it’s finally cool enough to turn on the oven. Peak fall produce overflows from market displays: fat pumpkins, wild mushrooms, bitter greens, and varieties of apples that range from tart-sweet to deeply spicy. Sunsets come earlier, drinks go from iced to hot, and all we want to do is play some good music, light the candles, and invite our friends over to lounge at home around a beautifully set table. Hosting a fall dinner party is like that first snowfall or perfect peach of the season — it rings in a time of year that’s special, fleeting, and meant to be celebrated.
When it comes to hosting, you get to lead. What does hosting feel like to you in a perfect world? What makes you feel warm and welcome? The best dinner parties, whether it’s a decked-out occasion with multiple kinds of silverware or a casual dinner with friends, are the ones with a unique voice — yours! That’s why, in our opinion, the most important part of dinner party planning is the steps you take to make sure you get to enjoy the night, too. In the spirit of having people over and appreciating every moment, here are our top tips for a dinner party with friends.
1. Plan the menu
Every dinner party menu starts with a great anchor dish — that recipe you just can’t wait to try, and the one you would be excited to build the rest of a meal around. It doesn’t matter if this dish is a delightful appetizer to serve with drinks, a simple but cozy main, or a show stopping dessert. Once your anchor dish is in place, it’s easier to build and balance the rest of the menu.
Maybe, for instance, your mouth is watering at the idea of a Fall Harvest Pan Pizza. You could choose to slice the pizza into squares and serve it as a small bite with drinks while a delicious soup bubbles away on the stovetop, or to serve it as the main course alongside a platter of roasted vegetables and a crisp, seasonal salad. Does the idea of Semolina Pumpkin Cake with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream make you hungry? Then start thinking backwards: what would be an ideal meal to serve before this dessert hits the table?
When it comes to menu planning, the anchor dish gives you permission to start with what you want to cook. Those dog-eared recipes from cookbooks or the ones bookmarked on your computer are a nice place to start, because they’ll make you happy to get into the kitchen. From there, check on any allergies or dietary restrictions, and whenever possible choose dishes that everyone can participate in. Love the idea of Spicy Chili-Butter Roasted Delicata Squash but have a friend with a dairy allergy? Use olive oil instead of butter. Have three meat eaters and two vegetarians on the guest list? Serve everything family-style, with equal emphasis on the vegetable-forward dishes so nobody feels like the odd one out.
Now that you have your menu planned, write it down somewhere so you have it on hand for reference. Then be prepared to be flexible! Maybe you planned on making braised short ribs and creamy polenta, but short ribs are nowhere to be found — no worries, there are plenty of other cuts that love to be cooked low and slow until meltingly tender. Planned on making a Ginger-Pear Granita with Honey Whipped Cream for dessert, but pears aren’t in season yet? A Ginger-Peach Granita with Honey Whipped Cream sounds absolutely delicious, as does chocolate pudding served in small bowls with that Honey Whipped Cream on top. The more flexible you are, the more you will enjoy the dinner party process from start to finish.
2. Prep your ingredients ahead of time so you can enjoy the party, too!
Speaking of the dinner party process, prepping things ahead of time will help the day of the party feel relaxed and joyful. To start, channel the back-to-school spirit and make a couple of lists. List one: your menu. List two: any groceries, preferably grouped into categories of where they will be sourced. (For instance, group ingredients that will come from the butcher, the grocery store, the farmer’s market, or from your own pantry, so everything is easy to find later.) List three: your work order.
A work order is a planning method used in the restaurant world to help your cooking day go smoothly. To make one, you simply write down a list of the things you need to do in the order that you need to do them, effectively planning your time in advance and making sure that nothing is forgotten.
Once you have your menu, grocery list, and work order at the ready, your dinner party prep becomes much clearer. Why not pick up the ingredients the day before the party and save yourself from some time on the day of? Maybe you feel like cleaning the house on Saturday morning instead of Sunday, or making a playlist on Wednesday, or spinning the salad greens and chopping any vegetables the night before. If you’re making a three-tiered chocolate birthday cake, you might realize you can bake it the day before and frost it just before serving. Are two of your three dishes fantastic at room temperature? Make a note to prepare them first, so they’re finished and ready to go when your friends arrive. All of these decisions become easier when you can make them ahead of time.
Last but not least, make sure you have all the knives you need on hand. A sharp chef’s knife will make slicing and dicing feel more seamless. A paring knife is perfect for trimming and slicing meats and cheeses for a beautiful charcuterie board. A double-serrated bread knife will come in handy for slicing baguettes and crusty loaves, but it’s also ideal for cutting and serving cakes, brownies, and bars of any kind. Having a fully stocked knife set means you have the tools to accomplish any recipe.
3. Take time to set the table — and don’t forget the steak knives!
A great table setting is just as important to the mood of a dinner party as the menu. It doesn’t have to be precious or super fancy, though it should reflect a sense of you in the details. Even a casual dinner party with friends deserves cloth napkins, a few lit candles, and your favorite glassware.
The easiest way to elevate a table setting is with quality silverware, including knives that cut properly without pulling or tearing. Steak knives, such as the WÜSTHOF Gourmet 4-Piece Steak Knife Set, are perfect for any dish, from Caesar salad to roasted kabocha squash to peppercorn-crusted ribeye. WÜSTHOF steak knives are as beautiful as they are functional, and it’s small details like these that make the evening feel extra special.
4. Be present! Enjoy the conversation and company.
Finally, take a deep breath, stay present, and enjoy the company of your friends. At the end of the day, they are here to see you — being fed is a bonus! The best part about a dinner party is the chance to gather everyone in one space and let the conversation flow. So, if the focaccia didn’t rise, the dip wasn’t as good as you wanted it to be, or the soup needed a little extra something, it’s perfectly okay! More often than not, nobody is the wiser. And if the host is having a great time, everyone will follow suit.