A Perfect dinner party
Spread the workload
Plan your menu so that as many dishes as possible can be prepared a day or two in advance, or more if you have a freezer.
Check any special needs such as vegetarian or diabetic food with your guests before planning your menu.
Timing the meal
Don’t plan to serve the meal the minute guests arrive. Allow extra time in case they are a little late, and time to have a drink beforehand. If you invite guests for 8pm, for example, aim to start the meal between 8.30 and 8.45pm.
What you can do in advance
Prepare salad ingredients on the day, preferably only one or two hours in advance, as cut salads soon start to lose their nutrients. Make the dressing and keep it in a-topped jar in the fridge, ready to shake and add only at the last moment. Ensure that the lid is firmly on before shaking, or you could end up with vinaigrette all over your party clothes.
Get vegetables ready for cooking early in the day and keep them in polythene bags in the fridge. Par-boil potatoes for faster roasting or, if vegetables are to be boiled, prepare pans of boiling water while the main dish is cooking. Peeled potatoes won’t discolour if you put them in a bowl and cover them with cold water.
Desserts and puddings
Cold desserts should be made in advance and, if possible, decorated and stored in the fridge – but cover them well so they don’t pick up flavours from other foods. Hot puddings such as baked sponges can often be baked in advance and warmed up before serving. Otherwise, prepare them for the oven before the meal starts, and preheat the oven to the right temperature so that it’s ready when you need it.
Arrange fresh decorations such as slices of lemon or sprigs of herbs on a serving platter an hour or two before they will be needed. Cover the garnishes with plastic wrap or an inverted bowl and leave them in a cool part of the kitchen until you’re ready to decorate the food.
Put plates to warm in the bottom oven or warming drawer, or warm them in a dishwasher, using the final cycle.
Measure out coffee for after the meal, so that you need only add the water. Set a tray with coffee cups, milk or cream jug, sugar bowl and any after-dinner chocolates.
Setting the table
Lay the dinner table well in advance, and make sure you’ve included condiments and serving spoons as well as the settings and decorations.
Chill white wine or open bottles of red about an hour in advance. Make sure you have plenty of ice ready for pre-dinner drinks.
Lay out any nuts, olives or other pre-dinner nibbles.
Make sure there’s a clean hand-towel and soap.
Time to relax
Build some time before the guests arrive into your schedule to allow you to change and rest for a few minutes. You will feel more relaxed and eager to greet them if you haven’t been rushing non-stop.
How to plan a dinner menu
• Choose a variety of different types of food. Don’t opt for a fish starter followed by a fish main course, for example, and make sure that there is a good balance between richer and lighter dishes.
• Provide contrasting colours to stimulate the appetite. If the dishes themselves are plain, add variety with colourful garnishes.
• Use different textures to give contrast. For example combine crunchy salads with a creamy main course, or sprinkle nuts over a soft mousse.
• Choose a good balance of flavours, and don’t have too many spicy dishes in one meal.
• A variety of shapes adds interest, so use different serving dishes.