AP Home Economics: The Dinner Party Challenge

We entertain for dinner pretty often, or at least we used to until my brains got sucked out of my head when #4 was born a few months ago. But I expect our hospitality days will return someday. I find that it’s an ongoing challenge to plan a dinner party menu that gives me time to be with our guests but doesn’t involve Campbell’s condensed soup baking in a casserole dish. We had important dinner guests last night (prospective in-laws : )) and I realized that I have forgotten my groove. Or maybe I never had it.

But anyway, as I see it, here is the challenge of a good dinner party recipe repertoire:

(1) Allows for almost complete prep the night before. I NEVER have time the day-of to prepare ingredients, because I am too busy trying to prevent the trashing of our house and to tire out the kids for an earlier bedtime.

(2) Is ready to serve about one hour after guests arrive, but requires minimal cooking time during that final hour when dinner guests are here.

(3) Does not cost a fortune.

(4) Is seasonal and colorful and fresh and delicious.

That is a superhuman set of requirements, my friends, but we are superhuman and we know it, so here is one menu that has worked well for me in the past:

Hot appetizer of pesto pizza squares: ready to go dough, ready to spread pesto, bakeable so minimal hands on, always tasty and hard to mess up; basically any appetizer with a Pillsbury dough base is easy and great, and who has to know that the Doughboy helped?

Antipasto-ish blend: roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, chunks of salami and squares of mozzarella or provolone, whatever; served cold so can be all ready the night before

Salad: sliced tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, and fresh basil over lettuce w/balsamic and olive oil, minimal ingredients all of which can be prepped the night before

Meat: Italian marinaded pork tenderloin (often on sale)–marinade the day before or buy marinaded, only requires about an hour of roasting just before time to serve

Starch: angel hair pasta w/butter and garlic or risotto

Garlic bread warmed at the last minute, when the pork comes out

This menu has flavorful, colorful and simple ingredients, it goes well together, and I wasn’t in the kitchen much. Also, I thought it was easy to delegate parts–eg: someone else can compile the salad, stir the risotto, or carve the tenderloin while we chat.

If you have a repertoire, even just the names of dishes or the general theme, please share. Don’t you love learning Home Economics through trial and (lots of) error?

  • Helen

    We do lots of entertaining and one do-ahead meal that we love is a Jamie Oliver sausage and tomato bake.u00a0http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/pork-recipes/sweet-cherry-tomato-sausage-bakeu00a0You do need to use a port sausage, preferably a Cumberland, for it, though! I don’t know what sausages are like in the US but pork is standard in the UK. I tried it with beef and it didn’t work at all. This dish is speedy to put together the night before and the sausages just need to be turned halfway through baking. It is delicious served with rice (we do ours in the rice cooker) and a Greek salad.nnAnother option is curry or casseroles, which always taste better the day after you make them anyway.

    • Helen

      Pork sausage, not port. I’m very familiar with baby brain!

  • Anonymous

    When we do dinner parties (which is not very often) which usually do something more informal, with several mini appetizers that are easy to prepare, and often something in the crockpot, like Italian Beef or Pulled Pork Barbecue.u00a0 nnThink veggie pizzas and spicy salami roll ups, veggies and hummus, mini shrimp wraps, stuff like that.nnIt’s either that, or we throw everything on the grill and send the men with their beers out back to monitor it.u00a0 Potato and/or pasta salad is an easy fix the day before. nnOf course our dinner parties are usually surrounding something like a board game night.u00a0 I’m not sure I’ve ever done a formal sit down dinner party.u00a0 We’ve had people over for dinner, but not so much party oriented, just for chatting.u00a0 Soup in the crock pot, simple salad, crusty rolls, and a cobbler for desert (takes about an hour to cook so you put it in when the guest arrives, it’s out of the oven as dinner begins, and cooled off enough to eat by the time dinner is over), works well in those situations.nnnn

