How to Host Like Martha Stewart Without Breaking a Sweat

POPSUGAR Photography | Anna Monette Roberts
POPSUGAR Photography | Anna Monette Roberts

Hosting your first dinner party is a major milestone; sure, you've had friends over for cocktails or thrown a raucous house party, but those are different beasts altogether. A dinner party might seem imposing at the outset, but really it shouldn't be; follow these 10 guidelines commandments and you'll pull it off no problem.

  1. Keep your guest list manageable: Stick to six to eight people (including yourself); not only is it less stressful to host a smaller group, but it's more budget-friendly as well (cooking for a big crowd adds up!). While there's no need to stick to one friend group — a dinner party is, of course, a great way to introduce mutual friends — it's generally a good idea to avoid a guest list entirely made up of strangers.
  2. Consider hosting on a weeknight or a Friday: While it's tempting to choose a Saturday as you'll have more time to shop, prep, and clean your house, a weeknight dinner party (or even Friday) comes with lower expectations and therefore less pressure. Plus, you won't eat up your entire weekend getting things ready. With some advance planning and outsourcing, a Wednesday or Thursday is totally manageable, plus it'll be a fun break from your (and your guests') weeknight routine.
  3. Send out the invite at least a week ahead: Schedules fill up fast, so send out invites one to two weeks ahead of time. If you're inviting a group of friends, a mass email is fine; if not, email or text everyone individually. Alternatively, a Paperless Post invite adds a grown-up touch. Make sure to inquire about dietary restrictions so that you can plan around any.
  4. A week before your party, assess your inventory: While there's definitely no need to have matching plates, silverware, glassware, and napkins, do make sure that you have enough of each for the entire group. CB2, West Elm, and Ikea are all great options for inexpensive table settings. (We're fond of CB2's water glasses and stemless wine glasses, as both clock in at $20 for a set of eight, so you won't be too peeved when one breaks, as they inevitably will.) Don't overlook napkins. While there's no need to splurge, paper towels don't cut it (sorry). Channel a French bistro by using striped dishcloths, go the tear-off route, or if you have enough dish towels in good condition, use those.
  5. Get creative with serveware: Don't stress if you don't have a collection of platters and serving bowls (really, who does?). Instead, arrange appetizers on a wooden cutting board; serve the main course in a casserole dish, cast-iron skillet, or dutch oven; and present salads in a mixing bowl.
POPSUGAR Photography | Anna Monette Roberts
  1. Feel no shame in outsourcing: Most will probably bring a bottle of wine or some beer, but if one of your guests asks what they can bring, suggest their favorite cheese and a baguette or a couple pints of ice cream for dessert. Likewise, don't feel the need to cook every dish; go store-bought with at least one major element, whether it's appetizers (think nuts, olives, and charcuterie) or dessert (a pie from your neighborhood bakery or a few pints of really good ice cream are great options).
  2. Prep as much of the menu ahead of time as possible: Leave dishes that need to be finished at the last minute, like a delicate salad or pan-fried fish, for when you have a couple dinner parties under your belt. Instead, fill out your menu with foods that are meant to be served chilled or at room temperature. Consider a braise or soup for the main course, as these typically improve overnight and only need to be reheated. Do as much of the cooking as you can in the day or two prior to your party.
  3. Don't overlook ambiance: Like dinner prep, don't leave cleanup to the last minute; do the dishes, take out the trash, wipe down the dinner table, and tidy up high-traffic areas like the bathroom the night before. Put together a playlist earlier in the week, or queue up 8tracks. Consider picking up some inexpensive flowers (Trader Joe's and Whole Foods both have good options), dim the lights, and decorate the table with a handful of unscented tea lights.
  4. Serve the meal family-style: If you have a large enough table, pass dishes around; alternatively, set up a buffet in the kitchen or on a side table (grab a coffee table from the living room if need be). Plating the meal is stressful on both fronts; it's one more thing for you to think about, and your guests will feel the need to clear their plates, regardless of their hunger level.
  5. Keep the alcohol flowing: While you can expect some of your dinner-party guests to bring booze, don't rely entirely on this. Even if you explicitly ask everyone to bring something they'd like to drink, have some wine or beer chilled and ready for when the first people show up. Unless you're a teetotaler, savor a preparty glass of wine or beer while you put the finishing touches on your party; it'll set a convivial mood and loosen you up. (If you're stressed out, your guests will be too.)