A student’s guide to dinner parties

Rebecca Wilson shares her top tips and tricks on how to throw a great dinner party in St Andrews.

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Hosting a dinner party is a fun and often inexpensive way to celebrate an occasion or while away an evening in pleasant company. Whether you want to make your dinner party sophisticated, themed, or competitive, this guide contains everything you need to pull it off.

As with any party, your guests will make or break the night. A dinner party is a great way to introduce friends who do not know each other or to introduce your new significant other to your friends. But, if you already know that people will clash, sitting them around a table for several hours is probably going to make the situation worse. So, choose carefully.

When creating the invite list, make sure that you have enough chairs and a big enough table to seat everyone comfortably. Even more importantly, think about whether you are going to be able to
cook for all of your guests. Between four and eight is a good number of people to invite, especially if it is the first time that you are hosting.

One recurring issue with student dinner parties is flatmates. It can be uncomfortable when a pyjama-laden hungover friend joins the kitchen to make pasta when everyone else is dressed up.

It’s not too bad if your kitchen is in a separate area away from where you will be eating. However, in halls where you might not be great friends with the people using the communal kitchen, this can be an issue. Of course, there are not too many options here; with plenty of notice, ask these kitchenmates to join or politely check if they are willing to make themselves scarce. If you know your flatmates are going to be around, try to prepare almost everything before your guests arrive. This way, you won’t have to wait for someone to finish using the cooker before your guests can eat.

The key to a good dinner party is preparation. It is important that you check dietary requirements early, as it is extremely awkward when you have made a chicken pie for a coeliac vegan. Do not worry about being honest if you are not sure what to cook for someone with a special dietary requirement. They will prefer it if you ask and might even offer to bring an alternative meal.

The best way to start your dinner party preparation is by deciding the menu and making sure it is suited to your budget. At this stage, it is also important to pay attention to timing, as dinner parties are not as fun when each person receives their food at ten-minute intervals.

To avoid this scenario, cook something you are comfortable preparing. This is not the time to try something brand new, as it can be quite embarrassing when you have to serve something to your guests that you do not want to eat yourself. When searching for recipes online, make sure you have a reliable source (such as BBC Good Food) to plan your menu and that there is plenty of time to buy ingredients.

After poisoning your guests, leaving them hungry is one of the worst dinner party faux-pas, so make sure you have enough food for everyone. According to the blog divinedinnerparty.com, you should have roughly half a kilo of food per person, not including dessert. It is always best to have more than you think you need, especially as people might want seconds. This might mean you have to eat your dish for the next several evenings, but it will probably be a relief after spending so long in the kitchen cooking and cleaning.

To make timing easier, especially if you are going down the traditional three-course route, pick one star dish. Normally your best dish will be your main course, so choose an easy but tasty starter which will get your night off to a good start without too much effort. Options include a tart made with ready-rolled puff pastry or stuffed peppers. Or, if you want something easy and delicious but a bit different, try a cheese fondue.

The easiest menus involve batch cooking, as these dishes can be cooked ahead of the event. There are many recipes that can be batch cooked, the most obvious ones being curries or stews. Good options include traditional Scottish Cullen skink, Thai green curry, or a Moroccan tagine. If you are not comfortable cooking from scratch try pre-made pastes, or even better, spice kits. These kits provide you with both the spices you need and a recipe. If you do choose the curry/stew option, think carefully about your other courses and textures; soup, followed by stew, followed by a mousse requires a lot of spoon usage.

Another perk of batch cooking is that you can save money by bulking the dish out with vegetables and pulses rather than serving a fillet of meat to each person.

If you want to use an expensive ingredient, another cost-saving method is to use it in smaller quantities as a starter rather than a main. You should also make sure that you are not paying for the things you can do yourself. Grate your own cheese and chop your own garlic rather than buying it pre-done.

It is also very normal to ask people to bring their own drinks, although it is best if you, the host, get a mixer and soft drinks.

Fans of the TV show Come Dine with Me know that entertainment can make or break a night. Getting the balance with entertainment is hard, but games seem to be a better option than a performance. If you are going out after dinner, the most obvious entertainment is drinking games. If not, try nostalgic kids games such as Jenga or interactive games that allow everyone to get involved. Games are especially great if you have invited people who do not know each other, as they are more fun than awkward post-dinner chat.

A big question surrounding dinner parties is whether there should be a theme. If done right, a theme can simplify the planning of your menu, decorations, music, and dress code, but if done badly a theme can add an embarrassing and marginally racist tone to your evening. Obvious themes are holidays such as Christmas, Halloween, or Thanksgiving. Other good themes are movies and TV shows or decades, such as a ‘90s party with crop tops and Capri Sun cocktails. Parties themed around certain celebrated cuisines such as those of Italy or Mexico can be another good option, although it is important to be culturally appropriate.

If you have a theme, the decorations and music will be easy to plan. If not, movie soundtracks offer great background music, and the guests can guess which film the songs come from if conversation dries up. Using these kinds of playlists also gives you one less thing to think about, as ready-made movie soundtrack playlists are available on Spotify and YouTube.

Decorations are never expected at dinner parties, but if you have time they are a nice touch, and there are thousands of decorating
ideas on Pinterest to get you started. Failing that, a simple vase of flowers always looks nice. However, if you opt for larger centerpieces, make sure they do not block conversation.

If you can, think about lighting when setting up your dinner area. This may sound like an overkill, but bright overhead lighting will not do your food any justice. It will also show any lurking stains on your sofa or carpet that you still have not got rid of. Candles are a good alternative to this if you are not in halls, but try not to use strong scented candles and have another light source. You could also try lighting the room with desk lamps from your flatmates’ rooms if you have no other options.

The most important thing to remember during the dinner party is to enjoy it, especially if things do not go to plan.

Robert Price, a PhD chemistry student, exemplifies this mantra. He recalled how the baking paper that he was using to cook a beef wellington once caught fire in the oven. Although Mr Price was quick to safely put the fire out, the pastry was covered in ash that he struggled to remove.

Not wanting to alarm his guests or own up to the mistake, the host simply covered it up with black pepper. Luckily, the guests had consumed too much wine to notice, proving the point that even if you make a mistake, you can usually style it out.

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