The good guide to stress-free entertaining

The ability to entertain with flair is an enviable skill. Here are 26 tips to help you be the host or hostess with the mostess

Words Sarah Heeringa. Styling Sarah Heeringa and Natalie Cyra. Photography Amanda Reelick.

We’ve probably all asked ourselves at some point, ‘Why am I hosting a dinner party?’ The to-do list can seem dauntingly long and thinking about the things that might go awry can be enough to scare us off before we even start. On the other hand, what’s not to love about spending time in the company of interesting people while enjoying a delicious home-cooked meal? And how great does it feel to bring a group of interesting people together for an evening of laughter and conversation.

There’s real pleasure to be had in practicing hospitality and sharing with others. And when everything comes together mostly as you intend, there’s the satisfaction of having put on a decent spread. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way – plus a few expert tips.

Planning the do 

1. Keep it fun for you

Successful entertaining is, ultimately, more about the people than it is about the fanciness of the food. You can overspend on ingredients, yell at your family and stress yourself out to the point of near madness, and all it does is rob you of the pleasure of the moment. The crucial ingredient to a successful dinner party is a relaxed and happy host. 

2. Mix it up a little 

If the idea of a formal dinner party with courses gives you the chills, invite people over for celebratory brunch, lazy Sunday lunch, or fancy afternoon nibbles and drinks instead. “Once you’ve decided what sort of event you want to have, you can choose dishes for your menu that suit”, says Claire Aldous, food editor with Dish magazine.

3. The more the merrier

It’s no harder to cook for six or seven than it is to cook for four. Invite a mix of guests, including at least one friendly extrovert you can rely on to keep the conversation flowing, leaving you free you to fluff about. Don’t just invite couples – mix it up with a few single friends who might otherwise be overlooked. As with food, mix in a few newbies with others you already know.  

4. Avoid misunderstandings

Check if any of your guests are vegetarian, gluten intolerant, Jewish, on the wagon, or have any other dietary prerequisites you need to factor in. “Ask your guests what drinks they like – or suggest they bring along their favourite alcoholic or non-alcoholic drop”, says Emily Harrison, Events Manager for Tangible Media. “Be clear about what time you are serving dinner, and when guests need to arrive.”  

Choosing the menu 

5. And now for the food

Can’t decide what to serve? Start with the fresh produce that is most plentiful at this time of the year. Not only will you be using fruit and vegetables when their flavours are at their best, they will also be at their cheapest. Click here for a guide to what’s in season. Picking a theme, such as Mexican, Spanish or Japanese can make it easier to put together a cohesive menu of flavours and dishes, suggests Aldous. 

By all means, try an interesting new recipe, but resist the temptation to tackle more than one dish that uses unfamiliar ingredients or that involves a tricky cooking technique. Avoid anything that involves lots of last-minute faffing. You don’t want long gaps between courses, nor do you want to be stuck in the kitchen missing out on conversation. Team new dishes with others that you have made before and balance rich or spicy dishes with lighter ones. Food that is all the same colour can look boring and a succession of rich and creamy dishes will have your guests falling asleep. 

6. Turn the simple into the special

One big dish such as a leg of lamb or whole baked fish looks impressive served on a big platter. Conversely, individual servings can turn a simple dish into something posh. Cannelloni is an everyday family meal that looks fabulous when individually plated up with a drizzle of reduced balsamic glaze and scattering of fresh basil. Make individual pies or serve chocolate puddings in teacups, upcycled jars or ramekins. To stretch a meal, add crusty bread, pasta or couscous as side dishes. During colder months, consider starting with soup. As Julia Child famously put it, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”

For this slow-cooked Spare Ribs recipe, click here.

In the kitchen 

7. Prep in advance

If you are not a confident cook, or you are trying a recipe for the first time, choose something that can be made in advance. Do it even if you’re a pro to make it easy on yourself. “I always prepare the veggies the night before”, says Harrison. “Do as much as you can in advance so that on the day you have as little to do as possible. That way you can relax and actually enjoy yourself,” she says. 

8. Practice mise en place

Mise en place (pronounced mez-on-plahs) means “to put in place”. It’s about having all your ingredients laid out, prepared and ready to go before you start cooking. 

Read the recipes before you go shopping for ingredients, even if you’ve made a dish before. This will help to remind you of specific ingredients you may have run out of in your pantry. 

