Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about growing up and figuring out what this new phase of my life means for me. Dinner parties are the intersection between my desire to feel accomplished and adult and my need for soothing, familiar routines. Last year, I read an article on how dinner parties are a great way to keep friendships alive as an adult, and it just clicked— of course! People need to eat. I love to cook. I haven’t figured out how to socialize in situations without structure (e.g. nightclubs, ragers, un-themed hangouts? Hey Siri, how to “chill”), so dinner is the perfect way for me to see my friends, host an event, and try new recipes all at once.
However, I’m 22 and sharing an apartment with two other people. Our space isn’t tiny, but it definitely isn’t large. I have kitchen tools but not all of them (much to my chagrin). There are certain limitations to the early-20’s dinner party. Here’s some of the things I’ve learned about hosting dinners as a young adult.
General tips to stay sane
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
You’re young; your friends are young. No one is expecting their mother’s seven-course holiday meal. In fact, it might be weird if you try that hard. The point is not to intimidate with this event, it’s to share some food with people you like. If that means joking about overcooked broccoli or admitting you forgot to season the mushrooms, that’s okay. No one minds. While you’re rushing around the kitchen before people arrive, remember that things don’t need to be perfect for a perfectly lovely evening.
Ask for help.
Now is not the time to be overly polite and take on this entire event on your own. If your friends offer to bring things like side dishes or drinks, allow them to do so. Don’t worry too much about the menu and whether things will be cohesive. Everything will be just fine! I’ve asked guests to bring drinks, dessert components (never hurts to ask a dependable friend to bring ice cream), and even chairs, since our apartment has a dreadful shortage of those. No one has ever complained about any of these things, and it allows me to focus on cooking.
Another thing to allow people to help you with is clean-up. It’s a bit unconventional, sure, to ask your guests to bus their dishes and put them in the dishwasher after they’re done, but I’ve found that it’s enormously efficient and actually creates a nice communal-activity feeling. And of course, it eliminates the need for you to rinse an entire sinkful of plates and utensils once they leave.
Tidy, but don’t deep clean.
Obviously, you don’t want your guests to sit in filth when they’re in your home. But you don’t need to add the task of full-house deep cleaning to your already long list. No one will be checking your shelves for dust— your friends are not Asian drama mothers-in-law.
Cooking a multi-course dinner
Buy groceries the day before, never the day of.
I typically try to keep the guest list to 10 people max, but I’ve found that the sweet spot with my current abilities and apartment is around 4-6 people. Though that doesn’t sound like very many, it’s still very different to be cooking for 4 than it is for 1 or 2. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a long grocery list and inevitably forget things during your first trip. Going to the store the day before gives you wiggle room for a last-minute second trip the morning of.
Prep certain dishes ahead of time so you’re not slaving in the kitchen for six hours straight.
This especially applies to dessert, if you’re a dessert-type person. (If you’re not, it’s totally cool to bring out some fruit and chocolate and call it a night!) Most dessert recipes call for chilling or making ahead anyway, and everything can be beautiful and set while you cook your other dishes. This also applies for other courses— I love marinating proteins the night before, not only to save time the day of but also for depth of flavor!
Plan your menu with a workflow in mind.
Now this might sound needlessly anal, and it may very well be. But I love knowing exactly what I’m going to do at what time, in what sequence, and planning a menu fits right into this structuring. You should consider not only the way things will taste together, but also shared ingredients, shared oven temperatures, and anything else that makes your job easier.
And if you’re set on making three different dishes at three different temperatures, make sure you’re cooking dishes in order of increasing temp, since the oven won’t reliably cool down once it’s on. Maybe I’ve watched too many cooking shows, but chefs and very skilled home cooks all have one thing in common— strategic timing. Treat it like a game of sorts, and everything should come out, if not delicious, then at least edible. No one wants undercooked protein, and timely food really sets the mood for a good night.
Speaking of mood…
If people are quiet at first, don’t freak out.
My oft-intense desire to create and host a “nice evening” makes me a bit on-edge when it comes to the socializing part of the night. But it’s important to remember that – especially when your guests don’t all know each other well – things can be a little awkward at first. It’ll be a bit quiet. People won’t know what to do with themselves as you wrap up loose ends in the kitchen. Don’t do what I did once and command them to socialize, it’s not a switch you can turn on. Just let people pour themselves a drink and eat some finger foods, and things will get going in no time.
Set the vibe with little things.
This really depends on how you want the night to be. You don’t need full bouquets or elaborate centerpieces to make people feel at ease and ready to eat. Put on some inoffensive music (I need to do this) and maybe dim the lights. Light a candle (though I don’t recommend lighting scented candles for too long before dinner begins, it messes with the ~gastronomic experience~, which is as much about smell as it is about taste). My favorite easy way to set an elevated mood to the night is laying out a tablecloth, which is so easy, why wouldn’t you?
I find a lot of comfort in shared meals and slightly more formal occasions, which might be because my parents are fantastic and frequent hosts. But a dinner party, especially in your early 20’s, doesn’t have to be anything special or over-the-top. It really is just a couple of people, who want to hang out, having a meal together. And it’s something I’ll never stop doing.
Next on my list of hosting ideas: the black tie night-in. All the fun of getting dressed up with none of the social anxiety or freezing in the cold that going out entails. You’re invited! Bring your heels!