Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to Throw a Stress-Free Weeknight Small Dinner Party

This week I threw an easy, casual, stress-free weeknight dinner party on Wednesday night. I'm so glad I did it - it gave me a chance to see friends who are just as busy as I am doing other things on weekends.

I do have a bit of an advantage in that I work for myself, so I didn't have to rush home from a job ending at 5pm and commute for an hour THEN try to cook. But I still did have to work that day. I stopped work at 3pm to get ready for the 6pm party, and worked until 1am that night after guests left at 9 and after I cleaned the kitchen.

Want to peek at my checklist?

    Night before:

  • Grocery shop. I can't stress the importance of this. Don't shop on the day of the party unless you can QUICKLY run somewhere for fresh bread. Things like strawberries, flowers for the table, fruits and veggies can be bought a day or two in advance.

  • Vacuum entire house

  • Iron tablecloth, placemats and napkins as needed.

  • Set table. Stage it as much as possible (for example put an unopened jar of nuts inside the bowl you'll serve them in once open, etc).

  • Write dinner menus to set on plates, if needed

  • Set out spring candles and tend wicks so they're ready to light just before the party.

  • Ready firewood and a Duraflame in the fireplace so it's ready to light 15 minutes before guests walk in.

  • Burn a music CD with my party playlist (but don't agonize over what will go on it) and put it in the upstairs living room DVD player so it's ready to go.

  • Freshen guest bathroom - change out hand towels, quickly mop floor, wipe down mirror, sink and counter, check toilet paper supply


  • Finish filling dishwasher and run it after breakfast.

  • Sweep porch and entryway

  • Empty kitchen trash can

  • Set out what I'm wearing to the dinner party


  • Bake cake and set it out to cool

  • Tidy coffee table if roommate left it messy

  • Rinse salad lettuce and set out to dry

  • Empty dishwasher

    Japanese Cherry Blossom Home Spray, on Amazon


  • Peel potatoes and start them boiling

  • Spritz house with room spray

  • Prepare items for main courses and side dishes


  • Frost cake and decorate as needed

  • Check over dining table and place settings

  • Continue prep on main and side dishes


  • Wash and slice any fruits or veggies for salads.

  • Assemble salads; store in fridge until just beforehand

  • Heat oil and begin any deep frying as needed

  • Continue stirring, cooking or baking as needed

  • Set salad dressing on table

    5:45 pm:

  • Change into clean clothing for the party

  • Set out any juice or water pitchers on sideboard, side table or on table

  • Light candles and fireplace

  • Perform last minute cooking tasks (slicing avocados for salad, slicing apples, taking things out of fridge)


  • Greet guests cheerfully, offering drinks and appetizers

  • Finish last-minute tasks with stove and oven

    6:20 pm:

  • Serve dinner

  • Start coffee

    Later in the evening:

  • Serve dessert

  • Serve coffee and tea

Want to peek at my menu? I'm a vegetarian, as are my friends who attended this particular party.

Mashed potatoes; corn; peas; dinner rolls; 2 kinds of vegetarian protein; grape juice or milk for beverages; fruit salad; green salad; chocolate cake for dessert.

Tips on Keeping it Easy and Stress-Free:

  • Throw a party if you can have a fun attitude about it and look forward to it. If it seems like an obligation or a chore, don't do it. It will be more fun for your guests if it's fun for you, their hostess.

  • Invite only as many people as your dining table can seat comfortably. Don't add on a card table, or invite extra people you think won't show up. If your table can seat 10-12 people, take out a leaf. A weeknight dinner party should be six to eight adults and no more than five kids at the children's table in the next room (counting your own).

  • Plan your meal a week in advance. Bring the menu plans with you as well as your grocery list when you visit the store. Check out recipes ahead of time, and don't make any recipes you aren't familiar with. Casual weeknight dinners are best for good old standbys.

  • Keep it simple. Nobody will care if you are serving meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or lasagna, or soup and salad, or mac and cheese. They're coming to your dinner party to see you and spend time with you, not sample the latest trendiest gourmet molecular sous-vide cooking trends.

  • Plan your menu so you have leftovers to enjoy the next day, and so you can eat up unused groceries over the next few days. It's not a good idea to cram your refrigerator full of groceries you meant to serve at the party and then don't have time to cook the next couple workdays in a row.

  • Set the table the night before. Your family can breakfast on the living room couch in the morning just this once.

  • Keep your house in a ready-to-entertain state every day, so you don't have to kill yourself cleaning at the last minute. You don't need any special party decorations - just a clean tablecloth, fresh unscented flowers on the table, a cheerful houseplant in the kitchen, some fragrant room spray applied two hours before the party, nice music in the air, and a smile on the hostess's face.

Things your Spouse/Mate/Partner/Roommate Can Help With:

It helps sooo much to have a co-host. They don't have to help with the menu planning, major cooking or cleanup, but they might volunteer to be useful in the last 15 minutes right before the party. And if they are a gracious host, they can be invaluable in welcoming (and distracting) your guests so you can finish those last-five-minute tasks on the stove before dinner.

    15 minutes before:

  • Empty kitchen trash can and put in a new bag

  • Clear out any recyclables and take them outside or to their receptacles

  • Light a fire in the fireplace, turn on gas fireplace, and light candles as applicable

  • Shoo pets or put them in another room for the evening

  • Ensure there's room in the coat closet for coats, and by the front door for shoes

  • Turn on the background music you'll play during the party, and stroll into other rooms checking for volume

  • Peer into the guest bathroom, checking for cleanliness, toilet paper supplies, and clean hand towels

    5 minutes before:

  • Pop casually into kitchen to see if you can slice fruits or vegetables, put out the cheese plate, or put appetizers onto the table

  • Put ice bucket onto buffet or side table; fill each guest's water glass with a few ice cubes

    Beginning of party:

  • Greet guests warmly and enthusiastically, taking their coats and showing them where to leave their shoes

  • Allow guests to go into the kitchen to "help" or greet the hostess, but attempt to steer them back out of the kitchen into the living area

  • Make cocktails, offer wine or beer, or pour drinks for guests in the living room

  • Encourage guests to nibble on appetizers away from the kitchen

  • Offer tours of the home for guests who have not yet been to the house

  • After dinner, encourage guests to get up from the table and retire to the living room.

  • Quickly help hostess and any guest volunteers clear the table

  • Keep guests company so the hostess can serve dessert, or help her as needed

  • Enjoy yourself!


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