Chef Amanda On How to Throw a Dinner Party

Chef Amanda On How to Throw a Dinner Party

Throwing a real grown up dinner party is overwhelming for the accomplished host/hostess.  To those with little experience it can be terrifying.  We recently hosted Al’s family’s Thanksgiving Dinner and have volunteered to handle the Christmas gathering as well.  As I was planning and preparing I fell back on my standard method for planning a dinner party.  After all, whether it’s family, friends, or colleagues the method is the same.  I hope these tips will be helpful as you’re planning for the upcoming holiday events and prevent “the party that broke your soul” as Laura Keogh likes to call them.


About a month before the party start gathering your recipes.  Don’t make yourself crazy with too many fancy, new dishes.  I always do light hors d’oeuvres, soup and/or salad, entrée, and dessert.  In addition to soft drinks, I serve a seasonal beer, red and white wine, and one signature cocktail.  I always serve only decaffeinated coffee for dessert.  I look for recipes that lend themselves to early prep, double duty, holding, and fire and forget.  For example, if I’m doing roasted chicken I’ll make a pate from the chicken livers for an appetizer.  If I’m making my brown butter spice cake I quadruple the recipe for the nut topping and serve them with the appetizers, sprinkle a few on the soup, and use them in the salad.  I also try to pick side dishes that are either served cold (potato salad for example), baked, braised, pilaf’d, or roasted so that the day of you are just tossing them in the oven and setting a timer.  Avoid dishes that are steamed, risotto’d, saute’d, deep or pan fried.  Those can be messy and generally have to be done al a minute.  You don’t want any of that the day of your event. Once you have your menu planned start planning your prep.  Go through each recipe and identify what can be done and when.  Make a schedule so that you know exactly what you’re doing each day.  Also start thinking about presentation.  Make a separate list of how each dish will be served.  The idea is to get as much planned and done in the days preceding the event as possible so that the day of you are relaxed with very little to do.

About a week out you can get your grocery shopping done and start prepping food.  There are many things that can be done well in advance.  For instance, simple syrups for your cocktails, dips, spreads and dressings can be made this early.  The only thing you might want to hold out of the dips and dressings are fresh herbs but you can always add the herbs to your “day before” list and then quickly stir them in the morning of the event.  As you can probably tell, I’m a big list maker.  When you have this many little details it’s the only way to keep up with everything.  The less I have to remember the better.  Knowing that I can trust and follow my lists builds my confidence and keeps me from panicking.

You can also start gathering your platters, serving utensils, place setting, wine glasses, table clothes, napkins, etc.  Make sure everything is clean, ironed, folded and accounted for.  The last thing you want is to be trying to find the eighth steak knife the morning of the party.  I usually do the plating in the kitchen.  It saves space on the table and spills are avoided by not having to pass everything back and forth.  It also makes your party seem more elegant.  This is also a good time to think about music and get your play list or mixed cassette tape put together.

Two or three days out you can start working on the real food.  You can cube cheese and slice meats if you’re doing a cheese platter.  Pate’s can be made.  You can make your soup.  Get your crustini’s made and while you’re at it make the croutons for the salad.  Cakes can be baked.  Stock can be reduced for a demi glace.  As you’re prepping think about everything that you can get done.  For instance, if you need a chopped onion check your other recipes and chop them all at one time.  You can then measure them out into separate little bowls or zip bags and label them so you’ll have all of your ingredients prepped in advance of cooking.  Remember that fruits will brown if cut early so toss them with a bit of lemon juice to keep them looking fresh.  It’s best not to pre-prep potatoes though as the only way to hold them is to put them in cold water which will wash off their natural starch and effect your results.  However, if one of your side dishes is a potato salad you can make it two or three days in advance.  If you’re chopping herbs, cover or wrap them in barely damp paper towels and they will keep a couple of days as well.

The day before you can do things like prepare your crudite.  I usually blanch and ice bath most of my vegetables.  They look more vibrant, less dry.  Fill the sink with cold water and ice cubes.  Throw the vegetables into salted boiling water for about 15/20 seconds.  Scoop out and toss directly into the water to stop the cooking immediately.  Then dry on paper towels and bag up for tomorrow.  If you’re roasting vegetables you can assemble the ingredients into the cooking vessel so that tomorrow you’re just tossing it into the oven.  You can sear your roast today.  Just refrigerate immediately after browning and tomorrow get it out about an hour before it needs to go into the oven to finish cooking.  Set the table today and set up your bar area.  Pre mix your signature cocktail.  Clean your salad greens.

The day of the event be sure to give yourself plenty of time, even if you think you’ve got it all under control.  Remember that you will need time to shower and dress and hopefully have a drink before your guests arrive.  Eat breakfast so that your blood sugar doesn’t drop on you and you don’t end up sobbing in the bathroom at some point.  Walk through your house taking care of any last minutes issues or cleaning needs.  Go back through all of your lists, even the ones that are completely done.  Review your recipes ones last time.  Think about everything that you can finish up, get warming, bring to room temperature, chill.  Have a timetable written out starting with the arrival time, how long you will leave out the appetizers, what time to put things in the oven, what time do you want to sit down for the salad, etc.  This takes practice.  Remember that in the end it’s about the time spent together.  You’ve heard the expression K.I.S.S. – keep it simple stupid.

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