  • Anonymous

    I think it is hard to serve something fresh that you make the day before.u00a0 If you are doing a fancier/more formal dinner party, I have found it best to leave plenty of time the morning of the party to prepare the food and clean.u00a0 Otherwise, I am stressed and things don’t go according to plan.nnThe easiest meal that I serve for guests in the fall/winter is a pot roast.u00a0 I purchase a good large cut of meat (quality is key!), and cook it all day in the slow cooker.u00a0 Serve with homemade bread and a fancy salad (for example, fancy greens/cooked pears/gorgonzola cheese, candied walnuts, and a homemade vinaigrette dressing).u00a0 The pot roast, bread, and salad can be prepped and mostly finished in the morning (you may be able to prep them all the night before and just start cooking the roast in the morning).u00a0 You can toss the salad together right before the meal (dressing and prep work can be done the day before).u00a0 I have received a lot of compliments on this dinner, and it is very easy and can serve up to 8 adults.u00a0 I then purchase some nice red wine, and a locally made dessert (the local bakery makes fabulous cream donuts).u00a0 Total prep time–1 hour (mostly in the morning).nnHere is my pot roast recipe–nnEye or Chunk Roastn1 cup red winen2 cloves garlicnsalt to tasten1/2 cup pureed tomatoesn1 large onionn2-3 sliced carrotsn2-3 stalks of celery dicedndiced potatoes (1 per person)n(you can also add a package of dry onion soup mix for more flavor, but I don’t do it, I just add salt).n2-3 Tablespoons of Corn Starch to thicken gravyn3 Tablespoons fresh parsleynnPut all the ingredients in the slow cooker and cook for 6-8 hours.u00a0 Super Easy!!!u00a0 And the great part about this dinner–it doesn’t matter if things are running late.u00a0 If guests arrive an hour late, just cook the roast a bit longer–no stress!

  • JMB

    We entertain a lot.u00a0 Here’s my scoop.u00a0 No apps but cheese & crackers.u00a0 Get a good triple cream brie and some nice water crackers.u00a0 Get some good wine & beer.u00a0 nnAny type of beef makes a great presentation, esp a rib roast.u00a0 You can do this all in your oven. It’s expensive but you can’t screw it up and if you watch the supermarket circulars, it is on special every now and then.u00a0u00a0 Another option is lamb.u00a0 Marinate with some olive oil, salt and pepper, maybe throw in some garlic; thyme and (if lamb, rosemary).nnSalad:u00a0 watercress or arugula (in bag) with olive oil, splash of red wine vinegar and some salt and pepper (do this last minute)nnstarch:u00a0 red potatoes: either boil or roast in oven.nndessert: have guests bring it.

  • Christy

    A yummy, easy dessert to go with your Italian-ish meal would be Affogato. It’s just hot esspresso poured over vanilla ice cream. Serve up the ice cream in individual bowls and pour the esspresso over it at the table. I think pouring it at the table makes this dinner party fare. Otherwise, your guests might think you’re serving them melted ice cream!u00a0 I use a $20 stove-top esspresso maker from Bed Bath and Beyond. I’ve heard that purists wouldn’t technically call this esspresso but I ignore them! I use decaf esspresso if I’m making it in the evening. My favorite ice cream for this is Breyers Natural Vanilla. Serve with store bought biscotti or cookies. Added bonus- no need to serve coffee with dessert!

    • Jurismater

      Love it, Christy, I’m all over this. Dessert is definitely my weak suit, if someone doesn’t bring it I’m lost. This is an amazing way to combine coffee and dessert that is simple and elegant. Thank you! It’s appropriate with an Italian type meal but would go well with anything. Starbucks has made biscotti into standard American fare. My favorite ice cream is Breyers Natural Vanilla, it goes well alone or with absolutely everything!

