We’ve all been at those events that just fell flat, and planning and pulling off a fun dinner party can be harder than it sounded when you first proposed the idea. Hosting a dreary event isn’t just embarrassing; it’ll be painful for you as well as your guests. Assuming hiring an event planner isn’t in budget and you’re not up for renting a yacht—or a bouncy castle, here’s how to keep things fresh without going to far.
Assuming you’re not a hobbyist chef, you’ll want to avoid slaving away in the kitchen all day (or weekend) over handmade works of gourmet art. If you want to pull off a classy, tasty meal without hiring a caterer or calling the pizza guy, prepared foods that just need to be assembled or cooked are the way to go.
The last thing you want to be is exhausted by the time your guests arrive. Prepare as much as possible ahead of time by setting the table and arranging cold foods on platters, pop hot items in the oven, set the timer, and put your feet up and have a glass of wine.
Play with the food
Of course, leaving a little food prep until the guests arrive can be a great strategy in and of itself. The first few minutes of a social gathering can be awkward until the conversation starts flowing and the wine kicks in. Gathering early arrivals around some snacks is a good way to break the ice.
Sushi rolling (with low-risk ingredients such as artificial crab, cucumber, mango, or yam) is a fun group activity. Fondue (cheese or chocolate) is another interactive food experience that eases guests into the social experience.
Use a theme
A well-chosen theme can help inspire décor and meal items while adding a sense of whimsy or style and fun to the evening. Try to gauge the guest list when it comes to choosing a theme. Some groups will do better with subtle and understated, while others will love it if you go all-out.
Minimal touches might include incorporating a color scheme into the table settings or choosing a meaningful centerpiece. Nature-inspired seasonal décor is a good, low-impact design choice. Consider featuring budding branches and spring flowers early in the season, flowers and fruit in summer, gourds and berries in fall, or evergreen branches in winter. Place in a wide, low bowl, on an attractive board or platter, or upright in a vase.
Personalize the décor
Another approach that you can use with or without a full dinner party theme is personalized décor. Cut down on dishes, go eco-friendly, and help guests keep track of their drinks by marking glasses with their name or a distinctive tag. Hand-lettering can be an elegant touch if that’s in your wheelhouse, but simple cursive or printed lettering works just as well.
Liquid chalk pens are great for personalization and customization and the benefit of getting them in liquid form means that you can write on glass without leaving a lasting mark. If you have a mixed crowd of old friends and new, a fun way to make the new guests feel less awkward is to assign silly (or themed) nicknames for the night to keep everyone on their toes.
Even if you don’t feel that encouraging your guests to play with the food sets the right tone for your event, preparing some sort of activity to engage guests and defuse the awkwardness of new arrivals is a good strategy. Look for something low-impact that guests can choose to interact with or avoid depending on their personality and preferences.
A small creative craft like coming up with their own nickname and writing it on their glass or assembling a wine-glass charm can be a nice way to keep the hands busy and avoid initial awkwardness. Trivia or small tabletop games are another popular choice and can sometimes dovetail with your party theme as well.
Throwing a fun dinner party doesn’t have to break the bank or require a degree in project management and planning. Consider your guests when choosing theme or décor, and feel free to take shortcuts in the preparation of food. Look for activities that you can draw guests into as they arrive, whether that’s a some-assembly-required food item, a light craft and a chance to exercise some creativity, or a game. The most important thing is connecting, relaxing, and having a good time, and as a host you can contribute to a more enjoyable dinner party experience by avoiding stress and overwork, being relaxed and having a good time engaging with your guests.