A dinner party may not have a huge guest list, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some real thought into planning one.
After all, it’s a challenge of creating the right atmosphere for lively conversation, big laughs, and strong connections between the guests. You have to curate the menu, place settings, drinks, schedule, music, and room layout down to every detail to get things just right—all without looking like you are trying that hard to do so.
It’s a delicate dance, and one it’s best to get some expert advice on—which is what we’ve done here, reaching out to party planners and hosts with the most knowledge of how to execute a top-notch dinner party that will delight guests and make you look like a hosting ace. Remember: Hosting can be a difficult yet rewarding experience, for some advice on what not do, here are 30 Biggest Holiday Party No-No’s.
Seat Guests by Personality Type
Deciding how to seat guests is a crucial decision for a successful dinner party—it can mean the difference between a high-energy, stimulating experience for everyone, or a handful of stilted conversations with occasional moments of awkward silence.
Some prefer to seat guests according to common interests or because they are unlikely to cross paths in other parts of their lives. But Carla McDonald, founder of The Salonniere, dedicated to the art of entertaining, urges that hosts place guests according to their personalities.
“There are eight types and some pair better than others,” she explains. “The Charmer (the guest who can talk to anyone about anything); The Fascinator (the guest with an intriguing personal story, occupation, or hobby); The Opinionator (the guest who likes a lively debate); The Extrovert (the outgoing guest who creates energy); The Introvert (the quiet guest who isn’t always comfortable socializing in groups): The Mystery Guest (the unknown date of guest); The Guest of Honor; and the Party Host/Hostess.”
Pair guests according to the type of personality and how it plays off others. “Charmers can be seated anywhere but are most helpful next to Introverts and Fascinators. Fascinators mix best with Introverts and Charmers,” says McDonald. “Opinionators are great fun but can also stir things up, so they’re best next to Charmers and Hosts.”
Turn Off the Overheads
“Overhead lighting is universally unflattering,” adds McDonald. “In fact, in Hollywood, overhead lighting is used as a technique for aging actors and actresses.”
Instead, McDonald suggests using lamp lighting with low-wattage bulbs and candles to make the room as flattering as possible. Vanessa Van Wieren, interior design expert and founder of Alchemy Fine Home, agrees that candles are the way to go. “Try to blend a few styles of candles such as tapers, votives, and tea lights if you really want to make a wow,” she suggests, adding that if you don’t want to ignite your party, “use white twinkle lights wrapped around garland down our holiday tables.” And for more decor tips, bear in mind the 30 Home Decorations No One Over 30 Should Own.
Since you are already laying out place settings, give them a personal touch and make each guest feel extra special. “This can be as simple as writing their names onto pomegranates, leaves, or a simple piece of paper with a gold or silver paint pen,” says Van Wieren. “Tie a ribbon around a bouquet of herbs, a pine cone, or even a few cinnamon sticks and attach a strip of paper to it for a fun way to present their name card.”
Or put a little gift for each person that includes their initials or some kind of personal twist. It will serve as a fun way to begin the meal and help serve as a conversation starter. To get the conversation going, you can can totally use one of The 40 Best Compliments to Give People Over 40.
10 Bites or Two Pounds
Figuring out how much to buy is one of the basic challenges for anyone hosting a party. Running out of food is maybe the biggest blunder you can make at a dinner party, but at the same time you don’t want to get so much that you overwhelm the guests or end up with leftovers into next season.
Celebrity chef Fabio Viviani, who has hosted his share of dinner parties, offers a simple formula for calculating the quantity, depending on if it’s a sit-down meal or with passed appetizers.
“If it is passed appetizers, I do at least 10 bites per person—so if there is 50 people I prepare 500 appetizers,” he says. “If it is a sit down dinner, I plan for 2 pounds of food per person. This will include the appetizer course all the way through dessert.” For alcohol, he suggests having enough for at least two cocktails or half a bottle of wine per person. “This really depends on the occasion like if it is a birthday party or a big holiday event, I would plan for more,” says Viviani.
Don’t Overdo the Table Setting
One of the more daunting aspects of preparing a dinner party is worrying if there are enough table settings. How many forks does each person need? Do you need three plates for every guest? Viviani suggests paring these down.
“I think old-fashioned table setting is passed due and people enjoy more casual dining,” he says. “I don’t think it is necessary to have three plates, three forks, and three spoons for one dinner. Create food that goes well together so you can use one plate instead of three plates.” He adds that this also allows different flavors to mix together—and makes cleaning up a lot easier too.
Start Prepping Early
A key ingredient to any successful dinner party is preparation. Just as more food is required for a larger group, so too should you add more time for prep if you are welcoming a larger group into your home. “Set your table the night before,” suggests Robin McAllister-Zaas, a lifestyle coach as well as an avid entertainer.
“Be creative and design a beautiful ‘tablescape.’ Use sticky notes and label all of your serving dishes with what you plan to serve in them—this way you will know if you need to purchase something new.” Beyond the table and kitchen, starting preparation early also gives you the chance to clean up your home, clean what rooms you will be using, and make sure the guest bathroom is fully stocked. Little things really make the difference, for inspiration on quick update, check out these 30 Best Stylish Home Upgrades.
