Hosting a fancy dinner party can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
These simple tips help you effortlessly (and inexpensively) take your ho-hum dinner to elegant new heights. All it takes is a little focus, creativity and some yummy food.
1. Set the table
Even if you don’t have the finest china, setting your table ahead of time will make the night feel special. The best part is, this is the time to get creative. You can go with a classic table setting or something more casual and modern. Some small, unscented tealight candles in the center of the table go a long way toward setting the mood. And if you can’t afford flowers, then look for different foliage around your neighborhood. A few trailing pieces of ivy along the table, an elegant branch, some smooth white stones — these natural elements can be worked into your table setting for free. Also look around your house, and see what you have to decorate with. Adding small knickknacks to your tablescape can be fun, and any fabric scraps you have from crafting could be used as a table runner or place mats.
2. Serve an appetizer
Setting the mood for your party is just as important as what you serve. When your guests arrive, serve them a drink and some finger food. It can be as simple as some white wine with a bowl of olives and a bowl of almonds, or you can go all out with a cheese and charcuterie platter. Either way, the night begins with a fun social element that will help your guests relax before dinner.
More: 19 Holiday appetizers that take almost no time to prep
3. Choose a star ingredient
Getting caught up in the allure of a fancy dinner party can often lead to a spent budget and lots of stress. Not many of us can successfully execute four super-fancy dishes on our own (without tearing out our hair by the end of it, that is). Instead, choose one star ingredient, and focus your meal around it. It can be anything from a prized bottle of olive oil or special wedge of cheese you want to feature in all your dishes to a perfectly roasted chicken that will be the main event. Choose just one thing to highlight, and you won’t have to worry about spreading yourself thin.
4. Sauce strategically
You don’t need to rely on heavy cream sauces for your dishes to feel fancy — a simple pan sauce will help your dish be all the more tasty. Basically what you want to do is get all the delicious cooked-on flavor up off the pan you cooked your food in — usually chicken, beef, pork or another meat, but you can use this method with roasted vegetables too. To do this, you simply deglaze the pan, add some aromatics and extra liquid, maybe a knob of butter and let the sauce thicken. You can try this method on pretty much anything you cook in a pan, and the resulting flavorful, silky sauce will make your dish feel luxurious — without taking hours of preparation and a gallon of cream.
5. Fuse near and far
One way to make your go-to dishes taste a little special for your next dinner party? Go international, and fuse unexpected flavors into your meal. Jazz up your classic roast chicken with a Moroccan spice rub; add some coconut milk, fish sauce and a squeeze of lime to your mashed sweet potatoes; or season your roast beef with a chile and cocoa spice blend. It will make your meal feel extraordinary without taking a lot of extra time or money.
6. Add freshness
Never underestimate the importance of fresh ingredients when it comes to livening up a dish. Dinner party fare can often be heavy, so making sure your flavors are balanced is a must. A squeeze of lemon or lime here, freshly cracked black pepper and minced fresh herbs there, some diced preserved lemon or a spoonful of capers — these bright, fresh flavors will make the rest of your dish live up to its true potential.
7. Garnish with glamour
Sometimes your garnish can liven up even the most humble ingredients. Shortbread gets fancy when sprinkled with coarse vanilla sugar or rosemary sea salt. Elegant curls of aged Parmesan resting delicately atop a plate of pasta are a far cry from the grated “cheese” you get in a plastic canister. Edible flowers make every dish lovelier. And a drizzle of olive oil, some fresh herbs and lightly toasted nuts can jazz up your store-bought dips and hummus so no one will ever guess they weren’t made from scratch. Even simple carrots, radishes and tomatoes can elevate your plate with the right technique. As long as you’re paying attention and making sure your garnish adds a little something special to your meal, it’s hard to go wrong.
8. Pair wisely
You don’t have to stress about your drink pairings too much, but serving bacon-wrapped scallops with a can of Diet Coke won’t exactly add to the atmosphere of your party. If you’re going the soda route, try an Italian sparkling lemonade or blood orange soda or even some glass bottles of sparkling water. For pairing wine, beer or cocktails, keep things simple. Check out this wine pairing chart, this beer pairing chart and these cocktail and food pairings for guidance. The right pairings can make your dinner party really stand out.
9. Serve courses
To really add some class to your next dinner party, try serving your meal in courses. Soup, salad, entrée and dessert are all you need, and with some careful planning, it won’t require that much extra work. In most cases you can set up your salad ahead of time, either keeping it in a big bowl, tossing with dressing and serving individually when you’re ready to eat, or by keeping individual salads in the fridge until ready to serve with a homemade dressing in a cruet or other vessel on the table for guests to serve themselves. Soup can be made ahead of time and kept warm in a Crock-Pot to free up stove space. If your entrée is in a nice baking dish, you can bring it to the table and serve family-style, or if it’s in a less-than-pretty vessel, you can transfer it to a pretty platter before serving. Alternately, you can plate your entrée in the kitchen, then serve your guests in the dining area. This option is extra posh, and as long as you don’t have too many people over (or if you have an extra set of hands for help), it’s totally doable.
10. Go out with a bang
Your guests just finished their entrée. Now what? Instead of rushing to dessert, do like the French do, and serve a cheese course. One or two cheeses served with crackers or bread and maybe some complementary dried or fresh fruit will make your guests feel utterly pampered. When it’s time for dessert, offer your guests coffee and/or a digestif to accompany their sweet treat. And when it comes to dessert, don’t let yourself get too stressed. A nice tart from a local bakery, some chocolate truffles or other confections from a candy shop will do. You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen whipping something up when you can get something tasty and beautiful that’s premade.