How to Host a Stress-Free Dinner Party (and Why You Should)

Most people don’t socialize anymore. I’m likely over-generalizing. But, I think it’s true.

I remember as a kid my mom would throw big parties for friends. The one I remember most required her to purchase fifty bamboo trays for people to use to hold their dinners. It also required fifty matching plates. We searched every store to gather what she needed. I’ll never forget shopping with her, watching her think through the buffet plans, organize her recipes, and cook for the crowd. I knew, someday, I wanted to do that.

But, truth is, my mom stressed a LOT when she threw these little shin digs. I didn’t want to repeat that part. Rooms of the house were “off limits” and we kids knew we better stay out of the way . . . or else! Mom was not a laid back woman when it came to entertaining.

Honestly, I’m not either. But, I’m learning.

Why You Should Have a Dinner Party.

It feels like the dinner party concept died sometime around around the advent of reality television shows and personal computers. Now we’re too busy to entertain. Not to mention the expense. Who can afford to throw a party like that?

You can. And, you should.

Here’s why: It’s good for you.

Yes, that’s right.

No matter how small your home is, no matter how awkward you feel socializing, no matter how embarrassed you feel that your home looks more like an HGTV before than after photo . . .you should have people over.

It will be hard at first.

Getting over that obstacle, having people to your home for the first time, is the most difficult part. The anxiety of “will they notice how old this rug is?” Or, “Does the bathroom still smell like little boy pee and I’ve just grown immune to it?” and “Will my friends think I’m lame because we’re using plastic utensils and plates?”. . .All of that will fade away once you start practicing hospitality.

So, How Do You Throw a Stress-Free Dinner Party?

Simple truth: You can throw a party how every you are comfortable throwing a party. I recently read an article my friend Mindy from Remedial Homemaker shared on “scruffy hospitality.” I loved it. You don’t have to have a Pinterest worthy spread or anything fancy to have people over.

I have friends who are comfortable keeping everything casual. No one sits down for dinner or worries about whether or not the food fits a theme. It’s totally great. I enjoy being a part of it, but this is not my personality. For me it would be inauthentic to try to be this casual. I like things the way I like them. I enjoy planned entertaining.

But, planned doesn’t have to mean stressful. I’ve learned there’s a huge difference between putting together a nice dinner party and freaking out about throwing the “perfect event.” I’m done with those days. Trying to impress people with my entertaining skills always yielded anxiety. (And, I’m not sure how comfortable my guests were either.)

So, here’s how I do it. These aren’t really secrets per se, rather tricks I’ve learned that make the process a whole lot more fun. If entertaining feels like a burden, I won’t do it. But, if I can make it enjoyable, I’m more likely to make room in my schedule.

Here Are My 4 Best Tricks:

1. Hire a caterer.

Don’t stop reading here. Half of you are ready to press close on this screen because that sounds “too fancy” and the other half are like, “Who’s got the money for that?!? I thought you’d said this would be affordable!” Give me two seconds and I’ll tell you my secret!

A few years ago we had a friend who started his own catering company and needed more exposure. He charges about $15 per person for a three-course, freshly-cooked meal. He even comes to my house and preps the food, and he serves it! We like to invite lots of people when we entertain. If you do the math $15 times 20 friends is a quite an investment.

So, I had this idea! I invited our friends to a “date night” at our home. (Even at Chili’s, $30 for a dinner date night is about what you’d expect to pay.) We asked our friends to pitch in $30/couple and come to our home instead.

Do I wish that we could afford to pay for everyone? Of course. Did I feel a little tacky asking people to come to our house and pay for dinner at first? Yes. Guilty of that too.

But here’s what I’ve found–many are desperate for time with friends and relieved not to host. (i.e. They are happy not to clean up for company! See paragraphs above for explanation! Ha!)

Search to see if you can find a small or start up catererer in your town. Even if you can’t you can get lots of “catered type options from restaurants of all sorts. Many grocery stores also offer a catering menu. You can get family style dishes from a place like Buca Di Beppo or other restaurants too.

Whatever you do: Don’t plan to cook all the food.

I repeat. Do not plan to cook all the food.

I’ve done this. Had I continued down this path this post would be called, “How to be Over-the-Top Super Stressed Out For Every Dinner Party.”

One of our catered meals. I should not be a food photographer, because the photo does not do it justice. But, there was a reduction of some sort on the pork and Brussel sprouts that tasted delicious.

Another option: Make it potluck. But, I’m picky about how I do this too.

My recommendation: In order for this to not turn out weird, assign items to people.

That friend who’s always baking, have her bring dessert. The friend who’s husband looks like he’s well-fed, maybe ask her to make her famous lasagna. I pick a theme and then assign parts of the meal! (I also assign the exact amount of each item I need–so that the rushed friend who grabs just one bag of pre-made salad on her to your home will know that you actually need salad for twenty and will grab a few bags!)

Second: Keep decor simple and standard.

I shop Target’s end of aisle clearance, not on the Magnolia website. (Though it’s a great place for inspiration!) One day I found a stack of round, red and teal green woven placemats on sale for .10 each! I bought 20 in each color. (Yes, if you do quick math I spent $4.00 for 40 placemats!) I’ve used them together at Christmas time–accenting the teal with silver to give it a more holiday look. I’ve also turned the teal into a spring look and the red into a summery style.

This $4.99 plant was intended for the ground. But, it made a great centerpiece instead!

Don’t underestimate what you can do with $10 worth of quick sale flowers. You only need them to last one night, so get more for your  money by purchasing the ones they mark down.

Third: Don’t kill yourself cleaning.

I know, you care what other people think of your home.

