How to Plan a Dinner Party (Or Any Party!)

Over the holidays, I helped my mom host a Christmas celebration with my dad’s side of the family the weekend before Christmas. I eagerly offered to do all of the menu planning, which included the grocery shopping, food prep and planning out the oven schedule for the day of the party. It was my first time handling the logistics of a holiday and while it took some work, it was unbelievably fun and I loved putting together a large meal.

While the holiday season has already passed, I thought the start of the new year would be a great time to do a walk-through of how I planned the meal and got myself organized, as well to share some guidelines and checklists that you can use when planning a large-ish food event at your home. After all, the year is full of reasons to throw parties – birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, holidays like Valentine’s Day, 4th of July, and countless other occasions!

So you’re ready to throw a party and need to get organized? Here is a timeline with tips and guidelines below on how to tackle all of the details concerning your dinner party:

1 Month Before: The Big Picture
– Finalize the type of party you are throwing and if there will be any sort of theme
– Create your guest list
– Send invitations, e-vites, Facebook event requests, or go old school and call your guests to let them know about the party

3 Weeks Before: Start Organizing
– Select your menu (see below for tips on creating a menu)
– Put together a timeline for preparing your recipes (I share an example of mine below)
– Make sure you have enough serving pieces and place settings. If not, buy or borrow what you need.
– Prepare any menu items that can be frozen (i.e. pie dough, appetizers, etc.)
– Review recipes and create a list of ingredients you need to buy
– Test out any new recipes you may be unsure of. You don’t want any unwelcome surprises with guests waiting to be fed!

1 Week Before: Prepare for Takeoff
– Get a final RSVP count from guests so you know how many people you will be feeding
– Clean out your refrigerator so you have room for groceries and prepped dishes
– Purchase any nonperishable items that are needed

The Week Of: It’s Go-Time!
– Do final grocery shopping for perishable items
– Clean the house a couple of days in advance and just do touch ups the morning of your party
– Start prepping dishes that can be made in advance
– Set the table the day before

Now, the biggest cause for stress is obviously the food. Will I have too much? Not enough? Will everyone like the food? How do I make sure not to serve cold food? All of these are legitimate worries but can be resolved by just a little planning. First the overarching question:

How do I create a menu?

The first thing to ask yourself is if you have any sort of theme going on – Italian, Mexican, tapas, fondue, etc. That will generally narrow down your menu selection. The next thing I would suggest is to find out if any of your guests have any eating restrictions (allergies, dairy or gluten intolerances, etc.) so you know if you need to steer clear from certain types of foods.

Below are some tips and guidelines that I have used when planning a meal [in brackets are the dishes I served for the Christmas dinner, which fed 15 people]:

– First choose your main course and work the rest of your menu around that [Roasted Pork Loin Stuffed with Figs and Chestnuts]
– I always like to include a salad with a dinner [Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Warm Cider Vinaigrette]
– Then add a vegetable [Broccoli Salad]
– Depending on how many people you have, you may want another vegetable side dish [Stuffed Mushroom Casserole]
– Starchy side [Classic Mashed Potatoes]
– Bread or rolls with butter [Cloverleaf Rolls]

– Now choose your appetizers. For appetizers, the general rule of thumb is 5 servings per person per hour prior to serving a meal. You want a balance between light and heavy. You also want to make sure you are not duplicating any of the same flavors that you will be serving with the meal. For example, you wouldn’t want to serve shrimp cocktail as an appetizer if you are serving pasta and shrimp as a main course. [Pan-Fried Onion Dip with Carrots and Celery, Breadsticks Wrapped in Prosciutto, Brie with Crackers and Apple Butter]

– And now the dessert. As far as I’m concerned, there are no rules regarding dessert (of course, this is coming from the baker). However, you need to be mindful of quantities. If you need to feed 15 people, one 9-inch apple pie isn’t going to be enough. You can choose to make one rich dessert that serves more people, or make more than one that feeds a moderate amount of people. [Chocolate Bundt Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream, Peppermint Bark, and Assorted Biscotti]

– I also decided to include a little favor for everyone to take home with them. I made sugar cookies in the shape of snowflakes and decorated them with royal icing. Each cookie was packaged in its own cellophane treat bag, tied with red ribbon, and placed in a festive basket near the door so guests could take one on their way out.

Now that your menu is finalized you’ll need to put together a plan of action for pulling it all off in a timely manner.

Creating a Menu Timeline

This takes a little bit of work and how you work yours will largely depend on how many dishes will be made on the stove, how many in the oven, what the capacity of each is, and what you can do ahead of time. Below are some tips for creating a food timeline for your party:

– Review each recipe and write down how long it will take to cook, at what temperature, how long the prep time will take (estimate if needed), and what, if anything, can be done in advance. For example, for the menu I created above, I was able to do all of the following things the day before and refrigerate: Make the onion dip and cut the vegetables, trim and stuff the pork loin, make the broccoli salad, prepare the stuffed mushroom casserole short of baking it, and make the dough for the dinner rolls.

