Tips on Hosting a Dinner Party

“That’s what life is all about. Let’s have a party. Let’s have it tonight!” – Lilly Pulitzer

The beautiful illustrations in this section are painted by a very talented friend, Paige Smith Spearin. She is an accomplished illustrator, painter and print designer in NYC. Thank you, Paige! Check out her work! 


  • The key to a great party is having fun. Being prepared lets you be relaxed and able to enjoy, which in return, makes for happy guests.
  • When planning a party, think what kind of evening you want to host – elegant, fancy, casual, potluck, themed… this will create the tone of your event and gives you a direction when getting ready for your guests.
  • Pick your date. Be conscious of holidays and work schedules. Don’t start at 5:30pm if most of your guests work until 6pm and have a commute… this includes you!
  • Select your menu. A meal doesn’t need to be complicated to be fabulous. A delicious simple pasta dish can be just as much of a hit as Boeuf Bourguignon. Also, do not try to tackle all new recipes. If you’re making a new entrée, pair it with side dishes that you are very comfortable with making. In addition, be conscious of cook times, including if two items both need to be in your single oven at different temperatures.
  • Select your wine and cocktails. When selecting your wines, make sure you have enough to serve your guests. A 750ml bottle of wine contains approximately 25.4 ounces, or five glasses of five-ounce pours.


  • Be thoughtful on your guest list. You’re inviting people into your home, so you want to be sure it’s people you enjoy!
  • Mixing & mingling friends is an art. Whether you’re inviting a close-knit group of friends, family, or introducing different groups together, be sure to think of how the group will blend together.
  • In most cases, you want to invite your guests at least a week in advance, depending on the setting of the event you’re hosting.
  • Paper, phone, evite, email or text? No matter which way you decide to invite your guests, you want to evoke the idea that the invitation is something special. You’re inviting them into your home, and it should be viewed by you and your guests as a nod to your friendship. As I once read years ago, inviting someone over for dinner is a way of saying, “I like you”. So treat the evening with respect; be humble but also proud.

Prep the House & Table

  • Clean the house.
  • Make sure the powder room is well supplied – extra toilet paper, soap, lotion, candle, & clean towels.
  • Check all the candles to ensure they all have enough ‘burn’ for the evening.
  • Set the table: follow standard etiquette but add your own flare. White plates are classic and a neutral setting for any meal and really show-off the food. Salad plates, bread & butter plates, napkins & rings, centerpieces, etc. all allow you to showcase your personality and tone for the evening. Have fun with it!
  • Stemware: If you’re serving both red and white wine, you will need glasses for each. Also be sure to have water glasses, as well as water pitchers on the table.

Party Prep

  • Grocery shop the day before, except for fresh fish – you’ll want to get that the day of your dinner party.
  • As much as you can, try to have an empty dishwasher at the start of the party. This will make the clean-up at the end of the evening so much easier. You’ll thank yourself as the night goes-on.
  • Take out the trash before your guests arrive.
  • The appetizers should be out and ready to eat when your guests walk in the door.
  • Have a couple bottles of wine open & ready to pour.
  • Fill the water glasses on the table before your guests arrive.
  • Chill your wine, beer, and other drinks.
  • If you’re serving cocktails that would benefit from having fruit garnishes, have them prepared. Slice limes, lemons, oranges in advance and place in small bowls with small serving utensils. Place them in their serving dishes covered in the refrigerator.
  • Ice. Even if you have an ice dispenser, it’s always wise to have an extra bag of ice in the freezer.

Setting the Mood

  • Music! Nothing is more awkward than dead silence at a party. Keep the volume at a level that fills the room, but still allows people to have a normal conversation. Need playlist ideas? Check out Pandora and Spotify for every kind of genre or mood you could imagine.
  • Light candles after the sun sets. You can never have too many candles (personally, I recommend non-scented, though.) Just be sure to blow them all out at the end of the evening!
  • Mood-lighting…Dim the lights.
  • Fresh Flowers – they really do make people happy and they’re an easy way to dress up a table, room, bathroom, etc.
  • Colors – it’s your party. Paint your vision with splashes of color. Napkins, placemats, salad plates, flowers, vases… your options are unlimited.
  • Cocktail Napkins can be very beautiful decorative enhancements at a party, while also being useful.  They can also be a great way to display your sense of humor & wit, as well as conversation-starters. Know your crowd though when picking a possible controversial napkin.

Suggestions for the Host & Hostess

  • Be dressed an hour before the guest arrive. This is more difficult than it sounds. But try as nothing is more stressful than realizing your doorbell is about to ring and you’re still in just your apron. I may be speaking from experience.
  • Dress-up. As the host, you’re allowed to be dressed dressier than your guests. This does not mean put on a ballgown, but a summer dress is appropriate if you told your guests casual. You can also be casual, but it’s respectful to be dressed nice for your guests.
  • Greet your guests at the door!
  • If a guest brings a gift, be sure to make a mental note of who brought what – smaller dinner parties often mean no card attached, and you want to be sure you can send a proper thank you after the party.
  • Be relaxed! And have fun! If you’re stressed, your guests will be stressed. So be sure to be well prepped so you can actually enjoy hosting your guests. After all, a party is supposed to be fun, not work.

Etiquette as a Guest

  • Respond to the invitation! This sounds so simple, but it’s shocking in today’s world how many people just don’t respond. Respect the host and get back to them in a timely manner. Even if the initial response is a “maybe” due to waiting on work-travel plans or finding a babysitter, give them the curtesy of acknowledging the invitation. But let them know soon after if you’ll be attending or not.
  • Dress respectfully. If your host did not give you guidelines on what to wear, always air on the side of dressier. A casual dress or nice slacks are never wrong. No large print t-shirts. No hats unless it’s an afternoon bbq.
  • Be on time. Your host has worked hard, and if you’re extremely late, it will throw-off the timeline of the evening. If you are running behind though, let the host know.
  • Never show up empty-handed. Even if you pick a flower out of your yard while jumping in the car, it’s nice to recognize the effort your host has made planning the evening. Other ideas: bottle of wine, cocktail napkins, fresh baked cookies or bread, speciality tea or coffee, a candle, chic powder room soaps, or a bar bell!
  • Offer to help. The help may be declined, but it’s always kind to offer.
  • Take queues at the end of the evening if the host is signaling the evening is over. Obvious signs they want you out? Music is turned off, wine or coffee is no longer being served, lights have been turned up on their dimmers (or off!), conversation is not being pro-longed by the host, the host is asleep on the couch (and yes, this did happen).
  • Send a hand-written thank you card after the dinner party.
  • Have fun!

“You are only as strong as the drinks you mix, the tables you dance on, and the friends you party with”


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