Last week, Idaho moved to stage 4 of the reopening which allows gatherings up to 99 people. After months and months of social distancing, my family of 21 got together for the first time this year! It was also the first dinner party in our new dining room! We embraced the opportunity and dreams came true. And I have to say: Our ideals around entertaining have changed in a post-quarantine world. We appreciate the togetherness even more, and a dinner party feels even more like a big deal.
I shared the play by play of getting ready for the dinner party on Sunday, and my DMs were flooded with questions about everything from hosting to serving to budget to setting the table, so I thought it might be helpful to round up our tips for throwing a big dinner party in 2020, partially because I want to remind myself how to duplicate such a great night (it was so great) and partially because I hope you get to use some of these — and that is to say: I hope you and your family are healthy and getting to gather SOON.
I purchased a dinner party template on Etsy, customized it and sent it to our family text thread. I strongly recommend making an invitation because it helps people take it seriously. We asked everyone to wear “Sunday Dress” because we wanted to go for a slightly more formal vibe (and nicer clothes *also* make people take it more seriously). I started thinking about the invitations I’ve received that have come with suggested attire and remembered how I started planning my outfit before I even decided I was going. Maybe it’s a little nudge in the direction of “Alright, I’m definitely going.”
I put all of this emphasis on getting people to come because there’s nothing more disappointing to me than planning a really fun and delicious dinner party and having people cancel. I think most of the time, we feel like it’s not a big deal. I guess I’m trying to make it into a big deal :)
Get Ready Early
I always get myself ready the morning of a dinner party — at the very least I do my hair. This frees up the rest of the day for party prep and ensures that I’m not throwing my hair up in a bun at the last minute or taking a quick shower while guests are pulling into the driveway. 30 minutes before guests are due to arrive, I change into my party clothes.
I like giving myself plenty of time to set the table, too! I enlisted the help of our two older daughters pulling all the dinnerware and utensils and glasses from the credenza in the dining room where we store all of the “dinner party ware” and although it took us an hour to set the table with helpful little hands, it was so fun to do it together.
When to Plate, Serve Family Style and Plan for a Buffet
While I was on house prep, Chris was on cooking (no surprise there) and made a whole schedule for the day, breaking down the meal prep hour by hour. He planned a buffet-style menu for our 21 guests. As a rule, Chris likes to plate the food for gatherings of less than 10 people. Ten to 15 people usually means we’ll be eating family-style. But 21 definitely calls for a buffet, and we were excited to put the food out on the new “fauxdenza” (still owe you a post on that!) that we installed in the dining room. With a group this large, the passing would get out of hand, and the food would be cold by the time it got to you.
Do As Many Dishes As You Can Before the Party Starts
I’ll sudsy-up all of the pans and utensils that Chris is cooking with, and make sure the dishwasher is empty. Not only will the kitchen look nice for company, but we won’t be starting at ground zero when cleanup time rolls around. My goal is always to have the prep plates and pans cleaned and put away before the party starts.
Go Low on the Flowers, High on the Candles
I bought inexpensive potted flowers at our grocery store and folded paper bags around them for centerpieces. They were stalky and cute and low enough that you could see everyone’s faces over them. I like tall candlesticks and tapers for big dinner parties to avoid the panic of napkins-in-votives (especially with little ones around the table).
Put On a Chill Playlist
When music is on in the background, the energy of the party is in place before anyone even gets there. There will never be an awkward silence–even for the early birds. This night we went for one of Chris’s “slow jams playlist” and it created a warm, comforting ambience.
Shop and Cook Smart
To feed the masses on a budget, Chris made a mouth-watering beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes, grilled carrots, and an abundant green salad with blue cheese crumbles. The entire grocery bill was under $150 (including the apps!) to feed all 21, and we had leftovers. (Entertaining hack: “Splurge” on a generous cut of meat and then fill out the menu with tasty twists on inexpensive sides that go a long way, like potatoes and root vegetables.) Pork tenderloin is even more friendly on the wallet!
