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How to Plan a Dinner Party

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A Restoration dinner scene

There are so many things to consider when planning a dinner party. Of course, you may be a 'natural' - these problems might be mere trifles to you - alcoholic or non-alcoholic? Hmm, tricky... Whatever your social capability, you'll be faced with many questions - some of which are addressed below, in this collaborative h2g2 entry:

Food and Drink

You can't have a dinner party without having something to sate your appetite and something to quench your thirst. Below you will find some pointers on what to eat, drink and thus ensure that merriment ensues:

Food

  • Make sure the food won't keep you in the kitchen all night instead of chatting with your guests - after all, they have come to see you and will not be sending food back to the kitchen if it isn't perfect.

  • The pudding's the most important bit because most people don't bother with it in everyday meals.

  • To cut down on the cooking time, make as much as you can beforehand; ie, dessert which can be frozen, or marinading meat in the freezer. The latter may sound bizarre, but it works. Just put your meat and the marinating sauce in a freezer bag and place in the freezer. Somehow, it works just as well as the old, 'leave in a warm place covered for several hours' trick.

  • Don't try dishes that are too difficult - yes, what Delia Smith1 may want is hours cooking time with four hours preparation, but hasn't she heard of the phrase, 'I want never gets'? Consider what you can do (boil pasta) and what you can't (pheasant plucking) when you only have two hours to go. The best dishes are ones that can be prepared simply and effectively. Although if you are at the stage when you can't boil an egg, it may be best to call a friend in to help.

  • Never put the dressing on until the last moment - otherwise your salad will be as soggy as a very soggy thing by the time it reaches the table.

  • Ask those who are invited if they are allergic to anything, ie seafood, peanuts etc.

  • Check if any of your guests are vegetarian and check to what extent that vegetarianism actually goes. For example you may think you have played safe with a prawn cocktail (for the vegequariums), a nice gratin for the main course (only you didn't use vegetarian cheese and animal rennet was used to solidify it), followed by ice cream and jelly (ice cream may be out if the guest is actually vegan unless you have used a soya-based product of a non-diary glaze. As for the jelly, gelatine comes from animals).

    If you are in any doubt check with the vegetarian, they are more likely than not to be willing to help you as it means that they know they will actually be able to eat, and are bound to have some interesting recipes that may even tempt some of your meat eating friends.

Drinks

  • White wine for white meat, and red wine for red meat - this is the old rule, and it tends to be followed rigourously. However, it is not to say that a full bodied white wine can't accompany roast pork. Consider how it tastes; hence you might want to try out some wines (the fun part), and think 'will the flavour of the wine be obliterated by the dish?' and of course, vice-versa.

  • Always, always have a grape juice/fancy spritzer on standby. People may be driving home, or just not want to drink. Orange juice works well too.

Planning

Once you have an idea of what you may want to prepare, you now have to start planning. Here are some points, culled from the h2g2 Community, that have proved to be very useful:

  • The earlier the date is set, the better. Apart from other appointments that usually gather, especially before Christmas, guests may have children and they have to hire babysitters in advance.

  • Cancel the 'everybody brings something' rule for the following two reasons. For one, not every dish can easily be transported and the re-heating of hot dishes often takes more time than to cook it in the first place. The other point is that one couple ends up buying all the wine for 12 people, while another couple just have to do the dessert.

  • Even gourmet chefs don't go to the loo without having a plan. Have dishes that could be prepared a day or even days before. Think soup as a starter, and souffl├ęs or other dishes which go in the oven as a main course. See to it that only a few side dishes have to be prepared really fresh. That way, you don't have to stand in the kitchen all the time while the guests are already there. Bear in mind that there's usually just one oven which won't hold five dishes at any one time.

  • What dishes? Either you have a main course that determines the other courses in some way, such as deer or fish, or you have a theme, like 'Italian food' or 'Mexican food' which makes it easier. Read cookery books to get ideas, and think of the point made before.

  • Don't get stressed but do have fun. Have one or more digestives after the meal, put everything in the dishwasher or let the guests do the washing-up... or not!

