CASUAL DINNER PARTY - Tips & Inspiration for a Successful Gathering of Friends

Holiday Themed Party Table Setting

BREAK THE ICE
     If your being casual, have cocktails and appetizers in another room like a den, living room or patio.  Then when people are acquainted, let diners choose their own spots at the table(s) and switch it up as the night goes on. To help spark conversation, leave a quirky knicknack on each place setting -- discussing who got what should get them chatting.  **Note, it will make your dinner feel a bit more formal if you arrange the seating and use place cards on the table.  In this way you are able to adjust the seating so people who have things/friends in common will sit together.  You can pick these up in just about any theme at Party City.
START THINGS RIGHT
     Leave a few open bottles of wine or champagne -- or a tray of Sparkling Bourbon or Vodka Cocktails -- on a table in the entrance or main mingling area. A help-yourself bar immediately sets the vibe; no fussy formalities here!
GUEST-LIST INSPIRATION
     Invite your friends with plus-ones, especially if they are people you've never met before. Everyone will be more at ease if they have one familiar buddy in the room. Bonus: You can leave the obligatory introductions to your guest-toting friends.
     Remember your favorite acquaintances -- neighbors you meet while walking the dog, a co-worker you chat with on break, the lady who always makes you laugh at the gym. Next time you bump into each other, go ahead and extend an invite.  You will be surprised at the response.
     Use social media to be, well, more social. Find a friend on Facebook whom you haven't chatted with (away from a computer) in a while and ask them to catch up in person. Even if it's been months or years since your last meeting, reconnecting may spark great friendships.

GENERAL PARTY TIPS

FOOD:  Think carefully through the entire party menu. If you have only one oven, don't plan two baked dishes that require different cooking temperatures that need to be baked just before serving. If you are able to bake them ahead of time however, do so, then you can heat them up in the microwave and with a quick minute or 2 under the broiler its like you just made them!  Match your food to the type of service too. Foods for a sit down dinner party may be difficult to handle at a buffet.  Its not always true that if you cook the foods you love, your guests will love it too, so if you love spicy hot foods feel free to make them, but make an alternative with a little less kick for those with a milder taste.  Always have a salad with dressing on the side for those watching their calories. Remember a soup: In the winter it will stay hot in a crockpot; in the summer you can serve a cool gazpacho.  A pasta course is also a quick easy & plan for a sit down dinner, as you can have your sauce prepared ahead of time and kept warm until you are ready to cook the pasta and toss it together.  Then, all that leaves for you is your main meat/fish course.
COUNTDOWN: Now plan your countdown. Block out time on your calendar for house cleaning, shopping, decorating, and setting the table. Make sure to save some time before the party so you can get ready and relax before your guests arrive. Check which recipes can be made ahead, and make sure you have freezer or refrigerator space to store them!
•Go over your menu, gather your recipes, and plan shopping lists directly from the recipes. Don't rely on your memory for this! Check your pantry too. If you are low on staples like baking powder, sugar, or flour, add those to your list.
•Shop for foods and supplies that can be purchased in advance (like staples), those that need to be bought the week of the party or special ordered, and the last minute purchases like fresh berries.  At the same time, do your shopping for staples, like napkins, paper towels, and cleaning equipment, well ahead of time.
•Plan for heavy cleaning, if needed, well ahead of party time. If you need carpets shampooed or windows washed, take care of those chores at least a week ahead of time.
•Write down a timetable for the day of the party, counting back from party time. Leave plenty of time for food preparation, baking, cooling and decorating, setting the table, arranging flowers, planning music or games, and getting yourself and family ready!
•Clean, clean, clean! A clean house is not only welcoming, but you will feel more comfortable knowing that a guest isn't going to come upon an unexpected mess. The kitchen and bathroom are the rooms to pay special attention to.  Clean out your medicine cabinet -- people really do peek.
•Setting and decorating the table and the dining room for your party is the fun part. So set it a day or two ahead of time. A couple of days before your party, go over everything again to make sure you have all you'll need and that your timing is correct. There's nothing worse than realizing that you don't have an essential ingredient or serving utensils. You can prevent all of that with some planning.

