Susan Spungen Dishes On How To Create a Timeline for Your Dinner Party

By Carolyn Stine January 8, 2019 

I want to throw a dinner party… now what? We’ve thought this thought more times than we would care to admit. One of the most challenging elements of a dinner party is that, while we love attending them, planning for the party can be the most intimidating part. Hosting friends for cocktails and apps is one thing, but how do we plan for a full-blown seated dinner? If only there was some sort of dinner party fairy godmother who could swoop in and tell us exactly what to make, and when, and how.

Challenge accepted. We found our very own, real-life dinner party fairy godmother in Susan Spungen. Not only was she the food editor for Martha Stewart Living for twelve years, but she is an author on the subject of all things entertaining (check out her most recent book, What’s a Hostess to Do? and you’ll see what we’re talking about). She’s spent her life trying to figure out how best to be prepared for a party, and we enlisted her to help us created a timetable so that you’re locked and loaded for a 2019 full of well-planned and well-executed dinner parties at home.

Q

Let’s be honest - hosting a dinner party can seem a bit daunting. How can we think about hosting in the least stressful way possible?

A

The most important thing to remember is that, at the end of the day, a dinner party can be as simple as you want it to be. The point is to gather people together over a good meal, and that shouldn’t be an intimidating thing. Set the tone ahead of time and let your friends know what kind of party you want to have. It can be as simple as serving an amazing soup and some crusty bread - we need to get away from the idea that all dinner parties have to be a fancy to-do.

One thing I always try to remind people of is to cook at their skill level, and not to be afraid of buying prepared elements. Don’t try something new and cook to impress if you’re not a regular cook. Go with something you know, a recipe you’ve made before or that your mom made at home while you were growing up. Also, don’t forget that you can buy dessert from your favorite bakery, or buy some beautiful cheese to serve during cocktail hour. It’s ok to incorporate these pre-made elements into your experience.

Q

Let’s lay out a timetable for your dinner party, from when you first decide that you want to host through the actual dinner party itself! I’ve decided I want to host a dinner party - where do I start?

A

The two most important things to think about first are your date, your people, and your menu. Get your guest list together, pick a date, and send your invitations. Six to eight people is normally the perfect dinner party size. Once you have the final number locked down, ask yourself what kind of group this is, and what will they like to eat and drink. Are there any guests with dietary restrictions? Any vegetarians? You’ll want to ask ahead about guests who you don’t know well, such as a friend’s new significant other.

Given that it’s winter time, some of my favorite, easiest dishes to make for a dinner party are braises. Think beef bourguignon, baked meatballs, short ribs, and chicken thighs. Braised meat dishes are very forgiving and almost impossible to mess up, plus you can make them days ahead in a cast iron dutch oven. Fish can be a bit trickier, as you can’t make it in advance.

When choosing recipes, I normally turn to cookbooks, magazines, and bloggers that I trust as sources. If you’re looking at a new recipe on a blog, always check the comments. You’ll be able to find out quickly if people are having trouble with a recipe, and then you can choose another.

The week before...

This is when you want to finalize your menu and the recipes you want to make. Scan all of your recipes and ask yourself if you can get the ingredients at your local grocery store or not. Make your grocery list - I love using the notes app on my iPhone so I can add to it on the fly. This is when you want to source any unusual ingredients that will require a trip to a speciality store, and you can start buying perishables now too.

Also, I like to buy any wine I want to serve the week before, so I can either pick it up or arrange to have it delivered ahead of time.

The week of...

This is the time to buy all of your fresh ingredients, such as your meat and veggies. You can also start prepping and cooking ahead. If you’re planning to serve cookies for dessert, make the dough in advance and freeze it. If you’re making a braise, you can do that 2-3 days ahead of the dinner party. Triple check your menu, recipes, and grocery list and start checking items off your list!

The day before...

