How to create the right guest list, menu, ambience & more

So you’re planning on throwing your first dinner party, and you don’t quite know where to start. Have no fear! We’ve compiled a list of helpful tips and tricks for the first-time dinner party host, from choosing a theme to curating the perfect menu. We’ve also interviewed event planning expert Ivy Summer and etiquette expert Lynda Jean for added insight, so keep reading!

Things You Should Know

  • Create a short and sweet guest list of 6-8 friends and choose supportive, easygoing guests to ensure good vibes.
  • Stick to tried-and-true recipes you enjoy and prepare what you can in advance so you aren’t worrying about cooking at the party.
  • Make a fun playlist that goes with the theme of your party, dim the overhead lights, and fill your space with candles to create the perfect ambience.
1

Decide who to invite.

  1. Smaller dinner parties of 6-8 people are easier to prepare and cook for, which is definitely a plus for a first-time host.[1] Pick supportive, easygoing friends to invite rather than critical ones who might be harder to entertain. This will create an upbeat, lighthearted atmosphere instead of a stressful one.
    • Invite people you think would get along well with each other and avoid inviting any guests who have personal issues with each other.
    • This encourages good conversation and positive vibes so you can focus on your hosting duties rather than diffusing any tensions.
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2

Choose a theme.

  1. For example, if you’re throwing a Harry Potter dinner party, Ivy Summer, owner of Voulez Events, recommends going all in. “Chocolate frogs can be an accent to your food table,” she says. “You can even have certain drinks or ‘potions’ in different beakers and glasses to spice things up.” Here are a few other examples:
    • A Mamma Mia themed party complete with delicious Greek food, decor that makes your space look like a villa, and an upbeat ABBA playlist.
    • A dinner party inspired by The Great Gatsby featuring fancy finger foods, champagne, and a 20’s inspired dress code.
    • A holiday party with festive dishes like roast chicken, mashed potatoes, gingerbread cookies, and peppermint bark (plus a Christmas tree for decor).
4

Curate a menu.

  1. You might be tempted to try out fancy new recipes, but this adds stress on your busy day. Stick to mostly tried-and-true recipes so you can focus on being a good host rather than worrying about your soufflé collapsing.[4] Here are a few sample menus to give you some ideas:
    • Italian inspired cuisine: bruschetta, mixed greens salad, spaghetti with the sauce and protein of your choice, roasted potatoes, tiramisu for dessert, and prosecco to drink.
    • Simple seafood dinner: fresh bread, baked brie, salmon fillets, roasted veggies, key lime pie for dessert, and white wine to drink.
    • Steakhouse themed dinner party: bread rolls and butter, wedge salad, steak platter, mashed potatoes, sauteéd spinach, cheesecake for dessert, and cocktails to drink.
5

Decide what drinks to serve.

  1. As a general rule, red wine pairs well with red meat, while white wine pairs well with seafood and veggies.[5] If you’re not a fan of wine, keep things simple and pick one cocktail to serve. This allows you to make a large quantity in advance rather than scrambling to make different drinks during the party!
    • Don’t stress about having a ton of alcohol options—it’s completely fine to serve just one type of wine or one house cocktail.
    • If you do want more variety, consider making the party BYOB (bring your own bottle). This takes some of the pressure off you while expanding the drink menu!
    • Make sure you have non-alcoholic options like sparkling water, still water, and soft drinks on hand as well.
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6

Cook what you can in advance.

  1. As a general rule of thumb, limit yourself to only one dish that requires in-the-moment preparation.[6] Cook everything else in the hours leading up to the party, leaving yourself about 45-minutes of free time before your guests arrive to change your clothes and ready yourself.[7]
    • Since most cakes, pies, cookies, and puddings can be made ahead of time, plan on preparing your dessert course the night before your party.
    • This gives you one less thing to worry about on the day of the event![8]
7

Set the table before guests arrive.

  1. Lynda Jean, etiquette expert and owner of Lynda Jean Image Consulting, recommends using the acronym BMW to help you remember how to set your table. “The bread plate will go to the left,” she says. “It can be beside your main plate or higher. The M is the large meal plate, and the W is water on the top right.”
    • For cutlery, “The knife and spoon go on the right,” she says. “You’ll usually have two forks, a small one and a large one. The small one will be the salad fork, and that goes on the outside because you’re going to use that first. Then the larger fork is beside the plate.”
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8

Create the right ambience.

11

Have an after-dinner activity lined up.

  1. If you’re throwing a Harry Potter dinner party, Ivy Summer recommends a Sorting Hat Ceremony. “Have your Sorting Hat and a chair ready to go,” she says. You can have your guests take a sorting quiz, or “they can sort themselves if they already know what house they're in.” Then place the hat on each guest's head and announce their Hogwarts House!
    • If you’re throwing a Mamma Mia themed party, have an ABBA karaoke session after your guests finish eating.
    • If you're throwing a holiday dinner party, plan a secret Santa or white elephant gift exchange.
    • If you don't have a specific theme, board games, card games, and charades make great after dinner activities as well!
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Expert Interview

Thanks for reading our article! If you’d like to learn more about planning a wedding, check out our in-depth interview with Ivy Summer.

About This Article

Ivy Summer
Co-authored by:
Certified Wedding & Event Planner
This article was co-authored by Ivy Summer and by wikiHow staff writer, Annabelle Reyes. Ivy Summer is a Certified Wedding Planner and the Owner of Voulez Events. Ivy has over 10 years of experience consulting, planning and coordinating weddings around the globe. She has also created a DIY online wedding planning workshop for couples, called "Plan Your Wedding Like A Pro." She currently resides in Greece where she continues to work with a worldwide network of planners and wedding professionals.
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Co-authors: 3
Updated: January 9, 2024
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