Large Dinner Party: Buffet Style (Perfect for Holiday Gatherings)

You can set up a Buffet just about anywhere

     This is the one that intimidates many people.  What to you do when you have to entertain 20 or 30 in your house? Seating? Table Settings? Food?  We can take you through it step by step with this planner adapted from on originally published in Hearst Communications, Inc.
Time table
4 Weeks Ahead:
•Mail or Personally deliver the invitations.
•Keep a written guest list.
•Plan the menu: make ahead items such as salads, foods that can be served cold or at room temperature.
• Review cooking & serving equipment, warming trays or crock pots are good here.
•If needed, arrange for help with serving, or cleanup, and rent coat racks.
3 Weeks Ahead
•Buy nonperishables, disposable items, liquor, nonalcoholic beverages, and mixers.
•Decide where your buffet table will be located and where your guests will sit.  A number of smaller cocktail or snack tables and chairs placed strategically throughout certain rooms will help your flow of traffic.
•Clean and iron any linens you are using, or purchase table coverings & utensils.
•Order any grocery or butcher items.
2 Weeks Ahead
•Cook and freeze foods such as desserts, breads, and casseroles.
•If your party is outdoors, be sure you have rented a tent and resolved and gardening issues.   
•Do any major housecleaning.
•Polish silver if needed.
•Begin making ice.
•Order flowers, if you are using fresh for your tables.
2 Days Ahead
•Set your Buffet table: Plates, Salads, Entrees, Sides, then napkins & utensils.
•Set up the Bar away from the Buffet so you don't jam up one section of the room. Be sure you have enough glass or plastic ware, and condiments at the Bar.
•Set up the music.
•Clean the rooms where the party will be held, and rearrange furniture as
necessary.
•Begin making food or portions of recipes such as pasta or potato salads,
crudité dips, and some desserts.
•Post a last-minute itemized checklist.
•Label platters and set out serving utensils.
1 Day Ahead
•Draw a timetable of what needs to be cooked and served when.
•Shop for perishable foods.
•Do bulk of cooking.
•Pick up and arrange flowers (or whatever centerpiece you are using)
•Call all helpers and give each explicit instructions.
Day of the Party
•Arrange ice and fruit for the bar;  Finish cooking; prepare trays of appetizers and place in seating areas; while guests are mingling and drinking, place food on buffet table. Enjoy your party and your guests.  Dessert and coffee can wait; have a separate table set up and just turn on the coffee when ready (or have a do it yourself with a Keurig type of coffee machine). 

  • Buffet Table, Small Space

  • Buffet Utensils Set Up

  • Buffet Table Set Up

Elegant Sit Down Dinner

     Every hostess owes it to herself and her reputation to give at least one “all-out” dinner party every year.  The kind of “no-holds-barred” performance, where you forget the cost, the trouble, or whatever you usually use as the excuse for not entertaining in the grand manner. Once you decide to do it, you get caught up in the excitement, and afterward you are full of that precious commodity called self-satisfaction.  Of course, if you don't like to cook, do not do this!
     A super-deluxe, elegant dinner party primarily takes careful planning.  You will want at least three courses (appetizer, main & dessert) and preferably four (1. appetizer or salad, 2. fish or pasta, 3. meat & vegetable, and 4. dessert)   So you must give careful consideration about what to serve & where, and how to present your food in the most sensational manner.  

     When you finish with the guides below, I have added some photos of easy yet beautiful table setting ideas for the upcoming holidays.  Most of these are the ones that make you life simple and entertaining easy.  Combining paper and plastic gives you the most beautiful designs, and although it may not be "green" it sure saves you clean-up time later.  Enjoy! 

Where to Set Everything Up
     Although some hosts or hostesses prefer to serve different courses in different rooms, I believe that becomes annoying for your guests.  Personally, the most I do is serve an appetizer and cocktails in a more casual setting (den, living room or patio).  This gives you more time to prepare your dining table & last minute main courses. Then stick with your second and third courses at the dining room table.  Your guests will feel more comfortable and everyone can sit and enjoy at their leisure.  If you must move again, you can have dessert and after dinner drinks set up elsewhere.              

