10 Steps to a Stress-Free Dinner Party

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop to look around once in a while, you might miss it." Ferris Bueller had it right back in 1986. With social media, emails, smart phones, texting, and transient lives, we all need to unplug from "busy" and reconnect with those we love. A couple of years ago, my hubby and I decided that it was high time we brought the "old skool" dinner party back for that very reason. There are lots of ways to go about breaking bread with your near and dear-s, so there are no requirements or rules and that's part of the fun. We've hosted several of these dinner parties in our home over the last few years and have served anywhere from 10 to 40 people. Our most recent of 40 people was hosted in November. With each one, I feel like I learn something to make the experience better for our guests and ease stress as the hostess. Overall, any challenge of planning and hosting has been worth that moment of looking around the table and seeing endless smiles, laughter, and fellowship. Often, our guests don't know everyone who is coming. We try to switch it up from one dinner to the next, allowing different people to meet, connect, and build friendships. So...what have I learned and how can it help you to host YOUR own dinner party?

Step ONE:

Plan a theme that you can fashion your decor and menu around. Our superhero theme was easy to decorate for. We used plain, clear glass vases, wrapped them in white paper and drew building windows and scenes on them for the tablescapes. Our little plastic superhero figures helped hold it all down and pull it together. We had also just made a huge chandelier out of zip ties (truth be told, it's what inspired the whole theme) and decided to make that the focal point of the tablescape. Having a tablescape doesn't have to mean fresh flowers on the table; think outside the box and consider hanging things from the ceiling.

Step TWO:

Send out a Save the Date about four to six weeks before the dinner. This will allow for early RSVPs, better preparation for you and your guests. Added bonus is that a save-the-date also gets everyone excited and talking. When you send out the save-the-dates, you don't have to overcomplicate the planning with stamps and envelopes. Keep it simple and create a Facebook event page or use an electronic invite service like Paperless Post. You can manage your responses, update the event information, and send group messages easily while saving paper and money. Try to leave an element of surprise in the save-the-dates, but give hints to the theme by choosing a design that relates. For the superhero dinner party, our save-the-dates had a building with Superman on it.

Step THREE:

Send the invitation about one to two weeks before the dinner. Include all the vital information (time, address, request dietary restrictions/allergy notifications), but also consider a dress suggestion.  For our comic book-themed party, we encouraged our guests to dress comically chic, and our guests were obviously inspired. Some had comic-book printed shoes and feather eyelashes, some in mohawks, sporting red lips, retro bold colors, and sequins. It was awesome! Make sure you tell your guests what time appetizers are served and what time dinner is served so that they know when everyone will be seated. This helps your guests avoid feeling awkward if they are running late; they know they have a buffer for drinks and appetizers. Many guests will ask what they can bring, so provide that information on the invitation if it applies.

Step FOUR:

A week or so before the dinner, finalize any DIY decor that you have in mind, browse Pinterest, or visit your party store for supplies. If you need to secure seating for your guests, additional tables, flatware, or serving dishes, now is the time to do that. Fortunately, we have wonderful friends in the catering business, A Divine Event, who provided our plates, glasses, and utensils ( a tray stand and trays, which is a HUGE help when you have a group of over four). We rented our farmhouse tables and mismatched vintage chairs from Four Inch Fold, and everything looked amazing.

Step FIVE:

Plan your menu keeping in mind the dietary restrictions and allergies of your guests. You will be purchasing your food about three or four days before the event (assuming you aren't cooking anything super exotic and hard to find). Make your appetizers finger-friendly and start all food prep the day before the dinner so that you aren't spending any time on food prep the day of. My personal advice is to make the appetizers something quick and easy that doesn't require warming (cheese, fruit, breads, artisan crackers, olives) as your oven will need to be on reserve for dinner items. Your guests will trickle in during the time appetizers are served so having something that doesn't require warming makes the food more enjoyable to guests as well. Imagine a spinach dip that has to be warmed every 15 minutes...no bueno. It also just makes guests feel bad for being "late". Plan for 45 minutes to an hour for appetizers, cocktails, and mingling.

Step SIX:

Don't be afraid to ask for help. We don't ask our guests to pay for their meal as they are our guests (we just want them to enjoy themselves) but for this dinner party of 20, I asked a couple of my friends if they minded bringing a dessert for the table. This can really help take a load off your shoulders and add a community dynamic to the menu. We also ask our guests to bring a liquor of their choice. We have mixers, beer, wine, and a themed cocktail, but if they have a preference or creative ideas, we encourage it.

Step SEVEN:

Plan a meal that you already know how to make. You shouldn't be trying a new recipe at a dinner party...tried and true dishes that your family loves are sure to be successful with your friends too. Pasta dishes are easy and can be made ahead of time and warmed in the oven. If you are making something like salmon that cooks quickly, just have it prepared and on the dish so that while appetizers are being eaten, the salmon can be cooking without much supervision. Ultimately, the dinner party isn't fun if you can't hang with your friends. *Keep a glass of wine in the kitchen for sipping while you tend to the meal.*

Step EIGHT:

Plan for time to take pictures and create a hashtag for your dinner party. Guests can take their own snaps and at the end of the evening, they all are organized in a gallery that you can share or print. Our last dinner party for 40, I allowed myself NO time to take pictures and I seriously regret it. At the end of the day, I wish I had suggested the hashtag to our guests so that I could look back on the evening via photos...even if they weren't ones that I had taken.

Our first course for dinner was this amazing butternut-squash soup with a fig-brandy reduction. My girlfriend, Stephanie at A Crowning Affair, created this goodie for us that was right in line with the menu and theme.

Salted caramel salmon with roasted root veggies and pumpkin-spiced rissotto-stuffed figs. mmmmmmmmm.

My sweet hubby made me a birthday cake since this dinner party was hosted a few days before my birthday.

Our Camp Makery founder, Lauren and her husband, pictured above!

Step NINE:

Don't forget to plan and play music! I love playing and creating stations on Pandora.

Step TEN:

Plan something interactive for your guests and possibly something for them to take home. Whether it's a little personalized gift on the plates or a photobooth; it's a gester that tells your guests you love them. Whether it's a comic book, a candle, or something that you made, your guests will appreciate it. Be comfortable, be happy, smile, open your home and your heart, everyone will have a blast.

See our dinner party feature on Occasions Magazine online here.

Bring the dinner party back and share your photos with us on our Facebook page or on Instagram #campmakery #campmakerydinnerparty. Check out more of Hollie's work at Lytlefoto or follow her on Instagram @Lytlefoto. xo