How to Throw a Perfectly Imperfect Dinner Party

woman pouring citrus cocktail at a party
Photo: Janina Santillan
Entertaining at home can be so much easier than you think.

Does the idea of throwing a dinner party make you break out in a sweat? We feel you. With an Instagram feed full of your favorite bloggers' carefully styled brunches and Pinterest boards full of photo shoot–worthy tablescapes, it's easy to feel the pressure for perfection. But in today's busy world, there's something to be said about letting go a little, taking a deep breath and practicing the art of the laid-back dinner party. Inviting some friends over for a casual gathering offers an excellent chance to reconnect and unwind, no frills required. If you're interested in throwing a fuss-free shindig but aren't sure where to begin, expert party planners Michelle Bachman and Seri Kertzner, the founders of Little Miss Party, share their best tips to plan a perfectly imperfect get-together.

  1. Prep Your Space

    living room with table in center for guests to eat appetizers
    Photo by Maggie Antalek

    Not sure how to squeeze a large crowd into your small space? Think outside the dining room. Bachman recommends relocating the dinner table to the largest room in your home, even if you need to rearrange. “If that's the living room, and that means pushing all couches to the walls and moving an armchair to the bedroom to make it fit, that's fine,” she says. To encourage guests to mingle in other rooms as well, grab chairs, stools and ottomans from around your home, and create multiple conversation areas with appetizers, snacks or small bites nearby. And don't forget the bathroom. Keep it stocked with plenty of toilet paper, hand soap, clean towels and a scented candle.​

  2. Set the Scene

    table set with food and table settings for dinner party
    Photo by Seri Kertzner

    Want a no-fail foundation for an Instagram-worthy table? Build a collection of basic white dishes and serving pieces. “Starting with a white base allows you to really have fun and build some amazing tablescapes," Bachman says. “And don't be afraid to mix and match." Go ahead and layer fun, colorful accessories like tablecloths, appetizer plates, napkins, place mats and glassware. For extra ambience, you can't go wrong with candles and some small flower arrangements. No vases? No problem. Popping fresh flowers from your local market into empty jars, glasses, pitchers or small cups only adds to the eclectic look. Just stick to one color family to keep the blooms from looking too busy. Or skip the flowers and use greenery instead. “Herbs make beautiful and fragrant centerpieces," Bachman says.

  3. Serve With Style

    friends sharing chips and dips at dinner party
    Photo by Janina Santillan

    If you're not a gourmet cook, don't get stressed thinking you have to serve a complicated five-course meal. The perfectly imperfect dinner party is more about the company than the cuisine. Make something you're familiar with to give you confidence in the kitchen. “Use a recipe you can prepare in advance, so if something goes wrong, you won't be scrambling before your party,” Kertzner says. Think simple dishes that are reheatable and can easily feed a crowd, like lasagna. Supplement with a large salad, garlic bread and plenty of finger foods, appetizers and snacks. If you're worried you might run out, Kertzner recommends keeping your fridge and freezer stocked with quick additions you can grab or throw in the oven, like pigs in a blanket, cheese straws and extra veggies and dip.

  4. Simplify the Drinks

    bar area with infused water and mixers for drinks
    Photo by Sandra Brzezinski

    ​As both the host and the cook, you won't have much time to play bartender, so set up a drinks station where guests can serve themselves, including glasses, ice and bottle openers. Put an assortment of sparkling water, beer and wine on ice, and premix a big batch of punch, sangria or a cocktail. “We always serve a signature drink when hosting a dinner or cocktail party, and it's always a hit,” Kertzner says. Since people tend to gather around the bar, keep it separate from where you're serving the food. Splitting up the two areas avoids a party bottleneck.

  5. Take It Easy

    woman enjoying cheese and grapes at dinner party
    Photo by Janina Santillan

    What's the most important component for a laid-back dinner party? Your attitude. “Once your guests arrive, enjoy yourself. Your guests will pick up on stress, so stay cool and have fun," Kertzner says. Be sure to give yourself enough time to prep and primp before everyone arrives, so when the party starts, you can focus on spending quality time with friends—after all, that's why they came. And don't be afraid to ask for help if you're feeling frazzled. Chances are your guests want to contribute, plus chatting and laughing while washing the dishes is way more fun than going at it alone.