Brittany Allen
September 12, 2014 6:45 am

On a recent family vacation, my partner and I were charged with making a dinner for fifteen people. While he jumped at the opportunity, I felt the flesh on my face recoil. Why can’t we just order in, my inner New Yorker wanted to say. The very idea of chopping cilantro for an hour makes me want to hurl myself into the Atlantic Ocean.

It turns out, I was being a little dramatic. We threw a perfectly fun dinner party together in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, it was so successful, this domestically-challenged lady got to wondering: could I recreate a meal like this for my friends back at home? Could a Seamless-loving doof like myself ever be a bona fide dinner party hostess? 

Yes! Yes! A million times yes! All it takes is a little confidence and a few short-cut tips to throw a solid dinner party. Here’s what I learned from trial and error:

1. Aim for the middle

No one will be ‘wow-ed’ with your none-too-original spin on a grilled cheese (“See, guys? There’s a TOMATO inside!”), but on the flip side, be realistic: you’re probably not going to hit the foie gras out of the park. In her cookbook, Express Lane Meals: A 30-Minute Meal Cookbook, Food Network poster-girl Rachael Ray describes her recipe for Cacio e Pepe pasta: “It doesn’t get any easier, really.” Word to the wise? It does. Remember that ‘easy’ means something else for Rachael Ray. This allegedly simple dish took yours truly an hour and a half to make. If you’re planning to do most of the cooking while the guests are present, either know your recipe inside and out, or plan an entrée with minimal prep-time. Tip? Everyone loves homemade pizza.

2. “Hire” a trusted, emergency sous chef

Cooking-wise, the best defense is a good offense. Read your recipe well in advance. TRIPLE-CHECK to make sure you have all the ingredients, and their proper quantities. Do as much chopping, marinating, and other prep work as you can before starting to bake or saute. And most of all, don’t be too proud to ask someone for help. Whether it’s your handy live-in partner or a trusted baker friend, take the time to ask a pal if they’re willing to help in the kitchen if things go south. It’s easy enough for one person to stir the Mexican three-bean soup while you dice tomatoes for the taco bar.

3. Invest in a theme!

Despite what all the teen movies of the ’90s may have told us, in this life it turns out that theme parties are actually rather rare. So now’s your chance to be creative! Put a twist on book club with a Tequila Mockingbird soiree, in which all the guests must dress as literary characters with a tasty twist (Dorian Grey Goose, The Metamorphosambuca, etc. Fun fact: this is also a clever way to avoid stocking your own bar).

Alternately, jazz up Girls’ Night In with a “middle-school sleepover” theme, for which all guests must dress as a heroine from their favorite Disney Channel Original Movie. You can read back-issues of YM magazine, and watch The Cheetah Girls on Netflix. A customized balloon bouquet often costs > ten dollars at your local Party City, and people go bananas for a little decorating effort.

4. Distract the guests

You just put out a small fire on the front burner, ANNNND those “extra easy” One Pot Honey-Drop Oatmeal Cookies are rising, which is not supposed to happen. A freak-out may be imminent, but remember: the guests don’t have to see it. If you keep the party well away from the kitchen (and the living room well-supplied with throwback ’90s mix CDs, board games, rousing rounds of “Celebrity”), no one will be the wiser about that small panic attack, nor will they ask, “why is dinner taking so long?”

Other distraction techniques? Suggest that a musically-inclined friend provide a live underscore to the apps. If it’s a bigger party, greet everyone at the door with elaborate instructions for an ice-breaker. For getting to know you games, I recommend the Scattergories-semblant Great Minds Think Alike, the theatre camp classic Psychiatrist, or the philosophically-minded Real Talk. Each of these are designed to get the conversation (and the giggles) flowing.

5. The three C’s: canapes, cocktails (or, mocktails), and cake

And lucky for us, “canapes“ can be as simple as anything suggested on the side of a Ritz Cracker box. If your focus is the main dish, think many, fast and cheap for the apps, because chances are, you underestimated entrée portions since SOMEONE didn’t RSVP. Try cucumber slices slathered with cream cheese and garnished with a berry, or baked potato chips and the wonderfully old-school Lipton (or homemade) French Onion Dip, found in every supermarket from sea to shining sea. Slice prosciutto, three kinds of cheese, and a big crusty baguette, then arrange these for guests on a cutting board. It is a truth universally acknowledged: people love snacks.

Beverages, on the other hand, could well be an ace in the hole for a newbie chef. You may not be confident about your hand-kneaded sweet potato and brie flatbread, but it’s hard to screw up a pitcher of Martha Stewart’s limeade recipe, brewed with a hunk of mint. Alternately, put a simple but festive twist on a classic cocktail–drop a raspberry into the bottom of a Bellini, and rim the glass with sugar. Serve anything sweet in a fancy glass and you’ve got ’em, hook, line, and sinker. See this list for some other drink suggestions.

Dessert doesn’t have to be a huge headache, either. Go cupcake shopping in the morning; arrange the treats at night. Invest in a tub of Neapolitan ice cream, bananas, jimmies, and chopped nuts, then ask everyone to make-their-own-sundae. Fancify a Betty Crocker box cake with chopped fruit or candy pieces on top. Looking for other simple ways to jazz up a recipe? Try this list.

6. And finally. . .relax

In the midst of a kitchen meltdown, dark thoughts arise: why did I decided to throw this dinner party? I don’t even like to cook. I’m a useless human. Or, I’ll just sneak out the back way and no one will see. Hosting can be a lot of work, but remember what you’re doing it for: you want to bring friends into your home. You want to be able to languish on your home couch, not in some mad-expensive restaurant with tiny-portions. Feeding your friends—then remembering to enjoy the party you invited them to!—can be a special thing for everyone involved. And if you’re always worried that the polenta isn’t the right consistency, you’ll miss all the fun.

Don’t clear the dishes straight away. Believe people when they say they like the sauce. And then, you glorious master of the domestic, sit back and smile. You just threw a successful dinner party!

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