Since our concern is the desire to have the party run smoothly, these methods will help you have an effortless dinner party.  You can serve elegantly no matter what your cooking level or budget, as long as you prepare.  Just be sure you purchase good quality meats & fish, and fresh vegetables.  It may be easy to run up a bill on the cooking level. But any lavish feast is a bit expensive.  If you start gathering in the goodies ahead of the time you can spread the strain over the groaning budget.
     Planning an entertaining menu and an evening with guests can be quite intimidating. But with these tips and some planning, you will have a wonderful time at your own party! Here you will find basic party tips, then we will show you some menu plans.

How to Plan a Dinner Party: On Your Mark!
•First decide on the date of your party, guest list, and theme. If you choose to entertain around a holiday, many of your decisions will be easier, if you incorporate traditional decorations and food. Invite guests to your party early, preferably two or more weeks ahead of time. This will give them
time to RSVP and will give you more time to plan. The comfort of your guests is your primary goal, so think about compatibility, tastes, ages, and the ambiance you want to create.
•Make a realistic assessment of your cooking and baking skill levels, and the time you'll be able to commit to the party. There are ways to make things easier - some basic takeout and deli foods are absolutely acceptable (appetizers).  You can have a cookout, picnic, or a potluck party if you are really busy - but it does defeat the purpose of your elegant party.   A sit down dinner party is more formal than a cookout or a buffet, so think carefully about what type of party makes you the most comfortable.
•Get ready to make lists! Lists are absolutely essential for any party, as you can jot things down as you think of them. Once you have the basics well planned and written down, your mind will be free to be creative with the food, fun, and decor.
•Make your guest list and invite them. Calling is the easiest way to invite, and you will most likely get an immediate response. Another advantage of calling is you can ask (as I always do) if your guests have any food allergies or preferences. For larger parties, like a surprise birthday party, you can send out invitations.
•Plan your menu. Have fun with this, but don't overreach! If you are a beginning cook, choose a main dish that you have made before and enjoy, then build upon it by buying dessert, make a salad with fresh greens & vegetables, an easy vinaigrette, and some fabulous crusty bakery bread. It's a good idea to never make a recipe for the first time for a party. There's nothing worse than struggling with an unfamiliar recipe when you can hear your guests having fun in the next room! Try to plan a mix of make ahead recipes and those that require last minute baking or preparation. I really prefer having everything done, and ready to just pull out of the fridge and serve, or pop in the oven or on the grill.
•Take inventory of your supplies: table and chairs, serving pieces, cutlery, crystal, plates, candlesticks, serving areas, and of course your kitchen.
Think about renting or borrowing items you don't have. Make sure the things you own are sparkling clean and in good repair.
•Think about how you want to decorate. Decorations for a party can be as simple as candlesticks on the table, or more elaborate streamers, balloons, flower arrangements, tablecloths, and even chair slipcovers. Decorate with the seasons too. Fresh flowers in the summer, a bowl full of polished apples and spruce twigs in the winter, or a vase with colorful leaves and cattails in the fall are simple, inexpensive, and beautiful.
Get Set for the Party
•Think carefully through the entire party menu. If you have only one oven, don't plan two baked dishes that require different cooking temperatures needing to be baked just before serving. Match your food to the type of service. Foods for a sit down dinner party may be difficult to handle at a
buffet. 
•Now plan your countdown. Block out time on your calendar for house cleaning, shopping, decorating, and setting the table. Make sure to save some time before the party so you can get ready and relax before your guests arrive. Check which recipes can be made ahead, and make sure you have freezer or refrigerator space to store them!
•Go over your menu, gather your recipes, and plan shopping lists directly from the recipes. Don't rely on your memory for this! Check your pantry too. If you are low on staples like baking powder, sugar, or flour, add those to your list.
•Shop for foods and supplies that can be purchased in advance (like staples), those that need to be bought the week of the party or special ordered, and the last minute purchases like fresh berries.
•Write down a timetable for the day of the party, counting back from party time. Leave plenty of time for food preparation, baking, cooling and decorating, setting the table, arranging flowers, planning music or games,
and getting yourself and family ready!
•You can shop for staples, like napkins, paper towels, and cleaning equipment, well ahead of time.
•A clean house is not only welcoming, but you will feel more comfortable knowing that a guest isn't going to come upon an unexpected mess. Pay specal attention to the kitchen and bathroom.
•Setting and decorating the table and the dining room for your party is essential, so set it a few days ahead of time. On the day or two right before your party, it's a good idea to go over everything again to make sure you have all you'll need and that your timing is correct.  You can prevent all of that with some planning.
 Go!
•Don't be afraid to ask for help when planning your party. From the butcher at the grocery store to the florist, most people are happy to give advice. Think about hiring a high school student for help ahead of time with cleaning or shopping, or even help in the kitchen the day of the party.
•Shop first. If you buy as much as possible well ahead of party time, you will be assured of best quality as well as a well-stocked pantry. You may have to revise the party menu if you can't find certain ingredients, and if you don't want to do this, you may have to order foods.
•Write down all of the recipes you'll be making for the party, and the time it takes to make and bake, or chill or freeze them. Then count backward from serving time and decide when you want to start preparing the food. It's best to choose some recipes that can be made well ahead of time, and are just served cold or at room temperature, or heated at the last minute. Planning this well will help make sure that all of the foods are ready to eat at serving time.
•Follow your timetable, go over lists and make sure to check off each task or the party as you complete it.
•Set out each serving dish along with its utensil and place a small card next to it with the name of the food that it will hold. This way you can calmly take foods out of the oven or fridge and just place on the serving tray, then start eating!
•Try to plan so you have very little to do on the actual day of the party. Take time to relax, take a bubble bath, go for a stroll, or sit in your beautiful, clean house and enjoy before the guests arrive.
•And have fun! A relaxed host and hostess are key to the best party. If you're enjoying yourself, your guests will be happy and relaxed too.