I understand that you are tempted to believe that when people come over they’ll be secretly trying to figure out how good of a housekeeper you really are. Sparkling sinks and spotless floors are your fastest way to prove this. I get it. I wrote all about that here, in fact.

But, my friend, can I free you today with some truth? When people come over they aren’t inspecint your house like that sit-com mother-in-law who brings here white gloves. The “Scruffy Hospitality” article I linked to above quotes someone named Father Jack who says, “Hospitality is not house inspection it’s friendship.”

How to host a stress free dinner party

Remember: The goal is friendship and fun. Not leaving your guests impressed by your entertaining skills. There is a difference.

Chances are, your friends are just happy that you’re the one who was brave enough to invite folks over. You’ve already impressed them with your courage, don’t stress over your cleaning.

Here’s what I do: I focus on main areas only.

If someone decides to go upstairs, they do so at their own risk because chilren’s bedrooms and play areas are not going to be clean.

  • I clean the bathroom, and I clean it well! (Because it grosses me out to use dirty bathrooms so I want to offer my guests the same courtesy.)
  • I clean my kitchen counters and all surfaces that people will eat off of, well.
  • I sweep my floors and clean them, but not meticulously because I know they will get dirty again fast. Most people at a dinner party are looking at other people’s faces, not their shoes or what their shoes are standing on.

These teal placemats were .10 each and work no matter what the season!

My house isn’t being analyzed by prospective buyers, it’s being lived in. Give yourself grace for that and keep your cleaning to what’s reasonable and important.

Fourth: Be intentional about the evening.

We used to just have free conversation around the table. But, we’ve found a better way. We have an envelope of questions. Using these questions has completely changed the dynamic of our dinner parties. Especially if you have a mix of people you know well, and others you don’t–using these questions helps break the ice and directs conversation in a way where people are getting to know each other–not just shooting the breeze.

We use questions like this: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? If you could have dinner with anyone–living or dead–who would it be? What’s your favorite breakfast food? What movie moves you more than any other? We let one person pick a question, answer it, and then chose another person at the table to also answer. Some questions make us laugh so hard, we give everyone a chance to answer! Here’s a list to get you started.

This centerpiece is a bowl with Christmas ornaments (some stolen from the tree.) That’s wrapping paper on the table, by the way. Simple!

 

The last dinner party we had, one table did the question and the other table did not. Now, I won’t go so far as to say the other table didn’t have as much fun . . . but I can tell you for sure there was a lot more laughter coming from the table where near strangers were squabbling about whether or not brownie edges were desirable and race car drivers were good dinner guests.

We’ve also played games after dinner – like a mass version of “taboo” where we try to describe famous people without saying their names. Have everyone write down 10 famous people (living, dead, fictional, real) on paper scraps, put them in a paper sack. Guys versus girls . . .It’s a lot of laughs too!

**P.S. People have more fun when they laugh. It’s just true.

The men think they won the game this night. (Okay, they did. It shocked me too.)

Fifth: Make time to refresh before guests arrive.

In the early years of us planting the church and inviting guests over for dinner almost weekly, I would wear myself out cleaning, cooking, and preparing.

So much so that when they actually arrived I was keyed up and maybe a little angry. I tried to put on a happy face and be the perfect hostess, but my agitation would begin to surface right after dinner–about the same time I looked at the mess all over the house I had just labored all day to clean.

My best advice for throwing a stress free dinner part is to take time to rest and refresh before your guests arrive.

I bought these .89 yellow Easter baskets but couldn’t figure out how to put flowers in them- so I put candles in them instead. I think it worked.

If you’ve hired a babysitter or are shipping kids off to grandma’s, send them a few hours early–not so you have more time to go over the floors with your magnifying glass in hand, but so you have time to take a nap.

Entertaining should be enjoyable.

And, if you enjoy it, you are likely to do it more. And, doing it more, is good for everyone.

Guess what, if everything isn’t done by the time the first guest arrives, I can almost guarantee one thing will happen. That guest will say something like this, “What can I do to help?” And, at that moment, you have a choice. You an wear yourself out trying to get it all done, or you can say, “Here, will you fill water cups and light the candles.” Trust me, your friends will be delighted to do small chores and then you can spend more time relaxing and enjoying your party.

Here’s a video I took while I was getting ready for our last dinner party! Check it out:

What’s your best entertaining trick? Does it stress you out to have people over?

 

 

 

 

4 Comments
  • Rhonda Wingerter
    June 27, 2017

    Gosh I want to be like you!! I have struggled with this issue so much!!! My husband scared to ask me anymore about having people over, because of my reaction. I try so hard to be open even just for him, why should he not have people over its his house too. I wish I lived next door to you because you get me. I am choked up thinking of facing this fear. Thanks so much for your honesty.

    • Heather Creekmore
      June 28, 2017

      Oh Rhonda, thanks for sharing this! Yes, if you lived next door you’d come over and see that the most important thing about having people over is the people — not the place or the food! 🙂 It’s taken me a while to relax though . . . The first time is hardest! I promise! Start small…keep it simple…you can do it! 🙂 Hugs!!!

  • mkayfriend
    June 28, 2017

    Heather, I really enjoyed this post. I just hosted my daughter’s 13th birthday party last night after 2 months of stressful planning! Your ideas feel peaceful to me and I can’t wait to get started having dinner parties with friends more often utilizing these easy, but insightful ideas!

    • Heather Creekmore
      June 28, 2017

      Ahhh… Yes! I get it! I used to throw crazy elaborate birthday parties too . . .but, I’ve recovered from that as well! You can do it! We all need the fellowship, it just takes someone making the bold move to do the inviting! I’ve never had anyone say “Ugh, we wouldn’t like that at all!” Those invites are always welcomed! 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

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