Secrets to a Successful Dinner Party

outdoor dinner party
Photo: iStock
You've invited your guests and went as far as to set the table, but there's much more you need to know when entertaining for friends.

Plan Ahead
Let the crew know about your party at least 10 days in advance. You don't want to get down to the wire and realize half of your guest list can't make it. Plus, it's polite to let everyone plan your party into their busy schedules.

Check and Recheck
Don't wait until the 11th hour to make an ice run: Make a list of all the items you'll need and go shopping a couple of days before. Once you get home from the store, lay out every ingredient needed for each recipe as well as bathroom essentials (like towels, a candle, and extra TP).

Plan a Low-Maintenance Meal
Pick a main course that doesn't need a lot of fussing over. Although fajitas sound like fiesta food, they're best eaten hot off the grill, making it impossible to hang out with friends while monitoring the meat. One of our favorite entrees is lasagna -- it pleases carnivores and vegetarians alike. And you can make it in advance and then just pop it into the oven to warm it up. Pick a simple salad as well: Prepare it before guests arrive and drizzle it with dressing just before serving.

Do a Test Run
Successful dinner parties start with a well-practiced recipe. Make the crowd-pleasing crab dip you've brought to everyone else's parties. Using a familiar recipe will ease some of your stress, and your guests won't complain -- their mouths will be full. If you don't cook regularly (or ever), try your concoctions at least once before making them for a roomful of hungry friends.

Use Premade Items
Unless you're Giada, you probably won't have the time or energy to make all the food you serve. So go to a French bakery or gourmet grocery and stock up on fruit tarts or a delicious side dish. No one will know the difference.

Have Appetizers Ready
Guests will arrive hungry, but don't spring the main course on them right away. Give everyone a chance to relax and hang out. Chips and dip are old standbys, but it's much more fun to try something more creative. If you opt for the lasagna dinner, a good like-minded Italian appetizer is bruschetta -- toasted slices of French bread rubbed with garlic and topped with olive oil and chopped tomatoes. Help guests identify what you're serving with DIY signs or treat topper labels for each dish.

Let Someone Else Bartend
This is a role many people (read: men) will be all too eager to play -- why not let 'em? It'll save you time and stress. As far as drinks go, save the wine for dinner and start the evening with something fun and frozen, like margaritas or daiquiris (put that new blender to good use!). For a fancier shindig, let your bartender mix up martinis or a signature cocktail, and top it off with a decorative fruit skewer or stirrer.

Mix and Match Friends
No need to play matchmaker (unless you want to!), but dinner parties are always more interesting with a few wild cards. Bring together friends from different circles, mix singles and couples or introduce different personalities who you know will hit it it off.

Include Entertainment
Make sure you have a camera ready, along with fun props that fit your theme -- it's a fun way to engage your guests and document the night. Another ice-breaker: Pull out an active game like Pictionary or Cranium and play a couple of rounds over drinks and dessert.