*Another tip my mom taught me is that you can peel and quarter the potatoes and cover in cold water to have them ready for boiling for mashed potatoes. The cold water will keep them from browning. This can be done a couple of hours ahead so once the meal is almost ready you can make sure your mashed potatoes are going to be hot and you aren’t making a mess peeling potatoes at the sink!

– From that point, start working backwards from the time you want to sit down to eat. Here is what my plan looked like:

What time do we want to eat? 1:30pm

How long does the pork need to rest after it comes out of the oven? 15 minutes [Make the gravy while the meat rests]

<Based on the information I gathered above, I know the pork needs to roast for 45 minutes. Put the pork in the oven at 12:15pm. Gives some leeway in case it needs to roast longer. If done cooking, cover with foil and wait to slice until ready to serve – this will keep it warm.>

<Stuffed mushroom casserole bakes for 20 minutes – put that in when the pork comes out.>

How long will it take to make the mashed potatoes? 20 minutes [Boil the potatoes while you are making the gravy, after the pork comes out, so they will be ready around the same time the rest of the meal is.]

How long to roast the butternut squash? 25 minutes

<Start roasting squash around 11:45am. Assemble rest of salad while the pork roasts. Don’t dress until ready to serve.>

How long to bake the dinner rolls? 30 minutes (3 pans at 10 minutes each) – If you want to rewarm the rolls just before dinner, simply place them in a 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes.

<First pan should go in at 11:15am>

How long will it take to shape the dinner rolls? 30 minutes

<Start shaping dinner rolls at 10:45am>

So, as you can see – the oven work for this meal started around 10:30/10:45am. I would suggest padding each time segment by 5-10 minutes in case things take a little longer than you anticipated.

You will also want to ensure that the appetizers are out prior to your guests arriving. We had planned on eating this meal at 1:30pm, and told family to come over for 1:00pm, so I put out the appetizers around 12:45pm so as people came in they had something to munch on while they mingled and waited for dinner.

So there you have it! The planning of a dinner party broken down into baby steps so that what may be a daunting task is totally able to be conquered.

On a side note, can you believe I have not ONE picture of this event?! The day ended up being a little crazy with Pittsburgh’s first significant snowfall of the season coming through the night and that morning. My grandparents were stranded as their roads hadn’t yet been plowed (by midday!) so there was commotion about how they would get here, and my uncle ultimately ventured out in his SUV to retrieve them. I was working on keeping the food on schedule (and then keeping it warm) and so my camera became an afterthought. I vow to do better next time!

So tell me: What is the first party you are planning in 2010?

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27 Responses to “How to Plan a Dinner Party (Or Any Party!)”

  1. Heidi on January 13, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Love your organizational skills and helpful hints!

    Hubby & I always start a shared spreadsheet about one month before our events, detailing everything from menu, shopping chores, drink options, prep times, who might be bringing something , any activities we might want to have/do….

    Things always go much smoother when you are organized and on the same page as your co-host. And when things run smoothly, you get a chance to enjoy your own event. 🙂


  2. Maria on January 13, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Great post! We love hosting parties, thanks for the extra tips:)


  3. Eliana on January 13, 2010 at 10:50 am

    I’m still recovering from 2009 so I have yet to plan any parties. But when I do I will you this plan to use. It’s awesome.


  4. Married to an Aussie in OK on January 13, 2010 at 11:05 am

    I always have teas a couple of times a year for the moms in my stay-at-home mom’s group. They are very much loved, and I’ll be hosting my first one either in February or May. I know, right? But there ya have it. I always make a pavlova (or two), a cake or pie, some cookies, and a couple other assorted goodies. It’s a lot of fun, but yep, it does require planning! We also always have a July 4th party, but that’s potluck and is much, much easier on me.


  5. Lauren on January 13, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    This is very helpful. I love to have people over, but it’s usually to get drunk. I’ll do dinner every now and again, but it’s never a dinner party. This is actually one of my New Years Resolutions! You read my mind!


  6. Angie on January 13, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    I love your how-to posts. I have a system to planning parties but you definitely covered some steps that I should add to my system. Just like Lauren – I usually have people over just to get drunk but I want to start entertaining more this year!


  7. Megan on January 13, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    I did something similar for my mini Thanksgiving dinner. It’s definitely important to have all your timing figured out, especially when throwing a large party. I’m actually not sure what my first party of 2010 will be. Maybe some sort of spring gathering when the weather gets nice again.


  8. Anna on January 13, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks for publishing–my daughter’s bday party is next month and this is the first party I will actually be planning for one of my kids. So thanks for the hard work and I will use your tips!
    Good luck me!