Buy Yourself Some Time
In the breakfast nook area, I pulled the chairs out to the wall and set out appetizers. It was an easy way to maneuver around the table and sit and chat if you wanted. Charcuterie buys you one full hour. Cleverly disguised as the cushion for late arrivals and snacks to tide over hungry guests — putting out meats and cheeses and crackers and fruit and pickles and nuts (okay, now I’m hungry) actually gives you bonus time to finish dinner. The grill ran out of pellets, so Chris had to finish the tenderloin in the oven, so this extra time was clutch. Check out this old post on how to make the perfect charcuterie here.
Don’t stress too much about a signature cocktail/mocktail, but have one.
I didn’t take the mixologist Master Class and we don’t drink or serve alcohol, but a special drink served next to a glass of water will make the whole evening feel next level. While everyone was snacking on charcuterie, I poured Newman’s Own Lemonade and Martinelli’s Apple-Pomegranate Sparkling Cider into a fat pitcher with ice. It was tart and fizzy and everyone Mmm’ed their first sip, and I didn’t distill a thing. There were no syrups or garnishes in sight.
Prepare Some Table Talk
Chris and I had spent our date night (the night before the party) taking quizzes and reading up on our Enneagrams. I’m a 3 (The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Driven, and Image-Conscious) and Chris is a 5 (The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated). This was a great conversation-starter (not that my outgoing family needed any help), and before it was time to clear the plates, we were “diagnosing” and reading about everyone’s personality types.
Invest in a Second Dishwasher, but think about saving the Cleanup until Morning
Several of you told us that we might appreciate two dishwashers, but, okay, we believe you. If you love to entertain, like we do, you’ll be loading and unloading the dishwasher a couple times after a party. This first big family party in our new dining room definitely brought into focus the need for a second dishwasher in our someday kitchen renovation. But clearing the table, with so many extra hands around, was easy. (We’ve heard the life hack of using a bar cart to wheel all of the dirty dishes into the kitchen, but to us this bonus piece of furniture doesn’t feel worth it, a tray worked great!) After putting the plates in the dishwasher for round 1, I saved the rest until morning. Chris likes the downtime after cooking all day, and I like to soak up the company. And I like my company not to worry about helping! I *like* cleaning, and is it weird if doing the dishes the morning after feels like a nice time to reminisce?
Chris and I hired a photographer because my family hadn’t all been together since Christmas, and even then — there weren’t mantle-worthy photos taken. Everyone was going to be dressed up, and it felt like a good time to document the year, how big the kids are getting, all of the individual families… No matter your group, I’m betting you haven’t been able to get together a lot this year. And the pandemic really helped us to appreciate the moments when we could make it happen. Take pictures, even if you have to set the timer on your phone. It’ll be a great night to look back on when you’re missing your people.
Stock a basket of S’mores stuff
Chris’s best-laid plan for grilled peaches and ice cream was a no-go since the grill was out of commission, but we pivoted quickly to dessert around the firepit with our S’mores basket. I can’t recommend this with more enthusiasm: In our pantry, we have a large flat basket of graham crackers, marshmallows, Ghirardelli chocolate squares, Reese’s Cups, and telescoping firepit prongs all in one spot that’s easy to grab with the sun starts going down. Everyone has their own take on the best S’mores “recipe” and the best technique. This snacktivity is a crowd-pleaser.
Having our first, big dinner party in our new house and in our new dining room under our belt felt like a dream come true and we learned so much, too. What’s working (that fauxdenza is a work horse! and the lighting is so soft and warm!) and what’s not (definitely could use some felt under the chairs–oops!). But if I could give one piece of advice it would be–it might not be perfect, it probably won’t be (hi, the grill stopped working!), but when the time is right where you live, don’t shoot for perfection, go for getting together.
Wall Color: Alabaster by Sherwin Williams
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