Hosting a dinner party and entertaining at home

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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!

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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.

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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!

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

styling by Stephanie Shaul Events

first written for the McAlister-Leftwich blog

Hosting a Dinner Party

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stunning
1. Choose your theme
What kind of party do you want to have or envision hosting? Before I do anything else, I plan some sort of theme to build my party around. I love hosting unique or seasonally appropriate or festive parties and soirees, and there is such a vast array of types of dinner parties you can throw. Do you want to embrace the elements or the season? You can throw a any type of dinner party focusing on nature or a beach-front dinner party or a rustic dinner party. Is it for a specific purpose, like a wedding shower or birthday? Think of the person you’re throwing a dinner party for and go from there! You can choose a tea party or a “favorite things” dinner party or base it around something personal and festive! If there’s something in entertainment that you love, consider hosting a Mad Men dinner party or a Downton Abbey (my next party!) soiree. There is an endless array of themes and ideas to choose from, and all it takes is a little creativity and a little inspiration to get your party on the right track!
wisteria setting.. this is stunning
2. Choose your guests or audience
For a sit-down dinner party, inviting six to eight guests is an ideal number. Of course, more or less is always fun – but ensure that it’s a somewhat-cohesive group of people. It’s fun for guests to mix and mingle, and choose your group of friends with your theme in mind, too! Dinner parties are a wonderful way to get to know others with similar interests, to expand friend groups, and to enjoy one another’s company in this particular setting. I love dinner parties, in particular, because it’s nice to see the whole group at once, and having six to eight people around a table is ideal for ensuring that you get to speak with everyone – and that everyone can be heard!
3. Find a date that works best for everyone
Finding a date that works best for everyone on your guest list can often be the toughest part of planning your dinner party! Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to find an evening when all guests are free, but persevere! There are many online sites that make scheduling/seeing other people’s availability easy. You can either check beforehand to find a date and time that works for all of your guests, or you can send out invitations (verbal, electronic, or paper – my favorite option!) ahead of time & hope that your guests aren’t already booked that far out.
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4. Set a budget for your dinner party
If needed, don’t forget to set a budget for your dinner party. Think about how much you want to spend, and try to keep all costs (food, drinks, decor, etc) in mind as you make purchases and decide what you do and don’t need. It can, of course, add up quickly to serve a sit-down dinner (if that’s what you’re doing) for your guests. But there are many ways to be frugal when hostessing! Selecting a menu that’s meant to be both delicious and inexpensive is a great place to begin. You may just want to have a great main dish that doesn’t require a lot of side dishes or might require some easy and inexpensive side dishes. If you’re serving alcohol, you could make one signature cocktail for the evening or serve wines from Trader Joe’s (which often run between $4-6 per bottle!). Think creatively when it comes to decor and table settings, as there are numerous frugal ways in which you can design beautiful place setting or tablescapes without breaking the bank. You can buy grocery store flowers, take the bouquets apart, and arrange them in new vases to spread out the flowers. Or you can even throw a potluck dinner party to cut costs but increase the amount of great, unique food! There are endless ways to entertain and host on a budget, thankfully!
Print at home Fox To Do List by Julianna Swaney
5. Dinner table
Oh this is one of my favorite parts of throwing a dinner party – setting the table and creating a fabulous tablescape! You want to ensure you have a long enough table for all of your guests to sit comfortably around, so bring in extra tables if needed! You can also get creative with seating – bring in chairs from around your house (mismatched is totally acceptable and even trendy!) or even use a bench to account for plenty of seating. I love to assign seats for a dinner party (not seating couples next to one another, pairing people with similar interests together, ensuring that each end of the table is balanced with louder and quieter folks, etc). And, of course, you need a creative place setting/place card for each guest! You can get creative with place cards, and the table setting is such a fun way to broaden your creativity and really think about your evening as a whole. Next, ensure you have all of the glasses, utensils, plates, bowls, etc for your dinner party! And then scatter candles, flowers, decor, vases, and anything else that complements your theme throughout the table. I seriously adore coming up with unique, fun, festive, and fabulous decor ideas for the dinner table, and you can look to anything for inspiration! Fresh flowers and candles are key, though.
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6. Setting the mood/atmosphere
This step is directly related to the one above, and setting the mood or atmosphere of your dinner party is one of the crucial elements of a successful event. Think about lighting (dimmer lights, candles, string lights, chandeliers) so that your dinner party evokes the effect you’re going for – no one wants fluorescent lighting at a nice dinner! Soft lighting (again, string lights or candles) offer a great and inexpensive option to really set the mood. 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. Background music (make a playlist, crank up Spotify or Pandora, or find the best channel) is also an excellent way to set the mood.
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7. Have one memorable or unique element to remember the party by
Give your guests something to talk about! You want to ensure your dinner party or soiree is memorable, so be creative in creating a unique element or memorable event that will be talked about and admired.
Live jazz trio? A really special venue instead of your dining room? A huge balloon to set the scene? A fun activity or event after dinner is over? A fabulous party favor for each guest? Hire a catering team? Have fun with this!
Love Gold Foil Balloon from Confetti and Sparkle Party Shop
8. Choose the food, make a fun menu, begin shopping, and lay out your schedule for getting it all done
Planning ahead and making lists are key! Stick to your theme, find the easiest (but still the best!) menu items, and then get started with the shopping and setting your schedule for getting it all finished without a frantic day-of shopping trip.
framed chalkboard menu
9. Have at least one fabulous dessert
This one speaks for itself, but make sure you have a a delicious, showstopping dessert on hand to serve to your guests (homemade or store-bought – totally your call!). I love a beautiful presentation, too; it makes your guests feel special and well taken care of.
lovely dessert presentation....
10. Signature cocktail
Oftentimes, it’s easier just to serve one or two signature cocktails instead of a plethora of drinks. You can also just serve one or two types of wine, but I think signature cocktails have such pizzazz and really liven things up. Plus, you can get creative with what you make (keeping the theme in mind!), thinking of a great name for your drinks, making signage or pretty decor, and then serving it in a beautiful presentation.
sparkling strawberry lemonade
11. Other drinks 
Of course, be sure to provide other (non-alcoholic) drinks, too! I always serve water with lemons in my favorite drink dispenser, and it’s not hard to have a pretty presentation for your drinks. Mint lemonade, mint water, lemon (or any fresh fruit) water, or sparkling water are all great accompaniments to provide during any dinner party.
old wine bottles for serving
12. Imagine the flow of the evening to see what’s missing… or if you need to allow more time for mingling and socializing.
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 celebrate 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. But enjoy it, mostly! Allow ample time for socializing and mixing & mingling in a relaxed, comfortable, joyful atmosphere – this is key to a successful, memorable soiree!
Icelandic Poppies
13. Day-of preparations
Make that list and check it twice! Try to get as much finished before the day of your dinner party so that you feel less frazzled and frantic. Then make an hour-by-hour game plan for getting everything done. Pick up fresh flowers, run to get any last-minute grocery items, prep & prepare your food and drinks, ensure your home is clean, finish setting the table and decorating, and begin getting ready for the main event! 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?!
An Elegant Garden Party | those hanging lights + bright flower arrangements!
14. Throw on your perfect dinner party dress or outfit & awesome shoes!
Be sure you’re ready at least thirty minutes before guests are slated to arrive so that you’re not running around like crazy at the last minute. And have some fun dressing up!
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15. Enjoy!
Really – one of the most critical components of successful dinner party is for the host or hostess to enjoy the party, which, in turn, allows the guests to feel relaxed, welcomed, and to better enjoy themselves! Have FUN and savor a special time with great friends.
memories