5 Tips (And Recipes) For Hosting A Dinner Party After Work

We all know the feeling. You’ve been trying to reach that friend of yours for weeks because you want to throw her—and maybe a few other folks—a dinner party. At last, your friend has contacted you. She is free this week. (Gasp!) Your heart flutters excitedly until your friend throws you a curveball. She wants to get together not this weekend, but one night after work. You start to panic. You think, “I get off at 5. How can I possibly host a successful dinner party when I have merely an hour, two hours maximum, to get everything together?”

Well, darlings, you can. Heed these five tips for hosting dinner parties on a time crunch, and you’ll make entertaining look easier than tying your shoe. Of course, it’s not, but who needs to know?

The Recipes

The Advice

1. Be quick and simmer.

The key to bolstering your guests’ confidence in you as a host—and the key to keeping your anxiety at bay—is choosing a main dish that you know, without a doubt, will be ready when your guests arrive. After all, no one likes to stand around for indefinite amounts of time waiting for meats to brown or casseroles to bubble.

One of my favorite resources for recipes with guaranteed success rates and low prep times is MyRecipes.com, which is an aggregate of recipes from magazines like Southern Living, Cooking Light, Sunset, Coastal Living, and Real Simple that taste and test their recipes until they’re perfectly balanced and foolproof. The website also includes cook times and prep times with most of its recipes, giving you a better gauge of the feasibility of cooking certain dishes. There’s even a tab dubbed “Quick & Easy” that contains no-cook, slow-cook, five-ingredient, and 15-minute recipes, all of which cater to hosts planning dinner parties on a time crunch.

For my menu, I chose a Quick Shrimp Chowder because it contains the word “quick,” involves very little prep (merely chopping and browning an onion), and features a meat (shrimp) that cooks in less than 5 minutes. I made the recipe as-is except for one tiny detail: I like my chowders thick, so I used 3 cups of milk and a half cup of heavy cream instead of 3 1/2 cups milk. I’m sure it’s equally as tasty without the substitution.

2. Pre-prep as much as possible.

The next, and perhaps most obvious, secret to hosting a dinner party in less than two hours is to spend more time in the kitchen. Wait, what? Yes, plan to spend about 3-4 hours in the kitchen, just make sure that you spend about half that time the day BEFORE you host your party.

Plan your menu and shop for ingredients at least a day ahead. Then, the night before you play host, chop and peel any vegetables and fruit that won’t ruin overnight. Cook and refrigerate meats that can be reheated the next day without changing the flavor. Mix anything that you plan on baking in the oven or that involves absolutely no cooking.

Consider pre-prep with my menu. For the appetizer, I cooked the sausage and mixed it with the cream cheese and garlic the night before, so after work, all I had to do was preheat the oven, spread the mixture inside the crescent rolls, and bake it. For the chowder, I chopped the onions. For the salad, I chopped and toasted the pecans, and I mixed and chilled the salad dressing. For the cookies, I mixed and refrigerated the batter. In all, I probably saved a little more than an hour of prep work by doing these things ahead of time, which meant I felt less rushed the next day and had everything ready on time.

3. Two words: Side salads.  

Salads are some of the easiest side dishes to make, yet they can also be some of the biggest wow factors at your party. The key is to treat your salad like a delicacy. To do that, choose higher-quality greens and cheeses (like spinach or arugula and cheeses that come in blocks, not bags), add nuts and/or fruit, and consider making your own salad dressing, which you can then serve in a fancy bottle.

Most of the salads I make are inspired by salads I’ve enjoyed at restaurants, as I trust trained chefs to combine ingredients in sensible and tasty ways. Usually, salads are easy to recreate because they’re nothing more than a combination of specific ingredients in subjective amounts. The Apple Pecan and Cheese Salad was inspired by a salad of the same name I ordered at Shipp’s Harbour Grill in Orange Beach, Alabama. The trickiest part about recreating this salad was finding a cinnamon vinaigrette dressing, which I did through a quick search on Google.

4. Stir while you bake. 

The most important tip for cooking on a time crunch is to not overlook the obvious. If your appetizer or dessert takes 30 minutes to bake, and if you don’t put your dish in the oven until the moment your guests arrive, then you’ve failed. Miserably. And failing miserably is an easy thing to do when you’re feeling rushed under pressure. Before you do anything, think about how much time each dish takes to make, and then plan accordingly. Generally speaking, stir while you bake, or put another way, bake first and stir later. Immediately upon coming home, preheat the oven and start baking as soon as possible. Stir your soup, brown your meat, or do whatever else it is that you need to do while your cookies and casseroles cook themselves.

5. Let your guests help.

Lastly, remember that it’s OK to not have everything finished when your guests arrive. Guests are notorious for saying almost immediately upon arrival, “Can I help you with anything?” Instead of saying no, plan ahead and have something easy available for them to do. I often have my guests chop and mix salad ingredients. The task doesn’t even require a recipe, only a semi-organized line of ingredients and a little bit of common sense.

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