I really enjoy dinner parties. It even says so on the front of my blog in my "favorites" category - a local friend recently reminded me of that! They're really fun when we just show up with a bottle of wine, but I also enjoy hosting. We probably have 8 or more formal dinners a year (including Thanksgiving and Easter) and lots of more informal ones, especially in the summer. I've finally got it down where they're as enjoyable for ME as for my guests.
No one has better entertaining suggestions than Sandy at The Reluctant Entertainer. If you aren't familiar with her blog you should check it out. But here are a few things that work for me.
1. Set the table(s) ahead of time
Last weekend we had 25+ over for dinner from work to celebrate the holidays. It was a lot of fun and we had the majority of the food catered (a first for me). We wanted it to be comfortable and casual. I find that if the places are pre-set then guests are comfortable finding a place and enjoying their meal. Many of our guests did not know each other (especially the spouses), so I let everyone choose where they wanted to sit.
I set up three tables and then just asked everyone to take a plate to the buffet and help themselves. It worked well.
Setting the tables even a day ahead of time greatly reduces my party-day stress.
2. Prepare 2 of everything
Everyone is on a different diet, or has different tastes and it's so hard to come up with one entree, side, etc. that everyone will enjoy. I have fears of someone just eating rolls because they don't like the food! At most of our dinners we're also serving lots of kiddos and you know how they can be about their options :)
So, I usually make 2 appetizers, 2 main dishes, 2 sides, 2 desserts, and offer both red and white wine, and regular and decaf coffee. Preparing 2 of everything means I don't have to worry about there not being enough food, and everyone can usually find a combination that they like (even the kids!)
3. Cook foods that I like
I only cook foods that I would eat. I am usually trying out new recipes on guests, along with proven standby dishes, but I always make what sounds good to me. That rarely fails.
4. Clean the house the day before
I used to worry way too much about having everything spotless for guests.
Now I know and trust that if the guests are friends then they love me no matter how dusty the bookcases are. And if they're people I don't know well, then I just have to trust that they're more focused on the people, conversation, and food than they are the floor.
That being said, I clean up all the main areas the day before the party, and then do a final once-over on the guest bath and the kitchen a few hours before the guests arrive. I have a couple of friends who don't allow their little ones to use the guest bath off the kitchen. Ever. I'm tempted :)
5. Empty the dishwasher
As guests are done with glasses or plates I tend to rinse and load them straight into the empty dishwasher. Tidies up the kitchen/tables as we go and makes clean up at the end of the party that much faster.
6. Allow the guests to help
How many times have I gone to a dinner party and have offered to help but I hear "oh no, everything's under control" or "oh, don't worry about the dishes, we'll do them later". If a guest offers, I give them a task - cutting up limes, mashing avocados, filling up water glasses, calling the kids up from the basement to eat, opening a bottle of wine. People really do like to help and we can still catch up while sharing these tasks.
7. Feed the children first
The kids usually eat on our screened in porch (weather permitting) or downstairs in the family room. Most kids that come to our house are old enough now to fix their own plates. So I usually call the kids first, get them settled where they need to be and THEN get the adults ready to eat. Less chaos that way.
8. Take the time to clean up afterwards
It is sooo worth it to me to get the majority of the clean up done before going to bed!
So there are my tips that have helped me go from being frazzled before/during dinners to a place where I can really enjoy the friends and food. I'd love to hear your tips for a successful dinner party.