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Successful Dinner Party Planning


Dinner parties are not mere dinners.  They have a sense of occasion and anticipation wrapped around them that make them far more special than a simple get together.  In the warmth of winter, many of us love hosting a dinner party for our friends whether it be for a purpose such as a milestone anniversary or birthday, a welcome home or a good-bye, or just because we want to share our hospitality with those closest to us.

Develop Your Theme & Vision

Like any event, the key to planning a successful dinner party is a combination of vision and organisation.  Start with a vision of what your event is for and try and imagine the outcome you want to achieve.  You might like to think about the reason for the event as well as the people you're wanting to invite.  Think about the season and where you will be hosting the event and the sort of food you're imagining serving to guests.  All of these should lead you to a vision of your event and even to a theme if you want to theme the dinner party.  You can see some of Pink Frosting's fun dinner party themes to try right here in our party planning website and read more about envisioning an event as well to help you develop your ideas more.

Decide When and Where

Once you have decided on your theme for the party, then choose the date, time and location for the event.  Remember to choose the location based on your theme and vision, so for a cosy winter soiree, you could choose to stage the event in an intimate, perhaps fire-side space with plenty of warmth and ambient light.  The other important factor is the kitchen and cooking faciliities if you are planning on catering the party yourself.  If you don't have a good kitchen for cooking a meal for a large guest list, think about locating your event elsewhere, or hiring a caterer if you have no alternative options for space.  As for timing, for most guests, the best time to begin your dinner party is at 7.30pm which will allow them to get home from their day's activities and be ready for a night out, as well as tuck small kids safely into bed.

The question of "when" is one that may need to be answered after you have developed your guest list.  If you have a guest of honour, then it is wise to negotiate a suitable date with them first before you make any concrete arrangements.

Decide Who - Your Guest List

Perhaps the trickiest part of a dinner party is the question of who will be invited to attend.  Often, small parties lead to lots of questions of etiquette such as if you invite this person, will you need to invite this person.  Sometimes a larger guest list is easier to handle!  The best advice we have is to start with the must-have names (guest of honour, best friends, guests who are fantastic in social situations i.e. "the life of the party" types) and work your way from there.  Give yourself a cut off for numbers because of space and/ or budget restrictions and recognise the fact that you may need a few extra names on a B -list just in case you need to invite more people to make up the group. 


We are always fans of a formal invitation - no matter if the party is casual or formal, how wonderful is it to receive a party invitation in the post?  If you don't have time, then you can always send an email or phone your guests to invite them to less formal dinner parties. 

Try and send your invitations around 4-6 weeks in advance, particularly during "party seasons" such as December and January when many guests will have several options for socialising each weekend.  The other must-have is to request an RSVP from your guests to ensure you know how many guests will be at your dinner party.  It is inevitable that you may need to ring some people from your guest list a week in advance to confirm their attendance.

What Will Happen - Envisioning The Night

One of the big questions you will need to answer for yourself in planning a successful dinner party is how will the night progress?  Here is a sample timeline for your dinner party:

  • 7.30pm - Guests Arrive
  • Until 8.30pm - Cocktails and pre-dinner drinks served with canapes in the lounge area with ambient lighting and music.
  • 8.30pm - 10.00pm - Dinner served at the dinner table
  • 10.00pm until midnight - After dinner drinks and cheese platters served in the lounge area.
  • Midnight - guests depart

Of course, this is a very flexible timetable and depending on the celebration and location, it may look very different for your dinner party.  The idea is to think about how you will arrange the night and locate guests during different phases of the event.

Decorations & Styling

Decorating a dinner party is a hugely fun part of the planning the event.  Again, start with your theme and develop your decorations planning from there.  Dinner parties celebrating a milestone birthday will demand very different decorations to a dinner party themed around a murder-mystery for your best friends.  Get some great ideas on party decorations and styling from Pink Frosting's famous party decorations online shop.

Here are the major styling and decorating elements you will need to consider:

