I don’t know about you, but my December calendar is already packed with festive lunches, dinners, pub trips, and parties. It’s that time of year. A lovely friend of mine asked me for tips on hosting a dinner at home, and I was only too happy to oblige, by writing out all my rambling ideas below. I am far from an expert – being trained a cook is not the same as being able to host! – but we have people over to eat pretty often and I am used to feeding crowds. So good luck to you if you are having people over to eat during the holidays, and I hope these tips are of some help.
1. Keep it simple
If you are not a in the habit of hosting dinners or cooking for loads of people, now is not the time to over-complicate things. If you’re an adventurous or confident cook, then absolutely go for it. But don’t feel like you have to serve soufflés or a croquembouche just because you have guests coming. People are absolutely and totally delighted, I promise you, with lasagne, salad, garlic bread, and a chocolate cake. It doesn’t have to be super-fancy or innovative. Everyone wants to see you and have a good evening, not feel your nerves as you are frantically trying to make your own puff pastry in the background.
2. Check dietary preferences
Unless you know the people coming over really well, always double-check dietary preferences before working out what you are going to cook. It’s awful when someone arrives and announces they have suddenly gone gluten-free or vegetarian, and you have to panic to scramble up a new dinner option for them.
3. Plan your dinner menu logically
For dinners of more than four people, I try to avoid anything that needs to be cooked or served individually, such a fillets of fish or cuts of steak. It tends to be much simpler, more convivial, and more economical, to serve the kind of food that you can put down in the middle of the table and let people help themselves to. It’s encourages general chat if people are digging in at the table and passing things round, and it means you’re not stuck in the kitchen plating up or frying individual pieces of sea bass.
Also, if you’re stuck on what to cook or what goes together, go for a vague theme and stick with it. Italian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, British, French – anything goes. Sure, if you want to serve bruschetta followed by a steak and ale pie followed by a m’hanncha then you absolutely can. But if you’re not too confident and just want everything to quietly work well together, try sticking to one cuisine. It also helps cut options down if you’re overwhelmed by all the possibilities. If you’re stuck for inspiration, I find recipe books more useful than the internet, because they are more likely to be based around some kind of culinary theme. Whereas Google just gives you TOO MANY CHOICES.
You don’t have to stick to the standard starter-main-dessert route if you don’t want to. Dinners at ours tend to be informal, partly because I just don’t have the space to seat many people, and so big groups end up sitting around the room on sofas or spare chairs dragged in from next door. But also, being flexible with courses means you have to do less serving and less washing up (we don’t have a dishwasher either).
Instead of a starter, I like to make something everyone can eat while having their first drinks, milling around, or sitting on the sofa. Think toasts or crackers with interesting toppings, homemade cheese straws (sounds and looks super-impressive but it’s literally pre-made puff pastry with grated cheese twisted and then baked), or hummus and crudités. I always have a main and a dessert and, sometimes, I do cheese if I am feeling fancy. Or feeling like I want to eat a lot of cheese. Which is often.
5. Prepare food ahead
You would be surprised how much you can do ahead of time, and how much time things can take. You might think ‘oh, I will just peel those potatoes when everyone gets here and pop them in!’, but really, that’s another fifteen minutes stuck in the kitchen while your guests are around.
I really try to avoid having lots of cooking to do during an actual dinner, and don’t like having the kitchen still strewn with used chopping boards and bowls of ingredients when people arrive. It’s much less stressful if things are already in place. Just think about each thing you’re making logically and whether or not it needs to be cooked to service, or can be prepared in advance.
For example, I always, always do a dessert that’s prepped in advance. When it comes to serving it’s just a case of either putting it on the table for people to help themselves or, sometimes, warming it through. You don’t want to be filling profiteroles in a kitchen strewn with mess while everyone waits for you. Stews, tagines, bakes, pies and so on can all be made in advance and then heated up when you’re ready. Potatoes and other vegetables can be pre-cooked or par-boiled. Sauces and gravies can be made and re-heated. Dips or sides can be made in advance and kept covered in the fridge. Salads and dressings can be made in advance, kept separately, then combined just before serving. Cook smart – past you needs to be helping future you.
6. Buy stuff in!
Short on time? Hate making desserts? Forgot to do nibbles? Buy stuff! Seriously. Don’t feel like everything has to be homemade. You can buy desserts, nibbles, dips, good bread, whatever. Sure, homemade is great if you have the time and the inclination. But no one will care (or notice, probably), if you buy your bread instead of making it.
Another tip is to buy something, but then do something to made it special. For example, you can buy hummus, but then instead of just serving it in its carton, mix it up with some chopped herbs, Greek yoghurt, or lemon juice, and serve in a pretty bowl drizzled with olive oil or sprinkled with cumin, sumac, or paprika. Or you could buy a baguette, then make your own garlic and herb butter (crushed garlic, chopped herbs, soft butter) to bread over it and bake and hey presto, you made your own garlic bread. Or you can buy a plain cheesecake, then top it with sliced strawberries and mint, or caramel sauce and chocolate chunks, or whatever you fancy. Looks impressive, takes three minutes.
7. Let people help
If you’re having loads of people over to dinner or if you just don’t particularly like feeding a crowd, let people contribute! Take people at their word when they say ‘what can I bring?’ You could ask someone to take care of wine, or dessert, or pre-dinner nibbles, or cheese, or to bring an extra side dish. Personally, when I ask this question and someone asks me to contribute I am delighted, because I genuinely want to help out. Also they usually ask me to make the dessert and I am well up for that. People like to be generous when given the opportunity.
8. Be organised
I guess the basic advice underpinning all this is be as organised as possible. Obviously, if you are very comfortable hosting a dinner and feel like you can pick stuff up on the way home from work and throw something together then go for it. But I can’t do that. I am an obsessively organised person who over-plans everything and so it comes naturally to me, but if you’re worried about hosting people and you’re not normally big on planning, now is the time to make an exception. You will enjoy the actual event much more if you’ve done the hard work beforehand.
Godspeed, everyone. If you have any questions, worries, or are desperate for menu suggestions, do comment and I’d be happy to help! Or if you have any other tips for hosting a dinner to add then I’d love to hear them.