Skip the Scented Candles
But one type of preparation you should not do is to try and enhance the scents of the house or apartment, with scented candles, fragrance diffusers, or basic plug-in air fresheners. Don’t. The only smells guests should encounter as they enter the home should be the food you are preparing or the cocktail they have in their hand. Not only can strong scents potentially activate guests’ allergies, they can compete with, and sometimes sabotage, the pleasant smells of the food itself. “I wouldn’t want to smell cinnamon raisin while eating chicken,” says Viviani.
Set Out a Welcome
“I welcome guests even before they ring the front doorbell,” says Marlene Caroselli, an author and corporate trainer and frequent dinner party host. “Sometimes, I have a sign on the walkway or on the wood beside the front door.”
This not only ensures guests don’t worry about whether they’ve found the right place or not, it makes them feel like the party has started before they’ve even gotten to the door. You can vary what you use to let guests know they are in the right place, depending on the event or time of year “I might have an LED ‘love’ light flashing for a Valentine’s gathering. For Halloween, I may have ghost wails playing as they walk up to the door,” says Caroselli.
Serve a Signature Cocktail
Often the first thing a guest encounters after setting foot into your home is the drink you offer them—so make sure it’s a good one. “Have a bottle of red and white wine available for those guests who aren’t mixed drinkers. Bottled water is a must during your party and is a lovely gesture to give each guest for their drive home,” says McAllister-Zaas.
But to really make an impression, she suggests that the host, “create a signature drink for your party.” It should fit the season, and have a snappy name—but not be too complicated or boozy (you don’t want to get your guests trashed before they’ve had anything to eat). If you want to mix up something quick, get inspired by these 15 Two-Ingredient Cocktails You Can Make in 15 Seconds.
]Be Clear About the Schedule
Nothing is worse for a guest than showing up for a dinner party thinking there was going to be a long pre-dinner cocktail hour, only to realize everyone is halfway through their meals. Make it clear in the invite how long “cocktail hour” will go, then the exact time when the meal will be served.
“If you’re specific on dinner time your guests will arrive on time and everyone will stay happy,” says Jennifer Porter, Satsuma Designs, a party planner and gift shop retailer based in Seattle. “Plan for 30-60 minutes for warm up/cocktails/mocktails (include a fun child friendly beverage for an all ages party), then dine on time and enjoy a relaxed gathering after with dessert.
Add in Some Entertainment
Don’t call it a “game night,” but to take your dinner party to the next level and really loosen up the guests after the meal, it’s worth adding in some kind of game or entertainment. “Try games like Categories, Who Am I, charades, karaoke, poetry mashup reading,” offers Porter. “At our house, we call it ‘dinner theater’: After dinner, we each present a little something fun/funny/literary. We’ve done pantomime, dance routines, piano, poetry reading, physical comedy, which usually involves sticking your head around the corner and pulling it back with your hidden arm.”
You can entertain guests by starting off with some trivia, have your guests guess if a fact is true or false to pique their interest, to get you started here are 40 Facts So Funny They’re Hard to Believe.
Keep the Main Course Simple
An elaborately detailed dish that keeps you in the kitchen all night is going to be a bummer for you and make your guests feel guilty for not helping you out. Instead, keep things simple so the focus stays on connecting with the guests and making sure the guests are connecting with one another.
“I try to keep things simple,” says Ryan Goodwin, the lead recipe developer at Craftlog.com who often hosts dinner parties. “I usually go with a roast or a braise of some sort. Once you have something like that going, it’s relatively easy to plan other courses around it. My last dinner party was just a big batch of chili verde—nothing fancy, just a simple, delicious stew and my focus was put into the fresh tortillas, the escabeche and accoutrements to go along.”
Make It Interactive
You can boost this sense of “connection” between you and the guests by getting some help from guests in the kitchen. If you’re looking to create a more casual vibe, there’s nothing wrong with making it an interactive dinner party. “Personally, I’m always happy to have friends join me in the kitchen, so the more curious guests will end up chatting with me or helping out as I put final touches on salads or side dishes and prep the showpiece,” says Goodwin. “My wife usually takes over with dessert. She like to choose the wine and throw in an interesting cocktail along the way as well.”
Size it Right
A dinner party is not supposed to be a massive house party that gets the cops called—it’s a place for creative conversation where people feel connected and come away feeling nourished intellectually as well as physically. “You want to create a feeling of intimacy and togetherness, and you want the conversation to loop around to everyone,” says Aleksandra Rowan, a “frequent dinner party thrower” and co-owner of floral event design company Sage and Rose. To create this atmosphere, you need to invite the right number of people.
“Too large and there is no chance for everyone to interact, too small and you risk dullness,” says Rowan. “If you have guests who do not know each other well, always start dinner off with hors d’oeuvres in a separate space that encourages mingling. You definitely don’t want two people chatting off in a corner; or a fun and boring side of the table.”
Be the CEO
That is, Chief Entertainment Officer, as Tangela Walker-Craft, dinner party host and blogger at Simply Necessary Inc., who advises hosts see their entertaining as a responsibility. As host, you are the boss and need to own the event you are running. “As host or hostess, be prepared to dive on a metaphorical grenade if necessary to squelch a disagreement should one arise,” she says. “If children are expected to attend, having simple activities for them to entertain themselves before and after the meal is a good idea. Coloring books, coloring sheets, puzzles, or books are easy options.”Whatever happens, the buck stops with you, and you need to act that way—staying on top of every detail and being prepared to put down your fork or wine glass to keep things running smoothly should that be necessary.
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