  9. Ann on January 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    I’ve used a system similar to yours for handling a 20 person buffet and a 10 person sit-down dinner. However, I prefer to find out food restrictions before I consider the menu. I don’t use any new recipes but only dishes I have cooked at least twice before.

    Two lists that I have found to be especially handy are a grocery list (I write down the ingredients for all the dishes, then group by ingredient and add them together in a spreadsheet; I also do any conversions at that time so I have either all metric or all imperial measurements) and a schedule. I am not naturally very good at switching between different cooking tasks, but if I break apart each recipe and put them all together, I can just check off items as I do them. That way it is much easier to chop for X while Y is cooking, and then give Y a stir while sticking Z in the oven. It also allows you to look at the temperature at which things should be cooked, to see if you can put multiple things in the oven at once. A final advantage of making a master schedule is that it is easier to hand off tasks to other people if, for some reason, you have an unexpected helper.

    I also like to try to plan for a gap about 20 minutes before I expect guests, so I can use this time to change. I like to dress like a slob when I’m cooking, but I’d rather not greet my guests while I’m wearing sweatpants.


  10. Anne @ the doctor takes a wife on January 13, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    This was great–thanks for the tips!! I’ve been dying to host my own party 🙂


  11. Emily on January 13, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Last weekend I hosted a “moving to London” party for my brother. My husband and I cooked for 50 guests — both American and British dishes. I’m happy to report it was a success! (Recap coming soon on my blog.) Looks like your dinner party was wonderful, too. Cheers to 2010!


  12. Katrina on January 13, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    Nothing quite this nice, but our first “gig” will be a ThrowDown we challenged some friends to with French Silk Pie. Another friend commented that their pie was the best he’s ever had, so I challenged them to a throw down. (I’ve never made French Silk Pie). Anyone got the best one out there?!


  13. Drick on January 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    so many great tips – I can use all the help you can give me with Mardi Gras ….


  14. Allison on January 13, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    I have been planning to have a dinner party this year (part of the ongoing project) and this is definitely going to help me out. These things are always easier when they’re spelled out.


  15. Mary Poppins in Heels on January 13, 2010 at 11:35 pm

    Well, even sans pictures, this is a fantastic post!


  16. Christy on January 14, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Great post filled with fantastic tips-Thanks!! One of my goals for 2010 is to have several dinner parties with friends. I will definitely be referring back to your post to help out with the planning.


  17. wasabi prime on January 14, 2010 at 11:12 am

    Great timeline — I agree, I work backwards as well. And I always pick items where many things can be made ahead of time and the oven does most of the work, especially if it can just act as a warmer by the time the guests arrive. I hate being in the kitchen and not able to enjoy my own party!


  18. Jen R. ( on January 14, 2010 at 2:20 pm

    I am planning a Valentine’s Day party for my son and daughter and their friends!


  19. lcwhitty on January 14, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    As a self-professed “org freak” (obsessed with organizing everything!), I pulled together a great New Years party…a progressive party in which one home hosts appetizers/cocktails, next has entree, third has dessert. We covered all homes in 4 hours, on foot. Such fun!


  20. Jen @ My Kitchen Addiction on January 14, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    Your tips are great! I always start planning parties and family get togethers (especially Thanksgiving) weeks in advance. I will definitely use some of your tips next time. I don’t really have any upcoming events, but now I might have to plan one!


  21. Amanda on January 22, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Super Bowl/Birthday combined party, Mexican food theme 🙂

    this was a great post! thanks!


  22. Nicole on August 2, 2010 at 2:08 pm


    Where are the recipes that you list on your menu plan? The Roast Pork with Figs and Chesnuts? The Roasted Squash Salad? They sound delicatable and I would love to try them!


    • Michelle on August 4th, 2010 at 11:13 am

      Hi Nicole,

      Unfortunately due to the craziness that transpired that day (snowstorm, stranded grandparents that had to be retrieved!) I didn’t get photos of any of the food, so none of the recipes made it onto the blog. However, the Roast Pork with Fig and Chestnuts is a Martha Stewart recipe (I found it on her site) and the Roasted Butternut Squash Salad is an Ina Garten recipe, which I’m sure is online as well. Both were fabulous!! Enjoy! 🙂


  23. Pingback: 3 Quick and Easy Dinner Recipes | Still The Lovely

  24. Alyston on January 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    Hi! Love your blog!
    Any chance you could point me in the direction of the Mushroom Casserole!???


    • Michelle on January 30th, 2012 at 5:27 pm

      Amazingly enough, I still haven’t blogged this! I must get on that 🙂


  25. Pingback: How to Plan a Dinner Party (Or Any Party!) | Brown Eyed Baker | Recipes, Gossip & More!

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