SAMPLE PARTY MENUS

Shrimp Scampi:
http://jonsullivan.com/recipes/scampi.php

     Although the summer is over, one of my favorite party menus is the SLIDER BUFFET.  Its simple, fun, and everyone loves it. Recently I did it on New Year's Eve and, 'tho you have to brave a little cold, everyone was thrilled. Sliders are mini-burgers, and can be made with any ground meat and in any flavor combination. You can buy them in any good market.  I used beef sliders, chicken sliders and turkey sliders.  I also made boneless chicken thighs & mini hot dogs.  They sell slider buns for the burgers and dogs everywhere now.  You can cook dozens on the grill at one time, just before you're ready to eat.  Keep them warm on a warming tray or in a crockpot. Your table can be ready with lots of different toppings as a condiment bar and serve then along with an assortment of salads you've made ahead.  It doesn't get easier than that. 

     ROAST CHICKEN DINNER MENU
Everybody loves chicken, and when it's roasted with lemon and garlic, the skin becomes crisp and flavorful, the meat is tender and juicy, and the pan juices are rich and savory. This is one of the easiest elegant dinner menus. You can make the creamy potato casserole ahead of time and store it in the fridge until it's time to bake it. The fresh fruit salad can also be made
ahead and stored in the refrigerator, tightly covered.
•Roast Chicken
This super easy recipe only requires one thing of you: a meat thermometer. For safety's sake, the internal temperature must register 180 degrees in the thickest part of the thigh. Let the chicken stand for 10 minutes before carving, then serve with the pan juices.
•Creamy Hash Brown Casserole
This casserole is just plain delicious. It's creamy, cheesy, tender, and meltingly wonderful; the perfect complement to roast chicken.
•Tender Asparagus
Fresh asparagus is pretty easy to find this time of year. If you can't find any that looks good, just substitute frozen asparagus (not canned!) and follow the package directions for cooking.
•Crusty Mini-Loaves
Place one of these mini loaves on a bread board with a serrated knife for two people; then let them cut their own slices.
•Fresh Fruit Salad with Poppyseed Dressing
Use the best and most beautiful fresh fruits you can find in this gorgeous salad.
*pick your dessert according to your baking ability.