This is when you want to finish up all of the cooking and prepping that you can do in advance. I’ll normally wash and store my salad greens the day before so they’re ready to go the day of. If I’m baking a cake, I’ll bake it the day before, then wait to ice it until the day of.

Also, this is a great time to buy and arrange any flowers you plan to have out on display. They normally look better after they’ve been in water for a little while. Also, pull out your candles and check the wicks so you don’t have to worry about them to day of. If you are using a dining room table, set the table in advance, or at least start setting things out that you plan to use, such as your cloth napkins and servingware.

The day of...

My biggest tip is get anything messy or smelly out of the way early in the day. Get as much done and cleaned up and put away as possible before guests start arriving so that you can leave yourself time to relax and get ready. You can save a few things to do as guests arrive that are not labor intensive, such as toasting nuts or whipping together a salad dressing. Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of your significant other (if you have one!) to have them put out the snack spread or cheeses for cocktail hour.

As the guests arrive...

Make sure that the music is on, the lighting is correct, candles are lit, and the snacks are out and ready. I always like to serve something during cocktail hour, but want to make sure that guests are still hungry for dinner. It can be as simple as olives and nuts and chips, and maybe one cheese. I don’t like to do a giant cheese plate during cocktail hour because guests tend to fill up on that.

I also like to have something in the oven or toasting when guests arrive so that the house smells yummy and inviting. Think homemade cheese biscuits, or a chocolate-y dessert.

Q

What’s the proper timetable and flow of the dinner party itself?

A

Guests will normally arrive between 15 and 30 minutes from the time that the invitation says. So for example, if the invite says 7pm, I’ll usually give an hour or so for cocktail hour, and we will sit down for dinner around 8-8:30. You can give yourself some flexibility based on how prompt your guests are.

Dinner will be at least an hour, but guests tend to linger at the table. You can serve dishes in courses if you want dinner to last longer, but I tend to serve everything at once.

I like to wait an hour, hour and a half before serving dessert. You can feel this out - if conversation is going strong, serve dessert at the table. If you feel like the group could use a change of scenery, suggest that you move to the living room for dessert, and offer coffee and after dinner drinks.

Q

What are some of your favorite dishes to cook and serve at a dinner party?

A

My absolute favorite at this time of year is beef bourguignon - it’s a classic that never goes out of style. Italian food is always a big hit as well. I’ll do gnocchi with a sauce that be made in advance, such as a veal ragu.

I would caution against doing anything a la minute. If you’re cooking at the last minute, it can be smelly, messy, and stressful for you. Save the seared scallops and salmon dishes for when you don’t have a big group.

On the side, I love to serve room temperature salads and vegetables. A simple kale salad or a big bowl of roasted vegetables never gets old. If I’m doing a stew, a baked polenta or warm grain is perfect on the side. At this time of year, you can’t go wrong with roasted beets or an endive and citrus salad either.

For dessert, homemade ice cream or sorbet is easy and can be made 4-5 days ahead. You can also serve homemade cookies alongside some fresh fruit, or set out chocolates, fruit, and nuts for guests to nibble on. Or, if you have a favorite bakery or ice cream shop, pick up dessert from there (Levain cookies cut up into smaller pieces are always a hit).

Q

Any final words on how to hack our perfect dinner party?

A

One of my favorite things to do at a dinner party is to mix up the guest list. Don’t be afraid of inviting people who don’t know each other, or what may seem like unusual pairings of people. These end up being the most interesting evenings. Do your friends a favor by introducing them to other friends and widening their circles. This is much more exciting than inviting the same old group over and over again. Also, don’t forget about your single friends! It’s ok to have an odd number at a dinner party. 7 people instead of 6 or 8 can be just perfect too.

Tell Us What You Think

  • Cheryl says:

    Um, I can make my cookie dough earlier, freeze it then bake it day of? MIND BLOWN! Why didn't I think of that?! So many great tips here! Thanks!

  • Carolyn Stine

    A party without cake is just a meeting.

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