  • Mary Alice

    We do a cherry tomato pasta from Ina Gartennnhttp://www.dreamydish.com/summer-garden-pastannThe sauce has to marinate for at least 2 hours, so it is all prepped in advance and all you do is add the pasta at the last minute.u00a0 I prefer penne to the cappellini if it will be easier for a group to eat.nnAlso, I’ll throw in that we really like to entertain with Sunday brunches.u00a0 You can be elegant without being fussy just by setting the table nicely and it costs nothing to buy a few dozen extra eggs.u00a0 For advance prep we have done frittatas which marinate and just have to bake.u00a0 You can make waffles in advance and just warm them in the oven, and if you have real maple syrup in pitchers it feels very indulgent.u00a0 We have all day Saturday to prep, and if the children are already dressed from church and haven’t had time to messy up the house, that is a bonus!nnQuestion for you, when you entertain at night, are your friends leaving their kids at home?u00a0 I have to admit that I have never hosted or attended a dinner party without kids among our generation.u00a0 I think that my friends would think of my as totally wonky if I invited them for a dressy dinner.

    • Erin

      We usually do an early dinner– ask our friends to come over around 5 and we’ll eat around 6.u00a0 Most of our kids are toddlers, with 7:30ish bedtimes.u00a0 On a weekend night most parents push it to about 7:45 or 8, so we get about an hour to hang out after the meal.u00a0 That gives 3 good hours of entertaining, plus leaves us ample time to clean up after our own are in bed.u00a0 nnFor more formal (or just special–e.g., superbowl, husband’s birthday)u00a0occassions, we feel out our friends ahead of time, and give a heads up to try to get a babysitter (nursing babies usually always accompany), or when the babies are young, we set up pack n plays in our bedroom and living room and tell guests they are welcome to put the babies down at our house.u00a0nnIt is a tough thing to try to plan for dinner parties when all the guests have young children.u00a0 We allow plenty of time at the front end.u00a0 Then again, this is not formal entertaining, its usually just our close friends for grilling out, risoto or a pasta dish (or pizza on fridays).u00a0 nnWe have found sunday brunch hosting to be a lot more convenient for everyone!

    • Jurismater

      A majority of our dinner party entertaining is friends without kids, eg newly marrieds, teachers from the school, singles in the area, friends passing through town and stopping in for the night (I love living in this area for that!), family members, that kind of thing. But we also do have real dinner parties with our friends w/kids–they are either comfortable getting babysitters at their own houses (then we put our kids in bed before their 8pm-ish arrival, the meal has to be awesome, and we usually would get a sitter and go to their house on another occasion) or bringing their kids over to watch a movie in the basement while the adults eat. Our parents’ generation expected to be able to do this type of thing, and I think it’s nice for everyone when we do it. The kids see the adults dressed up and having a special occasion–it’s good for them to see that we don’t just hang around in playclothes 24/7 catering to their kid world, and to witness a nice table setting, polite conversation, the civilized adult world. And the adults get to have real, uninterrupted conversation, which is much better and higher quality than playdate chatter.

      • Anonymous

        We do the same thing here JM!u00a0 Some of my most fun nights in the past few years have been those evenings alone with other adults “hosting” a dinner party.u00a0 I love that your family is always up for this!u00a0 And I have had to occasionally host people from my husband’s job, younger couples who do not have kids.

  • Texas Mommy

    Like MaryAlice, I’m also a fan of the brunch party. I make overnight french toast in advance the night before after the kids are in bed and can just stick it in the oven after mass. Fruit salad and warm up some canadian bacon and we are done. OJ in wine glasses makes it look super fancy. Love the syrup in pitchers idea.nnThose big hams from Costco are an inexpensive way to feed a crowd. When we have big holiday parties, I can get two of those which require very little effort other than warming, rolls and have the other guests bring the sides.u00a0nnI also like grilling for lunch/dinner guests. The dads go outside and congregate around the grill and the kids naturally follow. All the kids are better behaved b/c they can run around and burn energy, my house is less trashed and I have more chance to talk to guests. But dinner is hard when my kids have such an early bedtime. So we tell friends that we’ll do an early dinner around 5 or 5:30.u00a0

