The Ultimate Guide To Hosting A Fabulous Dinner Party

A prepared and relaxed hostess is the most hospitable hostess.

By Paula Gallagher7 min read
Pexels/Elina Sazonova

When I was a teenager, I used to help my grandmother purge her closets and basement. She still had dresses she had worn in her twenties and shelves full of hostess gifts she had been given from international guests when she ran her long-term lodging for visiting scientists at the National Institutes of Health. She also had stacks of embroidered tablecloths from her homeland of Hungary, china cabinets that rattled and clinked if we walked by too quickly, and a full pewter coffee set. In the early years of her lodging business, she would serve breakfast for her guests and host dinner parties in the evenings. Imagining a dinner party with my grandmother’s set-up always seemed so colorful and elegant, something that belonged to an older, more formal, more fashionable era than 2024 America. 

But it’s entirely possible to embrace the spirit of hospitality no matter the decade. So if you want to host a memorable and enjoyable dinner party, read on for all the tips and tricks that will make hosting go smoothly for you and leave your guests wondering when they can come back. 

Two Weeks Before Your Dinner Party

The first step in party planning is deciding when to host your dinner party. Reese Witherspoon in Whiskey in a Teacup recommends hosting on a Saturday evening because people are tired from the week on Fridays and are preparing for the next week on Sundays.

You also need to know why you are hosting this dinner party. Ask yourself, “Why are we gathering?” and “Why is it important?” Maybe you’re hosting a birthday dinner or to provide your mom friends with a break, or maybe it’s a themed party for a special occasion like a movie viewing or a holiday. Whatever it is, your “why” will allow you to host from the heart as well as help you be more efficient in planning the rest of your party details.

Next, you need to decide how many people you can invite and who will be on your guest list. Since this is a dinner party, the number of guests will be limited by the number of people you can comfortably seat around your table. You will want to invite people who will get along and who have enough in common to make conversation on their own, without you having to direct the conversation the whole evening. 1953’s Esquire Etiquette recommends, “A good rule to follow is to be sure that everyone you have invited knows (and likes) at least two other guests: you don’t want anyone to walk into a roomful of strangers, and you don’t want to leave anyone without an escape hatch should the strangers prove stultifying. In addition, you’re stacking the cards your way if every guest has at least one talkable interest in common with every other guest.” Another aspect to keep in mind is the ratio of introverts to extroverts. Depending on the size of your party, you want to have at least one or two naturally chatty people who will keep the flow of conversation going on their own.  

Now that you know your when, why, and who, it’s time to craft and send your invitation! Invitations should be sent so that they arrive at least two weeks in advance, with an RSVP of one week before the party. You can send paper invites in the mail, which feel extra special in this digital age and have the added benefit of being something guests can put on their fridge as a visible reminder. Digital invitations also work well, and if you use a service like Paperless Post or Evite, it will collect RSVPs and send reminders for you automatically.

Besides the date and location, the invitation should include a start time and a finish time – this actually encourages people to arrive on time and communicates when people should leave without you having to say something at the end of the event. The invitation should also convey any “extras” like a theme or potluck and inquire about allergies or dietary restrictions. A simple line like “Please let me know about any special food needs” is sufficient for the latter. And of course, the invitation design should reflect your “why”!

One Week Before Your Dinner Party

One week before your party, follow up on any missing RSVPs. You can send a lighthearted text like “I hope you can make the dinner party next Saturday! I would love you to see you!”

Two Days Before Your Dinner Party

The key to a minimum-stress-maximum-fun party experience for you as the hostess is to prepare, prepare, prepare! The more you can do in advance, the less you have to worry about during the event. 

Two days before your party is when you should plan your menu and do your grocery shopping (don’t forget to buy some fresh flowers!). Stick with tried and true recipes you know will be successful – you don’t need the added stress of making something new and running the risk of ruining it!

Your menu should include a house cocktail or wine, a non-alcoholic beverage option, appetizers, your main meal, a dessert, and perhaps even coffee and tea. Don’t forget the cocktail napkins and the ice! Write a thorough list of everything you need to purchase before you leave for the store so you don’t have to make a second (or third or fourth) trip. 

After you have grocery shopped and put everything away, arrange your flowers so they have time to perk up. Read our tips here for making your flowers last as long as possible.

The other important thing you need to do today is text everyone who RSVPed yes a friendly, personalized reminder like “I’m looking forward to seeing you on Saturday! I need to hear how your vacation went!” or “I’m looking forward to seeing you on Saturday! It’s been too long since we’ve been in the same room together!” People who have been reminded that an event is coming up and that they agreed to attend are less likely to forget or flake. 

The Day Before Your Dinner Party

I don’t know about you, but when I have guests coming over, suddenly I’m noticing the dust on the bookshelves and the cobwebs over the front door and the dog nose prints on the windows, as well as all the other typical things to clean. Cleaning your whole house from top to bottom – or at least the public areas – can be tiring, so do it the day before your party.  

Some areas to focus on are your front porch, your entry way, your living room, your dining room, your kitchen (you know people are going to end up in there at some point), and the bathroom. If you’re going to be storing your guests’ purses, coats, etc. in a bedroom, then make sure that room is clean and tidy too. You can close the doors to any rooms where you don’t want guests to go.

For the bathroom, make sure an extra roll of toilet paper is visible so guests don’t need to go digging through cupboards or, worse, go without. Place a candle somewhere safe to be lit before the party, or ensure some kind of air freshener is visible. Make sure the soap dispenser is full, the trash can is empty, and put out a new hand towel.

For the living room, ensure you have sufficient seating for your guests, and think about details like coasters to protect your coffee table or a small dish of nuts or M&Ms for an easily accessible snack.

