Hosting a dinner party and entertaining at home


Gathering with friends, family, and neighbors in our home and around the dinner table is one of those things that makes my heart sing, and we try hard to make a point to do so often. Inviting others into our home (no perfection or insane hosting skills needed!) is the heartbeat of life and of community. No matter how big or small your space is, no matter how elaborate or simple you keep it, no matter how well you know how to cook or no, I believe it’s so important to invite others into our homes and our lives and to share genuine community with one another. I love to host and entertain, and celebrating life is something I am passionate about and always have been! Long ago, I declared myself a celebration enthusiast, and I firmly believe there’s always a reason to celebrate and to have a dinner party.

Something I feel strongly about is not waiting til everything is perfect to invite others into your home or even into your life. Perfection is unattainable, and fear of being imperfect or messy or unfinished can be crippling and hold us back from life-giving relationships. Our home is a place where I desperately want others to feel welcomed, loved, and relaxed — I never want it to feel pretentious or too perfect. Giving myself grace is so important, as is knowing that no one cares how “perfect” anything looks. It’s so much more about sharing our lives and our hearts with one another than striving for looks or perfection!

As a wedding planner and lifelong hostess, though, there are several simple, effective, and totally doable tips and tricks I’ve gathered throughout the years to make any gathering or dinner party a bit more memorable and festive! I firmly believe a bunch or two of $4 flowers from Trader Joe’s or your local farmer’s market can go a very long way, a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge is always a good idea, and a cheese and charcuterie board makes nearly everyone very happy.

There are a few go-to items that I always try to have stocked and on hand for any last-minute entertaining: a stocked bar cart (and plenty of lemons and limes for cocktails and to enhance your water!), an assortment of fun cheese, charcuterie, crackers, nuts, chocolate, and dried fruit for a delicious and easy cheese board (always, always a hit and a definite favorite!), fresh flowers or greenery (from Trader Joe’s, the farmer’s market, or even picked from your yard!), background music, white and red wine (again, Trader Joe’s is where I always stock up), homemade popcorn, and candles (tall taper candles make anything feel fancy and festive!). We also always have a bottle of champagne chilling in the fridge, just in case a proper toast is called for!


Setting the mood or atmosphere of your dinner party is one of the crucial elements of a successful event. Think about lighting (dimmer lights, taper and votive candles, and market lights) and music (the perfect playlist) so that your dinner party evokes the effect you’re going for. Fresh flowers are also a key element of setting the atmosphere of your party – I always have plenty to scatter around in various vases or bottles, along with herbs from our herb garden. I really like to ensure that all fives senses are catered to in some way and to think through all of the simple, little ways you can enhance the dinner party for your friends! If you’re hosting a dinner party outside, as we love to do often, there are a few critical elements to remember: bug spray and/or citronella candles, extra chilled water set out, and festive market lights overhead.


It took me about five minutes to set the table, which means you can, too! Don’t be intimidated by the need to create the perfect tablescape, as you can easily use what you have on hand, get creative with items from around the house, and mix and match pieces to sharpen your creativity. Since we were having a Springtime Mexican dinner with friends, I wanted to keep the linen tablecloth white and bring in vibrant pops of color with the table settings, flowers, candles, and food to really make them shine. I love collecting glassware and beautiful dishes, and I admittedly have a larger collection of tabletop items than many. It’s a fun creative challenge for me to dress up our dinner table and keep it fresh without having to buy new dishes, glasses, or linen napkins every time. I tend to have a lot of white, light blue, navy, and salmon/coral/peach decor and linens, so most things can be used interchangeably in my trusty color palette! Many of my favorite entertaining and hostessing pieces are from Crate and Barrel, World Market, Anthropologie, Target, or are family heirlooms or vintage finds.

I firmly believe that your dinner party should not be stressful – your guests will feel your stress, nerves, or anxiety, and if you’re not having a wonderful time, then they can tell. Dinner parties should truly be able bringing together people who matter to you to enjoy life together! Don’t stress over the little details, as you’re likely the only one who will notice if something little is amiss or if you forget a detail. Think through the evening in your mind, anticipate what will happen, and try to prepare for the evening from every aspect. By planning ahead, you can cut out a lot of stress and day-of prep time so that you are able to enjoy the process and the dinner party even more. Enlist some help, if you need it, and if something seems too overwhelming or daunting, then forget about it! You really just need fun company + a good bottle of wine, anyway, right?! Above all, though, enjoy it and embrace time with loved ones in a relaxed, comfortable, joyful atmosphere.