    • Texas Mommy

      I should add that grilling a relatively inexpensive piece of meat works well. I marinate flank steak overnight and it just has to be thrown on the grill for a few minutes.u00a0

  • Jurismater

    These suggestions are really great. I’ve never been a great beef chef, but I am taking your beef suggestions to heart especially–with a salad and a side, that’s a meal with very little last minute work.nnAlso, entertaining for brunch is a great suggestion. We generally guard our Sundays and do Mass, a nice family (just us) brunch, then a family outing. I think that’s especially important with two kids in school all week. And I’m also a little averse to having our house trashed by guests come Sunday afternoon and having to pull it back together for the week. But for family style entertaining, Sunday brunch is a super suggestions, and as you all say, can be very simple and hearty and cheap (eggs!)

  • Kate E.

    Wow great ideas here, as usual. Sadly our parties lately have involved throwing the kids in bed, dumping some salsa in a bowl and having really good beer on the front porch with our neighbors. It’s actually pretty awesome, but as summer turns to fall I think we need to be ambitious.u00a0 And I love the idea of grown up dinners. Quite frankly I’d rather host a dinner party and the trouble that goes with it, then have all my friends kids over and have a trashed house (Alice of course your kids are the exception since they clean so nicely :) I love having time with other adults but we usually save that for going out time, but this is really more economical (only one couple has to pay a babysitter! and you could alternate houses, etc). It is what our parents used to do, before going out was more common, and I think it’s great. So off to write down these ideas and get planning….for like January, or February, or some calm sounding month.n

    • Jurismater

      Hi Kate, totally agreed with all you say here, and the way you put it inspires me to get back in the saddle with dinner entertaining this fall. Now I just need my brain back. Anyway, yes, as you say, I’d rather have to clean up thoroughly for adults and have a clean house when they leave versus having kids over and an aftermath of a trashed house and kitchen and spending the rest of our weekend dealing with it. Plus it’s really not that fun when the kids are around–not all couples deal well with adult conversation when their kids are nearby. And yes, it’s economical to do dinner parties at homes. The couples who pay $35-$50 for 4 hours of babysitting have no food cost, and the couple throwing the party has no babysitting cost. Then you alternate homes. If you add dinner out plus babysitting it’s easily twice that for each couple. And it’s so much more leisurely to be in someone’s home, easier to relax and talk after the meal is finished versus at a restaurant where when the eating is finished they want you out.u00a0

  • ontheroad

    I feel like a real wimp. Many of our friends are big foodies — and up until recently, we never had the space to entertain. Now we do, but the thought of pulling it all together so stresses me out that I prefer to pass. I’ve even thought of getting takeout and faking it : -) Kidding, sort of. nAlso, I’ve never been anything more than an adequate cook. My hubby would like to entertain a little more now that we have more space, but I find it all so stressful. nI appreciate the suggestions (and recipes here). Any websites or blogs to recommend? nMy plan is to get one really good/easy recipe down pat — fix it several times just for our family – and then feel confident to use it for a number of guest dinners at our house.nUp until now, it’s been grilling – and chili for football games. We need to step up our game a little.

  • JMB

    Are any of youu00a0 couples in a gourmet group?u00a0 We did one for years with 4 other couples (10 people in total).u00a0 We met 5x over the year,u00a0 the host couple would set up for a dinner party, do the main course (meat or fish) and assign the other four something to bring:u00a0 a side, a salad, an app and a dessert. Each couple brought a bottle of wine or 6 pack of beer.u00a0 We did theme parties:u00a0 Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, Boxing Day, Easter, Superbowl, Asian cooking, Indian food, Thai/Chinese.u00a0 It was a lot of fun.u00a0 It was nice because it rotated and you didn’t have to worry about doing the entire meal, from start to finish.u00a0 It was a lot of fun and relatively cheap for those on a budget.


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