Photography by Jane Ussher

Write out your menu and pin it up somewhere prominent; check off all dishes, garnishes and sauces as you serve them. I once discovered an untouched salad in the microwave the morning after a dinner party. Cooking in a tiny kitchen, I’d popped it in the microwave to clear bench space and promptly forgotten about it.

Getting the party started 

16. Dressing for dinner 

Decide what you’re going to wear in advance and have it hanging ready in your room. You’ve been busy all day, so allow time to shower and change. You don’t want to be streaking down the hall in a towel or having frock dramas in the bedroom as your guests are knocking on the front door.  

17. Calm your farm 

You can aim to be as organised as possible, but it’s a mistake to imagine you can control everything. Chances are the gravy will go lumpy at the last minute, the baby will wake up unexpectedly, the first guests will arrive early and everyone will crowd into the kitchen while you’re still splicing and dicing. But who cares if everyone has a drink in hand and conversation is bubbling? Take a deep breath and go with the flow.

18. Don’t forget some tunes 

Have a suitable playlist at the ready – music fills awkward silences, and adds a sense of occasion. Play something  upbeat before everyone arrives to get you in party mode. Later, play mellow music that doesn’t swamp the conversation. Dinner parties are about animated discourse, not about shouting over the music. If you can, dim the lights –  at least in the dining area. 

Photography by Amanda Reelick

19. Do consider seating 

If you have invited more than eight guests, be prepared to give directions as to who sits where. For fun, you might even make personalised napkin labels. See page 56 for ideas.

20. Set the mood to relax  

Provide your guests with a place to congregate on arrival. Set up a trolley or small table with wine, spirits, interesting non-alcoholic drinks, ice, glassware and garnishes. (See www.good.net.nz/cocktails-oclock for a trolley makeover). Put someone in charge of bar tending. Guests may be quite peckish on arrival, so lay out some simple snacks – something more interesting than chips and dip.

21. Don’t rely too heavily on contributions

It’s a New Zealand tradition to offer to bring something. By all means, accept offers to contribute but don’t rely on them for staple dishes – people sometimes arrive late or forget and leave things at home. I once asked a friend to bring a green salad, as I was short on veggie dishes, and she cheerfully turned up with a bar of chocolate instead. “If a guest brings wine, be sure to serve it”, says Claire. 

22. Mix pre-made with homemade

You don’t need to make everything, but mixing in a few unexpected homemade dishes can save money and up the wow factor. Cheese straws, spiced nuts, oat crackers, chutney or chocolate-dipped strawberries are all simple to make in advance. If you’ve run out of puff to make a dessert, a platter of beautiful wedges of cheese with preserves and crackers can make a tasty and easy finish to the meal, suggests Claire. 

23. Move location 

If you have lounge space, consider decamping there for coffee and dessert. Progressing to the sofa takes things to a new level of comfort and relaxation and gives everyone the chance to stretch their legs and change conversation partners.

Photography by Amanda Reelick

24. Be creative with garnishing  

Warm plates and serving dishes in the oven before plating. Have garnishes chopped and at the ready. Turn a simple cream of vegetable soup into something more fancy with a sprinkling of gourmet salt. Other possible garnishes might include a drizzle of olive oil or balsamic glaze, a sprinkling of fresh herbs or baby rocket, a grind of black pepper, a dollop of mascarpone cream, fresh fruit, or a dusting of icing sugar, cinnamon, cocoa powder or coconut sugar. Try not to fuss too much. To quote the fabulous Julia Child again, “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate – you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” 

25. Don’t be pushy or apologetic 

So the food is not as perfect as you’d hoped – apologising for the food will only draw attention to flaws your guests might not have noticed. Fussing over the state of your house is also to be avoided. If someone says “no thanks” to something you are offering, don’t insist that the person have some. You don’t want to force anyone into revealing that they’re dieting, pregnant or newly sober.

26. Leave the dishes

If guests offer to help clear the table, let them. You might stack dirty plates and cutlery in the dishwasher and get the pots soaking, but otherwise, leave the dishes be. No one can relax if you’re still toiling in the kitchen. Wait until the last guests have gone before you put the dishwasher on. Put leftover food in the fridge and then, with any luck, in the morning you can enjoy pie for breakfast and take the rest of the day off cooking. You deserve it!

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