Plan your timeline for tomorrow. When do you need to start cooking, based on your party start time and your menu? Will you need the oven for multiple things and at what temperatures? What food can be made today? Things like salad (hold the dressing), cheese and meat for charcuterie, and even dessert can typically be prepared the day before.

Lastly, think of topics of conversation based on your guest list. This is especially helpful if you’re more introverted or if you struggle to think of conversation starters on the spot. Think of three or four topics for each guest, and brainstorm if any of your guests have mutual interests or shared experiences – you will use those tomorrow during introductions!

The Day of Your Dinner Party

Today is the big day! The principle of do as much in advance as possible still applies to today. If you have some time before you need to begin cooking, then set the table and set up your drink station. Take this opportunity to use your fine china, a tablecloth, and cloth napkins. Decorate the table with fresh flowers (keep the arrangement low or have a designated place to move the vase when people sit down to eat) and unscented candles. If there will be more than eight guests, make a seating arrangement; seat yourself in a chair that will allow you easy access to the kitchen.

Choose what background music you will play. You want something soft, mellow, and unintrusive so it doesn’t inhibit conversation, but you need enough noise to cover any awkward silences. 

When it’s time to start cooking, try to clean as you go so you end up with a mostly clean kitchen. On the same point, make sure your dishwasher is empty by the time guests arrive to speed up the after-the-party cleanup.

Are you serving at the table or doing a self-serve setup? If it’s the latter, label each dish and include common allergen information (gluten, eggs, dairy, nuts). Even just the plain side of a notecard in your best handwriting will be sufficient! If you’re serving at the table, select your serving dishes and test out placement on the table before filling them. If you find yourself bumping into plates or your decor, then rearrange your table setup or find a differently shaped dish. This will make your presentation go smoothly and ensure your guests aren’t awkwardly shuffling decor around or precariously balancing your great-grandma’s crystal salad bowl on the corner of the table. 

About 20 minutes before your dinner party start time, put out your appetizers and your beverages. You will want these ready to offer your guests as soon as they walk in your front door – people relax much more quickly with a snack and a drink in their hand. Set up your drinks so your guests have easy access to serve themselves for refills. If you’re going to serve a cocktail, make a large batch in a pitcher (saves so much time!), and don’t forget the cocktail napkins and ice bucket!

At the Dinner Party

Your doorbell just rang! Time to see all your preparations pay off and enjoy your time with your guests.

It’s important to greet your guests at the front door, even if it’s your sister or your best friend who is used to just letting herself in. You want to make each guest feel special by smiling and greeting them right away. 

Welcome your guest in and ask if you can take their coat, purse, etc. If you are putting their items not in a public space (like a hall closet) but in a bedroom, then tell them exactly where you are putting their things in case they need to access them at any point during the evening.  

Next, offer your guests a beverage and appetizers. If any of your guests are visiting you at your home for the first time, invite them on an abbreviated house tour (stick to the public spaces – they don’t need to see every nook and cranny), which allows you to discreetly point out where the bathroom is. 

Try to spend a few minutes chatting with each guest as they arrive. Be present, keep your body language relaxed and open, and try not to leave the conversation to finish a task – unless it’s to answer the front door. As your guests arrive, introduce people to each other (first and last name), say how you know each person, and launch them on one of the topics of mutual interest you brainstormed yesterday. This will keep your guests happy and engaged and free you up to answer the door, serve drinks, check on food in the kitchen, etc.

Aim to serve dinner about one hour after your party start time. This gives people time to arrive, relax, and break down some social barriers before sitting down at the table in close proximity. If you opted not to use a seating arrangement, you might need to help navigate seating choices by inviting people to sit in certain chairs. Try to separate your chatty guests to opposite ends of the table so one end of the table doesn’t dominate the whole conversation. When the food is served, don’t apologize for any “imperfections” – most people won’t ever notice that your pasta sauce has a little more garlic than usual, and it can come across as fishing for compliments. 

Partway through the evening, check the guest bathroom to restock, refresh, and tidy as needed.

By dessert time, people have relaxed even more. It’s common to serve dessert and coffee/tea in another, more laidback space, such as the living room or even an outdoor patio (if the weather is nice and there is enough seating for everyone). Adjourning to another space prevents you from having to clear the table now and put out clean dishes, as well as helps mark the shift from dinner to dessert, which subtly reminds guests that they have entered the last phase of the party. 

Wrapping Up Your Dinner Party

Your dinner party has been a smashing success, but the end time has arrived. Conscientious guests will likely check the time when you transition to dessert and hopefully will also notice when it’s time to leave. Once one guest decides to exit, the rest will likely follow. 

However, if the party is still going strong and people are having a great time, checking the clock isn’t going to cross their minds. You will have to tactfully jump in during a break in the conversation to thank everyone for coming and say how much you enjoyed their company. If you really want to sweeten their exit, you can invite everyone to take a “goodie bag” home with them. It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive. Maybe you have a selection of chocolate bars and each guest can pick one. Or maybe you arrange a few fresh flowers in an upcycled glass spice jar. But having something small to pick up on the way out the door is a tactful way to encourage guests to leave – and leave in a good mood!

It’s up to you if you want to accept offers to help clean up or if you’d rather all guests leave so you can clean up without having to continue playing hostess. Either way, take the time to clean up after your dinner party. Your dishwasher is already empty and waiting! And who wants to wake up to a dirty kitchen/dining room/living room and a sink full of dishes?

Closing Thoughts

The best hostesses are the unbothered hostesses. Accept the fact beforehand that something will likely go wrong – someone will spill their drink, a dish won’t turn out perfectly, you’ll run out of ice. Whatever it is, just roll with the punches and maintain a cheerful attitude. Your guests will feed off your vibe, and even if something truly awful happens (like, say, your dog gets skunked during dessert on the patio), by tomorrow, it will be just a funny memory!

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