Once upon a time, growing up meant getting married or buying a home. But times have changed, and so have the milestones for adulthood. These days, you don't need a certificate to prove you're all grown up. You're making decisions that have integrity, you have career ambitions, you've cultivated a circle of friends that feel like a second family, you've cleaned the gunk in your fridge (at least once) and you've even got a couch that doesn't smell like mothballs and malt liquor. You are one Paperless Post away from hitting a major mark of maturity: throwing a dinner party.
Yes, you are ready for this. And no, it's not like any other party you've ever thrown. The dinner party is an undertaking that requires a certain measure of planning, precision and prep work to satiate your select group of guests. If you've done your job, the night will inevitably devolve into a debaucherous dance party. (That's a surefire sign of success.) But before all that, you need to get organized and we're here to help. Consider the following hacks and tips for hosting an unforgettable night.
Step 1: Plan Your Guest List
Forget the food; the company is the most crucial element of any dinner party. Choosing who to invite can be a daunting task, but there are some helpful tips to guide you. According to food writer Amanda Hesser, the magic number for any dinner party guest list is eight, and they shouldn't be random. "It's okay to introduce a few people to each other—we love that—but if they're all strangers, you'll have some heavy lifting to do," Hesser writes in Bon Appetit. She suggests selecting an "anchor guest"—someone who's funny, lively, warm and charming to set the right vibe. Then choose a few shared acquaintances, along with one or two random folks you think will appreciate the company.
Step 2: Invite Away!
Party planner Fiona Leahy suggests sending out the initial invitations two weeks in advance of the party and following up with guests and their dietary restrictions a week before the big day. That intel will help you plan your menu and prep the table accordingly.
Step 3: Figure Out Your Table Sitch
Maybe you have an 8-person dinner table, but if you don't—no big deal. There are tons of options when it comes to seating and eating. If you're committed to a formal dining sitch, you could spend around $50 on Amazon for a cheap foldable table that's easy to spruce up with a table cloth and a centerpiece. When you're done with it, store it under your bed or in a closet. But first, take inventory of what you have and see if you can DIY. When it comes to tabletops, "everything from kitchen carts to desks to discarded doors are fair game," suggests PopSugar's Maggie Winterfeldt. "Push everything together to form a big table — and don't stress if they don't perfectly align." Another option? Make it buffet style and let your guests eat around the living room, using floor pillows for extra seating and the coffee table as your main dining area.
Step 4: DRANKS
If you really want to give your guests a memorable treat, choose a signature cocktail you can make in advance and set it out in a pitcher or punch bowl on a designated bar area. (Check out some recipes here.) Next, have 3-4 bottles of wine that also work well with your meal—but expect your guests to bring more. There's no harm in suggesting it on the invite, too. Real glasses are key to a grownup dinner party—this ain't no red cup frat house. It's cool to mix and match jam jars and other glasses for an eclectic look, or if you're looking to really step it up, IKEA has an array of two-dollar glasses in all shapes and sizes.
Step 5: Planning and Prepping the Menu
Once you know who's coming and what their dietary restrictions may be, it's time to map out your meal plan. Across the board, party planning pros suggest purchasing apps instead of cooking them from scratch. This way, you've got more time to devote to the main course. Pick up some Trader Joe's flatbread pizzas and cut them into squares, or arrange a cheese board with fresh bread slices and a ramekin of honey for that upscale touch.
When it comes to the main course, the key is to choose something that won't keep you from your guests. "Choose a main course that tastes even better if it sits overnight, like a braise or stew," Hesser writes. "You'll love knowing it's done long before guests arrive (and that it's even more delicious that way—win-win!)." If you're feeding a few vegetarians, consider making multiple quiches as your main—this way your guests can choose between meat-based and veggie options. Plus, quiches are easy to prepare in advance and reheat quickly without losing their flavor.
Marie-Claire's Larkin Clark has another suggestion. "Skip the traditional set-up and go for an activity-based meal like fondue, raclette, or tacos," she writes. "DIY meals require less time-sensitive prep on your end and encourage people to interact – just put out the ingredients, give a mini tutorial if it's something unique, and let people nosh."
For dessert, you can go the way of the apps and purchase some ready-made pies that only require reheating to taste homemade. Remember you want to be at the party, and not stuck in the kitchen all night.
Step 6: Setting the Mood
Let's start with the secret sauce: lighting. "Soft lighting brings people closer, creates cozier affairs and can even make small spaces seem bigger," writes Apartment Therapy's Mat Sanders. Skip the overheads and use some dim wattage bulbs in your table lamps. Light unscented candles and consider hanging some fairy lights around the room to set the place aglow.
Next, figure out where people will put their stuff. "Have a coat rack or closet handy and open for guests' use during the party, and a spare chair or room for guests' purses and other belongings to gather," suggests Lifehack's Mikkie Mills.
Finally, curate that killer playlist. You might want to start with a chill vibe that gets progressively more amped up as the night continues. If playlists aren't your thing, Spotify has some dinner party song lists already prepped for you.
Step 7: Game On!
The guests are arriving, the dinner is prepped and now comes the hard part: not freaking out. Remember, this isn't about perfection. No one cares if the meat is slightly dry or if the plates don't all match. It's about having fun, enjoying your friends and celebrating your new milestone of adulthood. Now, relax and go party like the grown-ass woman that you are.