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Expert Tips for Hosting Your First Dinner Party in a Long Time

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Over the last year, daydreams about the big things put on hold because of the pandemic—weddings, graduations, baby showers—have shared space with all the little things just out of reach. We’ve missed strolling through museums, watching live music, and sitting in the stands of a baseball game—not to mention hugging loved ones and hearing their voices in person. Now that things have taken a turn for the better, it’s possible to go out and admire art, dance in a crowd, and cheer for a home run. And many of us simply want to relish the return of hosting a dinner party. Just ask the home and decor DIYers.

“Company! Conversation! Human contact! In all seriousness, I’m really just looking forward to finally being able to socialize in person again—without this cloud of fear and skepticism hanging over us,” Trisha Sprouse, founder of lifestyle site Vignette, said to me. “Being able to host people in my home again feels a bit exhilarating in a familiar but also foreign kind of way. Just picturing a meal where there’s laughter and candlelight and intimate conversation gives me all the feels.”

If you’re anything like Sprouse, you’ve likely imagined the meal you’d cook and the outfit you’d wear, too. But if you haven’t given much thought to the other details, not to worry. Sprouse is joined by Caitlin Chapman of Caitlin Confidential, Cat Meschia of Ctrl + Curate, Stacie Abdallah of Stacie’s Spaces, and Sara Albers and Melissa Fenlon of Alice & Lois to describe their ideas for their first dinner parties in a long while. Follow their lead, and you’ll have everything you need to make up for lost time.

Let your dinnerware underscore your food

Take a cue from art frames and plan for your plates to frame and accentuate whatever meal you serve. Chapman is fond of cooking with what she finds at the farmers market, and she loves pairing ingredients with her vintage tableware collection. To ensure that it all works together, she pays special attention to choosing the right dish for the food. “For example, I’d like to serve a summer tomato salad with a basil vinaigrette on a French ironstone platter, and then mix in my handmade ceramic plates I have collected from Maine ceramist Meghan Flynn for the other courses,” she says. “From there, I’ll use my Italian brass cutlery to add a warm tone. I also collect glassware, which adds a nice sparkle to the table overall.” In case you’re worried about accidents, Meschia recommends melamine for a more durable option outdoors.

A linen tablecloth and napkins go without saying

Given the warm weather, it’s no surprise the DIYers favor the light ease of linen for both indoor and outdoor dinner parties. “Linen tablecloths and napkins look effortless and create a natural backdrop for everything that will be put on the table,” Chapman says. Albers would pair hers with “shibori indigo-dyed napkins and white dinnerware,” while Sprouse might bring in “organically shaped plates and a few rustic touches, like tying a foraged twig or leaf into each napkin.” Meschia would add in an area rug and pillows for a cozy finish, and might drape blankets over chairs if the party takes place outside.

When it comes to floral arrangements, think in threes

A table isn’t complete without some greenery, and Meschia considers herself lucky on this front. “Living in Florida, we have plenty of tropical plants,” she says. “I use Xanadu and monstera leaves as a cheap but dramatic base, and then layer in grocery store staples like peonies and snapdragons.” For Abdallah, the shopping process is a bit easier. “It’s no secret that I love my garden and all things plants, so they would definitely serve as the launching point for my entire tablescape,” she says. “My absolute favorite flowers are hydrangeas, and I would place several bouquets of them in the center of a long rectangular table.” When choosing your own arrangements, Meschia recommends following three simple steps: There should be a greenery base, a centerpiece, and smaller vases in varying shapes and sizes. “I’ll create a few arrangements around the centerpiece, making sure that guests can still see each other across the table,” she adds.

Pay attention to good lighting

According to Sprouse, good lighting is the secret to a successful gathering—not necessarily the food. “You can have a bare table with absolutely no decor and serve takeout pizza, but if your lighting is on point, then you still have the makings of a memorable meal,” she says. To cover your bases, Sprouse recommends using string lights and candlelight. “They are the dynamic duo of creating a festive environment, especially outdoors, and make even the most informal gathering feel so much more special,” she continues. “Just make sure you turn off any surrounding lights to really enhance the effect.”

Games are for all ages

Albers and Fenlon note that outdoor parties should come with games, which can complement the tablescape nearby. “We love interactive parties, so pull out the bocce ball and set up the croquet if you have room,” Fenlon says. “Guests always get into a good classic yard game.” If children are invited, be sure to have entertainment ready for them, too, even indoors. “We have kids’ games along with a fun craft project, like a bowl of beads and string to make a necklace,” Albers adds.

Think about individualized appetizers and desserts.

For those who still want to stay as safe as possible, sharing appetizers and desserts may fall outside of comfort zones. To keep the mood light, plan ahead with easy individual options that serve a crowd. “Instead of one large charcuterie board, we love to make individual cheese plates for each place setting,” Fenlon says. “We also stay away from overcomplicated desserts. For outdoor dinners, we gravitate toward simple treats, like strawberry shortcake.”

Don’t feel pushed to “go back to normal”

The first of anything after a while can be tough, including hosting a dinner party. As fun as it will be to see loved ones again, don’t be afraid to ease into it, either. “It’s good to remember that some things might not go back to how they used to be pre-pandemic,” Sprouse notes. “Not everyone may be up for a hug, a handshake, or a kiss on the cheek. Just in case, it might also be wise to have a few spare masks and bottles of hand sanitizer on hand, in the event someone asks for one.” Instead of feeling the pressure to move on or go all out, do your best to enjoy the night alongside your guests. “People aren’t coming for the fancy decor or a five-course meal—they’re coming for the company!” Sprouse says.

Are you ready to host a gathering again—what are you most looking forward to? Tell us in the comments below.

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