A Dinner Party Success. It’s All In The Planning.

It was 6:45pm and only a few friends had arrived.  The chicken skins were browning and crisping up quite well in the frying pan. Usually this gets me excited, but the 7 pm dinner bell was approaching and I was wondering, “Where is everyone?”  The top of the hour arrived, the chicken skins were on the cooling racks, the short ribs were done some time ago, and the bone marrow pieces were almost ready to be removed from the oven.  I was ready to serve, but what is a housewarming dinner party without guests?

At 7:15, I breathed a sigh of relief, the rest of the guests had started to arrive.  I served up the first course at 7:20 and everyone had arrived shortly after 7:30.

I kept the food coming and they kept eating (and drinking).  It’s all the host can ask for.  When they complemented how great the good was, all the effort and time spent in planning and cooking the meal was more than worth it.

Normally, cooking a meal for twenty people would be out of the question, but I wanted to have a housewarming dinner party.  The last time I cooked for so many people was about eight years ago, and I had a horrible time.

Back then, I cooked pretty much the entire length of the party.  My menu was a bit too ambitious and I just focused on the food, I had forgotten to entertain my guests.  Who had just arrived and who left?  I had no idea.  While everyone said the party was great, I never had a chance to be part of it.  Maybe that’s why it took me so long to host a dinner for so many guests again.

Clearly, there had to be a better way.  A way that would not shackle me to the stove the entire night, or leave my guests with cold food.  No, not this time, i had learned the errors of my ways.

There’s no secret formula when it comes to hosting a successful dinner party, it’s all in the planning.

It’s all in the planning: The Dinner Party Planning Process

First, Decide on the format of the dinner party.

  • Catered.  You could go the catered food route, which aside from trying to figure out what to order, is rather straight forward and easy to do.  There’s not much planning required, but you will end up spending quite a bit of money for convenience and time savings.

  • Potluck.  Then there’s the  potluck. A cop out of sorts since everybody is expected to bring a dish.  It’s the most economical, requires little time investment, and some people may cook stuff or others may just purchase ready made food.

  • Home cooked (Most complicated, control over budget, lots of time investment, more personal, if your food sucks, this will the the last dinner party you host).

Planning / Logistics

  • Visualize your cooking process.  Go to a quiet place, close your eyes, and visualize yourself cooking the meal.  Think about what can be cooked in advanced, which foods have to stay warm and how to keep them warm, and which foods have to be cooked last.  For example, I had to utilize the oven for the bone marrow and chicken wings.  I knew I could not bake them at the same time, so I cooked the bone marrow first and kept them hot in my cast iron and stainless steel pots while the chicken was placed in the oven to cook.

  • Make ready to serve foods, such as pasta salad.
  • Know the limitations of your kitchen space.  You’d be surprised how much space is taken up during food prep.

  • Assess the seating situation.  Will your guests have a place to sit, or end up eating on the floor?

  • Have an assistant if you know you can’t handle it all by yourself.  It makes everything much easier, but make sure to let the person know what he or she will be responsible for.

  • Have a large empty trashcan available so you don’t have to throw out the trash or change trash bags often.

  • Clear your sink of dirty dishes before guests arrive.  Sink space is precious especially if you have to wash things.

  • Keep some rags handy to clean up spills because it’s going to happen.

  • Traffic management.  Know where your guests will congregate, you will need to have a bit of mobility to go back and forth to the kitchen.

  • Greeting guests.  Designate someone who’s going to get the door for guests.  When you’re in the kitchen getting the food ready, it’s not going to be easy to open the door to greet guests.

  • Avoid last minute additions or changes.  This can seriously mess up your plan.

  • It’s not a time for food experimentation on friends, stick with what you know.

  • Make a menu to let your guests know what to expect.

Pasta Salad
Simple Pasta Salad that’s prepared ahead of time.

Coffee Chiffon Cake baked in the morning.

Photo: E. Choi

For the Budget Conscious

  • The amount of money you are willing to spend will influence the type of food you will serve.  If sky’s the limit, go ahead with the beluga caviar and cracker appetizer that’s topped with freshly shaved truffles.  And don’t forget to serve the delicious pig that discovered that said truffle.  For the rest of us, we will have to set and stick to a budget, but have a 10% contingency reserve just in case.  For my latest dinner party,I had to cook for twenty people and did not want to exceed $8 per person.

  • Keep costs down by using filler foods such as pasta, rice, bread.  Carbs are your friends here.  Also consider using cheap cuts of meat, even scraps.  My first two appetizer courses were made up with animal parts that people usually scrap

  • Don’t purchase too much alcohol, chances are, your friends will bring plenty.

Fried Chicken Skins and Wing Tips with Truffle Oil.    Not much of a cost factor for delicious bits of scraps.

Roasted Bone Marrow with Baby Arugula and Toasted Italian Bread

Make Time Your Friend, Not The Enemy

  • Give yourself one week to plan, two is even better.  This will give yourself time to create the menu, make a list of everything you need, and purchase the ingredients ahead of time.

  • Utilize the oven and slow cooking methods to minimize time spent hovering over the stove.  The worse is when you have three or four things cooking at once on the stove and your focus is split into multiple directions.  Click on the timeline to enlarge.


  • Figure out how to plate the food in advance.  Running around looking for plates to serve the food on can ruin the cooking tempo if you’ve found your groove.

  • Prepare some things the night before.  Boring tasks such as cutting vegetables and chopping meat can all be completed the night before.

Slow Cooked Short Ribs and Rib Ends

The Invited

  • Send invitations out early.  The sooner you know how many people are coming to your party, the faster you can get started in planning.

  • Know who the big eaters are.  Simply planning food for twenty people can be tough, especially if that very pint-sized friend of yours can throw it down.  It’s better to have more food than less.

  • Know your friend’s eating habits, aversions, allergies..  I know which ones have peanut allergies and one has a strong aversion to cilantro.  I did have one concession, vegetarians/vegans need not come.

  • Expect extra guests and expect no shows.  It’s just the nature of things.  Friends would ask me if it would be ok for them to bring a friend, and in most cases it is.  On the other end, there may be last minute cancellations.  It can become a balancing act on trying to figure out how much food to cook.

  • Give them good directions and your phone number, especially if guests have to go into an entrance that’s not the front door.

  • If you live in an area where there’s plenty of parking, no problem.  But if you live in a major city like I do where parking is scarce, set expectations on the parking situation or map out some public transport routes for them.

  • Have your Wi-Fi information posted somewhere in case you’re asked.

Assess Your Inventory

  • Do you have enough cutlery, cups, and plates?  Use disposables to cut down on washing dishes afterwards.

  • Wine glasses, just when you think you have enough, you don’t.

  • Make sure you have the right kind and enough cooking equipment.

  • Have aluminum foil on hand in case your guest want to take leftovers (if any).

  • Do you have enough chairs?


Tamari Garlic Chicken Wings and Drumsticks

Good luck with the planning, I’ll keep adding to the list if anything else comes to mind.

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