     SHRIMP SCAMPI MENU
•Parmesan Straws
Make these delicious, melting appetizers the day before your party. Follow the directions for thawing the puff pastry carefully.
•Quick Shrimp Scampi
The centerpiece for your meal is a very indulgent recipe, but that's okay; it's the holidays! If you can find fresh unfrozen shrimp, they should smell sweet and like the ocean. However, most shrimp is sold frozen; put the shrimp in the freezer right away when you get home from shopping. Defrost it in the fridge during the day of your party.
•Rice Pilaf
This foolproof recipe will become a staple in your repertoire. The broth is at the boiling point when added to the rice, which shortens the cooking time and ensures that every grain absorbs the liquid.
•Roasted Asparagus
Asparagus tastes best when prepared simply. This super easy recipe brings out its sweetness and tender texture.
•Pear and Greens Salad
Buy the pears a few days ahead of time and store them at room temperature, all together in a brown paper bag. I like my pears to be soft for this elegant sweet and crunchy salad.
•Toasted Garlic Bread
Garlic bread is the traditional accompaniment to Shrimp Scampi. This recipe combines butter and olive oil for a depth of flavor not found in most recipes.

     BEEF DINNER MENU
You can pan sear and roast a whole herb crusted filet mignon for an extravagant main course, or if you are on a tight budget, Beef stroganoff is one of the best crockpot dishes around. The meat is beautifully tender, the sauce rich and thick, and there's almost no work for you at all! This is one of the easiest holiday dishes there is.
•Filo Onion Rolls
These beautiful little appetizers are perfectly crunchy and creamy at the same time. Your guests will love them. Make them a few days ahead and store in your freezer, to pop into the oven when your guests arrive.
•Crockpot Beef Stroganoff
This is an excellent crockpot recipe. It's rich and elegant, but so easy to make. The rich sauce and melting beef are perfectly accented with onions, mushrooms, and marjoram.
•Buttered Noodles
Egg noodles are the traditional accompaniment to Beef Stroganoff. They cook in just a few minutes.
•Buttered Baby Carrots
Simple and sweet carrots are the best accompaniment to such a rich main dish.
•Parker House Rolls
These are the best dinner rolls ever. They can be made ahead of time; just reheat in the microwave for a few seconds per roll. You can also purchase rolls if you don't want to make them yourself; but please, try these rolls at least once in your lifetime!
•Endive, Pea, and Avocado Salad
This recipe combines some of my favorite flavors. The bitter and crunchy endive combined with sweet peas and buttery smooth avocado makes a wonderful salad.

  • Thanksgiving is the time in our family to take out the good china. This past year, we used thick felt placemats shaped like leaves to decorate the table. This make it much easier come serving time to not have to scramble for hot plates!

  • A Fall soup is a perfect first course, since we skip appetizers on this day. These wonderful covered soup bowls from Williams Sonoma are perfect for a soup & salad. We just clear away the covers right into the dishwasher, use the cup for the soup, and the leaf plate for salad. All that's washing while you're relaxing with the main course

  • (Don't focus on the food - it was just a late nite New Years Buffet) But here you see what to do when unexpected company is coming and your last beige damask table cloth is stained. On top of it is a sheer swag (the kind you use over a window or a drapery lining). I had it over the drapes in my bedroom. Talk about re-purposing! It works perfectly and we all have one somewhere in the house. Now I keep a few generic ones on hand.

  • These Christmas table settings show you what wonders you can do with plastic. Take your choice of paper design, and cover it with your basic Chinet Clear Plastic. Voila'! Instant Christmas China

  • Another example, this one from my generous cousin who makes the best meatballs on Christmas, of what can be done with plastic and a little imagination!!!

  • One of my favorite demonstrations of what you can do with paper & plastic.

  • ...speaking of those famous meatballs I mentioned, this photo demonstrates just how far a change of linen and gold or silver chargers can change the look of your table. Thanks Dolores!

  • We can't forget an Easter tablescape: Beautifully designed dishes with clear chinet, over a pastel sage table cloth. A vase of tulips and you are covered!

  • When you have as many kids as I do, every holiday is an excuse to celebrate, so: St. Patrick's Day, in paper & plastic. Note: In most of these photos even the silverware is "silver" plastic-ware!