It’s not about a picture-perfect dinner, though (goodness no!): it’s about choosing joy; deciding to savor those little moments; inviting your friends (new and old!) and community to gather together; creating memories; finding ways to make an everyday evening and occasion to celebrate. Life itself is a reason to celebrate, and I, for one, plan to embrace that and host as many dinner parties with friends as I possibly can!


photography by our wonderful friends (and dinner party guests!) Ally and Bobby

styling by Stephanie Shaul Events

first written for the McAlister-Leftwich blog

August Fun

August was a quieter month for me work-wise, which means I fully relished my evenings and weekends work-free! I love summertime, and I’m not wishing it away just yet. We’ve got a trip to NYC and the Outer Banks coming up, and those two big trips feel like a perfect time to savor the lingering days of summer before transitioning to autumn! And I am SO, so excited for our vacations!! Over the last month, we’ve indulged in some sweet summer fun, if you’d like to see what we’ve been up to in August…

Vineyard day + wine tasting + picnic + celebrating my dad’s birthday in the mountains of NC


Cinnamon rolls for breakfast in bed + reading by the pool



Dates with my sweet husband (sushi this time!) + coffee dates with great friends


Al fresco dinner date nights


Articles Club, one of my favorite evenings of each month


A trip to Carolina Beach with some great friends… playing in the ocean, Can Jam, enjoying the sun + salty breeze, and seafood for dinner!



Catching up with friends + competitive date nights (this is our fave!)


Exploring downtown Raleigh and the fabulous Brewery Bhavana



Kayaking on the lake – a blissful afternoon!



annual Summer Soiree dinner party, inspired by the lavendar of the French countryside



It’s been a fun and happy month as our first married summer begins to wind down. How has your August been, and what’s been your best memory from the last month?!

Lemon Dinner Party + Recipes


A lemon-themed dinner party is the best way to usher in summertime, don’t you think?! I love all things lemon, and it just screams summer to me. Rob and I decided to host a little dinner party for some of our friends the other evening, and once I have an idea, I just like to take it and run with it. Luckily, Rob doesn’t mind at all and totally let me do my thing since he knows how happy all of this makes me!

We wanted to keep the dinner fairly intimate since we don’t have a ton of space for entertaining (or a huge dining room table). Smaller dinners are also great for really getting to talk with each guest rather than having too many people around for deeper conversations. We had three other couples over (with two babies), so there were eight adults and two little ones, and we had such an amazing time with our wonderful friends. It was such a relaxing, fun night with so much good food, great conversations, fun playing on the floor with the little boys, and enjoying each other’s company!

Rob and I each entered our marriage with a dining room table, and though his is the one we always use and have out in our dining room, we decided to use both for this large of a group. He rebuilt my dining room table just for this dinner, and we decided to move the two tables into the living room to create more open space for one long table. I definitely like when everyone gets to sit together at one table, and it was really refeshing and fun to have dinner in the living room instead of the dining room.


Decor + setting the table for a lemon dinner party

Everything I used I already had on hand, and that’s one of the best party of throwing a dinner party or hosting an event: using what you already have and creatively looking at what you have to make it work (especially if you don’t have a large budget for decor)! I wanted the wood of the dinner tables to shine through, so I simply used one long cheesecloth, gauzy runner down the length of both tables. I used our new white metal chairs, but since I only have four of them, I also used our four gray tufted dining room chairs. (I definitely don’t have eight of everything, and mix and match totally works!)


For the tabletop, I was set on using lots of whites, gold/brass, and pops of greenery to accent the vibrant yellow of the lemons, and I didn’t want to incorporate any other color. I used my grandmother’s family heirloom white and gold china (both a dinner plate and a salad plate), and I used my grandmother’s white linen napkins in between the two plates. A lemon on each plate tied up the place setting perfectly and brought the lemon vibe to life! I also used items off our Crate and Barrel wedding registry: gold flatware, wine glasses, and champagne flutes. I think any dinner (or meal) deserves gorgeous, festive glassware!

