my little corner of the world

jackie miller : : graphic design + whatnot

Throwing a Dinner Party…

If you’ve read my posts on Friendsgiving and Set the Scene, you know I like to throw dinner parties. Doesn’t always have to be a special occasion (but it is usually something to celebrate). I have thrown at least 2 major parties each year with a few impromptus thrown in here + there and I have learned a thing or two about doing it. Like I mentioned, my first real dinner party (post-college) involved using an ironing board and the fire escape for food stations in my tiny apartment in the North End. I now have a more grown up existence featuring 2 actual sideboards and a dining table that can seat 14. So much better! Anyway, I am going to share here some of the things I have figured out along the way in hopes to help you throw the dinner party of your dreams. Here goes…

Potluck is the way to go…

Most of my dinners have been potluck, mostly so people can bring their personal holiday favorites to share (which also makes it way easier on me!) I have my roster of traditional dishes that I make every year and usually throw in a few new recipes to tryout, but far be it from me to deny someone their precious Grandma Jane’s Green Bean Casserole, even though I can’t stand the stuff.

I start out with identifying the dishes that I want to make and pull together the guest list. I send out an electronic invite so that everyone can be apart of the conversation. I used to use Evite, but Facebook seems to be even easier. I put what dishes Greg and I are going to be responsible for along with a list of suggestions for what others can bring and ask them to RSVP with their choice so we don’t end up with 2 salads and no mashed potatoes. This method has varying degrees of success depending on the guest list, but I keep trying. The main thing that I need to convey to everyone is DO NOT bring a dish that hasn’t been already cooked. Reheating is one thing, but I only have one oven to do the 4-8 dishes Greg and I are making, so cramming in another dish that’s uncooked at the last minute can really throw the dinner timing off. Thankfully between the Weber Smoker and the Turkey Deep Fryer in the yard, I usually don’t have to worry about jamming the bird in there unless the weather drastically changes.

Planning out the list

Then I bust out Excel… yes. Excel. I find it the easiest way to organize all of the dishes, their ingredients, where I am buying the ingredients or if I already have it. I have even expanded the doc to include where in the store it’s located so I can organize the list by aisle and get through the store much faster. Grocery shopping before a holiday can be insane, so I want to get through it as painlessly as possible. So I gather all of my recipes and then type in the ingredients (with specific amounts) for each dish. Last year, I even added in when I was going to prepare the dish as well as the cooking instructions for each in the Excel… everything in one spot really helps me stay organized. I love that you can sort by the information you need… like where you’re getting the ingredient to go shopping, what dish uses it, what dish you are making when. I also love that I can see what recipe uses the ingredient while I am at the store so I make sure I buy enough for all the recipes. If only I could figure out how to get Excel to calculate ALL of the butter I am going to need instead of relying on my questionable math skills with fractions… maybe next year.

If you want to check this out yourself… here’s the Excel file to download: Thanksgiving 2017.

Mini Cookbook

After years of doing this, I realized I am really good at misplacing recipe cards, cookbooks, bookmarks and even iPads halfway through a recipe. (Also, is it just me that gets infuriated when the screen goes blank the second I need to read it? Or that Pinterest constantly has to reload the whole blog and puts you back in the beginning of the post every time you wake up the iPad to see the next step?) So I decided to go old school. Based on the Cookbook we produced as a Holiday gift from the house a few years ago, I started making a mini cookbook for each dinner party. I found that having all the recipes in one place was such a huge help and having a few printed out the day of is really a nice touch if anyone is dying for that killer
Veg-All casserole recipe… instant gratification!

I remember as a kid watching my mom tuck her recipe cards into one of her cabinets to keep it safely accessible but out of the way which inspired me to one-up her with this solution… A cork trivet mounted to the inside of my cabinet. I can’t tell you how much easier that makes doing one of these dinners. Out of the way, but you can find it in a second. So much easier!

Just in case you want any of the recipes, you can download my mini cookbook here.

Week of…

After the planning + shopping is complete, I start in on the house. Typically, I don’t think my house is always in shape to host a party, so I start making yet another list. In vain hopes that the people I live with will pitch in, I have devised a new system to keep everyone in the know of what needs to happen. Fridge meet dry erase marker. I found this out by accident, but turns out that it works great on our cheapie white rental fridge. I recommend trying it out in an inconspicuous corner first. We wrote on the front of the fridge and it was a bit more difficult to get off. Must be a different finish. Anyway, I list out what needs to happen in each room before the big day. I have used it a few times and it works like a charm, everyone knows what is done and what still needs attention. It certainly isn’t pretty, but it works. I also used it for prep schedule so I can remember what needed to be done on each day and for the day of, when things needed to go into the oven to hit that 4pm dinner bell.

The preparations

I learned from my mom that it makes a much smoother Thanksgiving Day if you work your butt off Thanksgiving Eve, assembling everything that can be assembled. This is especially true in a tiny, less than ideal kitchen with no dishwasher or disposal. (I guess my mom is right… my kitchen is basically one step up from camping!) I can’t imagine going through the kitchen frustration and then having to paste on a big smile to greet your guests that same day. Not to say that I am not exhausted by the time the door bell rings, but at least the guests don’t see the amazing mound of dishes it takes to prepare a feast.  Without a dishwasher, you definitely have to be on top of the dishes or they get out of control quick. I usually wash and dry the prep dishes to reuse for the next dish just to cut down on wasting counter space with drying dishes.

When I was a kid, I thought my mom was nutso for setting the table, COMPLETE with serving dishes the night before. She even left little post-its in each dish to say what it will be serving. But after throwing a few of these parties, I realized she is a genius. There’s nothing worse than getting to your last recipe and realizing that you used the only dish that it will fit in 2 recipes ago. I am not sure what my mom kept the prepped food in overnight, but I just set out all my dishes and fill them as I make stuff Wednesday night. I loved these casserole dishes until I realized they didn’t have lids. Luckily their oval shape means you can offset stack these suckers to fit in the fridge and in some cases, the oven! My mom’s next genius trick is to label the foil as to what was in it and the cooking instructions which makes it SO much easier if anyone is trying to help you juggle food in the kitchen. She’s amazing.

So like mother, like daughter…  I also completely set the table. And regardless of how many people are coming, I extend my table all of the way. I have had more than my share of surprise last minute dinner guests and have had to scramble to unset, expand and reset the table, so why take the chance? Worst case scenario for an extra guest, we add another chair, best case? everyone gets some more elbow room. It’s just one less thing to worry about. I also make place cards so that I can make sure everyone is comfortably seated next to someone they know or at least have something in common so they can chat over dinner. Plus, I think place cards are a nice fancy touch for any affair. It’s probably my favorite part of throwing a dinner party to be honest. You can check out my other posts on setting the table with my place card portfolio.

I guess that’s about it as far as tips I can come up with. I am sure I will be coming up with more the next time I throw a party, so this post will definitely be a work in progress… If you have any tips that you would like to share, I would love to hear them in the comments.

Until the next dinner party…