Get the new year off to a festive start and throw a dinner party for a few friends. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to have a successful party and impress your guests. You just need to put together your game plan and focus on a few key details.
Plan your guest list carefully. This can be a fun way to introduce different friends who have never met, but do stop for a second to make sure they’ll be compatible. Careful planning of the guest list is totally free and is the single best way to ensure a great party.
Determine what, if anything, you’d like your guests to bring. Is this a potluck? Should guests bring specific things to help build a dish, like toppings for pizza you’re making? Or are you taking care of everything? When you invite your friends, many will instinctively ask what they should bring. It doesn’t really matter what you say–”A dessert”; “Whatever pizza toppings you like”; “Just yourself!”–but you should have some answer prepared.
Clean up. We’ll assume you know how to do this, but if you need some extra tips, check out our Complete Apartment Cleaning Checklist. In any case, do your cleaning early in the day, NOT at the last minute, so that you’re not covered in dust and reeking of Soft Scrub when your guests arrive.
Get some decor. Class up the joint, even if it’s just a few candles and some throw pillows from IKEA. (For more wallet-friendly ideas, we have some Super-Budget Decorating Tips from the Pros.)
Plan the timing of everything. What time will guests arrive? Okay, so what time do you need to start cooking food? And what time do you need to clean? And so on. It’s fine if you’re still finishing up some of the food when guests arrive–but not if you’re just starting to cook something that will require hours in the oven.
Keep the lighting low and calm. Turn on the lamps; light the candles; turn off any overhead lights, particularly fluorescents.
Create a playlist of background music. Put on a CD everyone will like, or make a playlist on Pandora, or stream from your phone.
Find out if any guests have dietary restrictions. You probably don’t want to offer steak to a vegetarian or, worse, pad thai to someone with peanut allergies.
Theme it up. Keep a consistent thread throughout the meal, whether it’s a particular ingredient or cultural origin. Be creative and have fun with it. This is a great way to keep people talking and impressed without spending a ton of money–creativity is free. (For maximum evening entertainment, pair the meal with a movie or TV show that follows the same theme. “Breaking Bad” dinner party, anyone? Just kidding.)
Stay within your abilities. Now is not the time to pretend you’re an Iron Chef. Seriously. If you’ve never made sushi, this probably isn’t the time to start. Be ambitious and challenge yourself, by all means. A successful dinner party is about making sure the guests are at ease and having a good time, and that’s just not going to happen if you, the host, don’t also feel at ease and happy. Save the knife tricks and complicated recipes for another time, after you’ve mastered them.
Know where to splurge and where to save. You’re trying to impress, so it’s entirely appropriate to spend a bit more than you might for your own lunch. If you’re making a cheese tray, skip the Kraft Singles and get a good Brie or aged cheddar. You can have nice things without breaking the bank. Just plan carefully, thinking about which things you really want to shine and how big the portion sizes should be–if you’re getting Brie for four people, you don’t need a whole wheel.
Everybody loves interesting drinks, even without alcohol. Give them something unexpected in their glass, creating your own signature drink (all the better if it ties into your overall theme!). Get some fancy sodas or make fresh-squeezed strawberry lemonade as a refresher for your guests. Or get some fruit and turn cheap wine into delicious sangria. You can keep your budget down by limiting your drink selection to just one or two options.