In addition to each place setting’s design, I used a medley of tall glass candlesticks (an antique shopping find) with white taper candles. Soft, romantic lighting like this made for such a wonderful, calm ambience during our dinner, and I’m a huge advocate of mellow lighting and lots of candles. I interspered the taper candles with a few topiaries for more height, uniformity, and a pop of that fresh green color, and then I had leftover lemons lining the center of the table, too. To top it all off, our two month wedding anniversary was the day before, and Rob surprised me with white roses! I cut them all down and sat them in individual bud vases to run the length of the table, which was the perfect pop of fresh blooms (and in white!).




Since the theme was lemons, every course was centered around lemons, of course!


Lemon white wine sangria

Red wine

Water with lemons


Lemon feta dip

Cheese board (with crackers, nuts, our favorite Trader Joe’s cheeses, and grapes)

Baguette, bell pepper slices, and olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh basil to dip


Lemon pistachio ravioli tossed with lemon roasted broccoli and feta cheese



Lemon olive oil layer cake with fresh lemon whipped cream




Lemon Dinner Party Recipes:


Lemon White Wine Sangria

2 bottles of dry white wine

1/2 cup of pineapple juice

1/2 cup lemon juice

2 cans of Diet Ginger Ale or club soda

2 shots of bourbon

Slices of lemons, limes, and oranges (or any fruit, really!)

Lemon slices for garnish

  1. Combine wine, fruit juices, bourbon, and slices of fruit and chill in a large pitcher or drink dispenser.
  2. Just before serving, add the ginger ale or club soda. Garnish sangria with lemon.



Lemon Feta Dip

1 package of feta (not pre-crumbled)

2 tablespoons of grated lemon zest, plus more for garnish

2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice

1 minced garlic clove

Pinch of red pepper flakes

about 1/2 cup of olive oil

  1. Mix the feta, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, red pepper, and olive oil in a blender or food processor. Blend together until the mixture is blended together but somewhat chunky still. Drizzle in a little more olive oil (or lemon juice) if you need more liquid.
  2. Spoon the lemon feta dip into a bowl, garnish with with lemon zest and red pepper flakes, and serve it with pita, pita chips, crudite, or baguette.

We LOVE this recipe, and it was a huge, huge hit at the dinner party. We basically all stood around the lemon feta dip, inhaling it. I’ve rarely had a dish that was such a resounding hit – and it’s so easy, too! My sister and I have been making this lemon feta dip for a few years now, and it’s adapted from here.



Lemon Pistachio Ravioli with Lemon Roasted Broccoli and Feta

2 pounds of four-cheese ravioli

4 tablespoons of butter

1/3 cup of olive oil

1 clove of minced garlic

zest of two lemons

juice of two lemons

1/2 cup of shelled pistachios

pinch of red pepper flakes

Garnish: 1/2 cup crumbled feta, lemon juice, lemon zest

  1. Boil the water for the ravioli and cook the ravioli according to package directions.
  2. While the ravioli is boiling, melt the butter on the stove and add in the olive oil, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, and red pepper flakes. Stir to combine, and add in the pistachios.
  3. Drain the ravioli well once it’s finished cooking, and toss the ravioli with the butter/olive oil/lemon/pistachio mixture.
  4. Combine the ravioli with the roasted broccoli in a large serving bowl, and garnish with crumbled feta, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Enjoy!

Lemon Roasted Broccoli

2 heads of broccoli

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1 teaspoon garlic salt

zest of one lemon

dash of pepper

dash of red pepper flakes

  1. Preheat oven to 425.
  2. Break apart broccoli into bite-size pieces.
  3. On a baking sheet, toss broccoli with olive oil, garlic salt, lemon zest, pepper, and red pepper flakes and combine well.
  4. Roast broccoli for about 20 minutes.

This is SO good on its own (we eat it a couple times a week as a side with dinner), and it’s perfect to toss with the lemon pistachio ravioli, too!



Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake with Fresh Lemon Whipped Cream

I shared this recipe last summer, which you can find here. It is SO unique and delicious, the flavors are incredibly refreshing, and it’s pretty easy to make. I always feel so proud to have made a layer cake, and this cake was a huge, huge hit!



I think that was the most lemon-focused blog post ever written! We had such a wonderful time opening up our home to friends, enjoying delicious food together, and sharing in life with one another. A dinner party doesn’t have to be anything too complicated! Enjoy gathering around the table with others, whip up a few easy dishes, and enjoy quality time with your friends!