Barbeques

Never underestimate the power of a barbeque! They can be great fun, and it gives you a chance to do the cooking while still enjoying yourself! Or you could let people take turns to turn the meat. Just ask people to bring a few sausages/burgers/steaks/chicken legs or whatever, and bung it on when people get hungry. It always helps to have some of your own food though, in case it runs short. If you want to do anything special (like a marinade) you'll need to do it in plenty of time.

BBQs don't have to be expensive - the disposable ones are really good; the bigger ones last for at least three hours...

Dinner Parties Student Style

Student dinner parties tend to be quite informal affairs - mostly because nobody has quite enough chairs, let alone plates and cutlery. If you want quite an informal affair, a theme is always good. Pick a particular country (Mexico, China, Italy etc) and base all the food, and drinks if possible, on that. Make a couple of big dishes and serve buffet style. Make sure you put out plenty of accompaniments. This way you don't necessarily have to worry about a starter or a dessert. If you do feel the need for these, big pots of soup are great, as they can be made in advance and reheated when needed. For example, a Mexican style meal might consist of:

  • Chilli con carne
  • Fajitas
  • Burritos
  • Corn on the cob
  • Tortillas
  • Guacamole
  • Serve with lots of tequila sunrises and margaritas

If you want music, consider asking guests to bring along some of their favourites. That way, no one person's musical tastes get ridiculed. It's also one less thing for you to worry about. Also, at student dinner parties, there tend to be party games. These can be quite grown-up (Trivial Pursuit), slightly less grown-up (Pictionary) and downright childish (drunken Twister leaps to mind).

In terms of taboo subjects, the key has got to be to pick your guests carefully. As long as everyone gets along reasonably well, and is aware in advance of a potential flashpoint (religion, politics etc) there shouldn't be a problem. Some of the best evenings can be had when involved in a lively debate about current events or a controversial topic.

The most important thing to remember is not to panic. As long as your guests are also your friends, they shouldn't care if the potatoes are a bit underdone, or if your best laid plans fall apart, and consequently dinner will be an hour later than planned. Remember that people are there to see you, not a gourmet style meal to rival that of top London restaurants. If you enjoy yourself and relax, the chances are your guests will too.

Seven-point Plan

To sum up, here's a quick and, at times, irreverent, list of things to remember in order to plan, prepare and execute the perfect dinner party.

  1. Food - This can include finger food such as peanuts, starters such as soup or prawn cocktails, a main course (preferably one that has offered its own rump to you beforehand), dessert, after dinner mints. Think about what you want to cook well in advance, and keep it simple.

  2. Drink - Wine is quite popular, as is beer. Water is a good idea to curb dehydration due to alcohol (with this in mind having a perfectly functioning toilet is always a must).

  3. Guests - This is possibly the most important factor. Nearly everything is dependent on them. Never invite people who don't get along (though this is usually ignored as you have to invite all these people so they don't complain about you). Find out if anyone's allergic to anything such as peanuts, shellfish etc.

  4. Style - Formal or informal? This is hugely dependent on your guests. If they're your close friends or relatives, informal is quite easy. If it's a boss or in-law you're trying to impress, formal is the usual method. Fancy dress can even be done.

  5. Candles - For some strange reason people like candles, though this is heavily dependent on your fire alarm. In many University halls candles are not permitted though smoking is.

  6. Music - Light jazz, classical, middle-or-the-road pop like Phil Collins and Richard Clayderman have all been used. It is not unusual that no matter what you put on, someone will not like it and then go through your CD collection just to sneer at it. They'll often do the same with your books as well. After all, the job of a guest is to make all your efforts seem pointless and inferior. Mind you, a guest will often have to hold a dinner party so that you can reciprocate the insults.

    The best music ever for a dinner party is any of the last three albums by a guy called Susumu Yokota. It's lively enough to give atmosphere, mellow enough that it's not intrusive, varied enough that no-one notices that you have the same CD on repeat all evening, and obscure enough for no-one else to have heard of the guy, (don't be a music bore, though!)...
  7. Time - Evenings are popular though daytime means you can start drinking earlier. No matter what time you say to arrive most people will turn up half an hour late giving ample time to pace and giving them less time to wait for the food and have to make small talk.

1British TV chef and shareholder in Norwich City football club.

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