  • Lighting - Candles make the best dinner party lights as they cast an ambient glow over the table and create intimacy in the space.  If you can turn down overhead lights, even better to let the candles twinkle on the table.  It's best to choose dripless and odourless candles for your table as you don't want to dull the aromas of your food with artificial candle scents.  Don't be too concerned about size and shape - some of the most beautiful dinner party tables we have seen have many different sizes of candles - tapers, votives, tea lights, pillars - all placed down the centre of the table with a simple floral arrangement - simple and beautiful and you can reuse these candles over and over and over again.
  • Table Centrepiece - Table centrepieces should be either low or high, but not in-between.  A dinner party is an event that encourages conversation, so a centrepiece that disrupts eye contact will be an ice-maker not an ice-breaker for your guests!  There's usually nothing nicer than a floral centrepiece, but do be careful not to choose flowers that are too fragrant as they can take away from your menu and wine list.  There are some beautiful ideas for table centrepieces right here at Pink Frosting's party planning pages.
  • Music - Make your music list ahead of time and pop it onto your iPod or make a CD for the party.  Choose music that suits the theme of the event, suits the guests, and suits the space.  Turn the music to a level that is audible with the conversations going on - you may need to adjust the volume during the night as the party progresses and moves to different spaces.
  • Seating and Table Arrangements - Once you have your guest list, think about who is best to be seated next to one another to ensure good conversation throughout the party.  Many great dinner parties mix up the usual seating plans to encourage new friendships.  Use a place card at each place setting to ensure that guests know where to sit and avoid any confusion.
  • Areas other than the table - If you are planning to have guests mingle in other areas apart from at the table, plan to add some decorative elements there too.  More candles, hanging lanterns and floral arrangements make an area festive.  Think also about how the guests will mingle in these areas - will they sit, stand or lounge?  Whatever you decide, arrange the chairs and some resting tables for drinks and food in little gathering spots so your guests are comfortable and traffic can flow easily.
  • Bathrooms - Guests will inevitably need to visit the rest room during the evening, so take a little care to ensure your bathroom is well lit and easy to access for guests.  Add a few candles or incense to make guests feel even more special, and of course ensure there are plenty of clean fluffy towels available, as well as pretty soaps near the taps.

Planning Your Menu

Your food and drinks are central to your dinner party's success, but don't get worked up about needing to be a Martha Stewart entertaining genius in order to host a successful dinner party.  You should choose a menu that suits your cooking prowess and use the best ingredients you can afford to buy - then you will have a successful menu.  It's never a good idea to try out a new recipe on your guests - always try it before the big day to make sure you feel comfortable cooking it and that you're happy with the outcome.  You just don't need any added pressure when you have guests coming over!

Here are our best tips for planning the perfect dinner party menu:

  • Think about what is in season -Ingredients that are in season will be the best ingredients for your recipes.  Full stop!  And, try and buy your ingredients fresh from your local farmers markets - the taste will definitely be worth the effort and it will no doubt be cheaper than purchasing out of season vegetables as well.  Also think about the weather for your event - you want to be serving warm dishes in winter, and you can include cool dishes in summer months.
  • Think about balance - Choose complementary tastes, textures and colours.  Think about the best restaurant menus for a good example of how to balance a menu.  They usually balance a light starter with a rich main course, followed by a light salad and a decadent but small dessert helping. 
  • Simple is the key - Don't get too complicated with menus and tastes.  Simple flavour-filled menus are always the best and suit all palettes.

Try and prepare as much of your menu in advance as possible so you can enjoy the evening.  You don't want to be stuck in the kitchen all night cooking complicated dishes for your guests.  Your guests will want your company on the night, and you will be much less stressed if you have simple and well-organised meals prepared.

Planning Your Drinks

For most dinner parties, you will need to have at least a red and white wine, perhaps a sparkling wine for pre-dinner drinks, a heavy and light beer, as well as some non-alcoholic drinks prepared such as juices, soft drinks, sparkling water and still water for the table.  You will also need coffee and tea for after the dinner as well as after-dinner drinks such as brandy, dessert wine or liqueurs.  Get the low-down on choosing your party wine right here at Pink Frosting.

Setting the Table

When it comes to setting the table, there are so many rights and wrongs!  Remember these basic elements and then plan from there:

  • Linen - Basic white linen is the best for almost all parties.  A cotton linen table cloth ironed and than placed over the table is the perfect base for any event table.  Then you can add your decorative elements from there.
  • Napkins - Choose cloth napkins for your dinner party unless you are entertaining very casually or outside.  Iron them with a crease either in a square or triangle and lay on the plates for the perfect place setting.
  • Placemats -Your placemats can really add to your table decorations and complement the theme.  Think woven place mats for beach or summery affairs, and warmly coloured linens for winter soirees.  You can play with the texture, shape and colour of your place mats to style your table for your theme.
  • Runners - Table runners aren't a necessary element but can make a big impact for your theme.  Contrast the colour of your table runner with the placemats for a fun look.  Then, add your candles and table centrepiece on top of the runner to complete the look.
  • Glasses - For a basic table setting, you will need a white wine glass or red wine glass as well as a water tumbler for each setting.  If you are serving both white and red, it is best to have a glass for each at each setting and this also looks more formal and interesting as well.
  • Dinnerware - If you are setting for a formal party, start with a charger ready at each setting.  However, you can either have a plate ready at the table for guests to serve themselves or bring plates to the table as each course is ready.  You'll need a bread plate to the left of each plate.
  • Cutlery - Generally, you'll need three forks to the left of the plate (starting from the outside - entree or salad fork, dinner fork and then dessert fork closest to the plate) and two knives to the right (an entree knife if needed and then the main course knife in the centre) followed by a dessert spoon on the outside right.  You will also need to place a bread knife on the bread plate.

Get the low-down on the perfect table settings and how to set the dinner table correctly right here if you are confused!

Once the candles are lit and your stove is bubbling with goodness, your music is gently playing and your guests arrive... remember to enjoy the evening!

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