Dinner Party Checklist

This step-by-step plan will ensure that you, too, will be able to sit down at your next dinner party.

White wine bottle
Photo: Ellen Silverman

Three Weeks Before

  • Choose a theme, if you want one.

    Decide whether it will be an elegant soiree or a cozy supper, then think about a theme in terms of season, occasion, and guest list. Make, buy, or borrow any related decorations you might need.

  • Extend invitations.

    Mail, phone, and e-mail invites are all acceptable; the more formal the dinner, the more appropriate a written invitation, perhaps tied into the theme. Include such details as the date and time (typically 7 p.m., which allows an hour for cocktails, appetizers, and mingling), the deadline to RSVP (a week before party day), your address, and suggested attire if formal.

  • Plan the menu.

    Keep it fairly simple, including make-ahead dishes if possible (so you don't spend too much time running in and out of the kitchen), and take the weather into consideration.

Two Weeks Before

  • Come up with a playlist.

    It should be long enough to last for the duration of the dinner, coordinate with the party's theme if there is one, and be kept at a level that doesn't hinder conversation.

  • Clean any crystal, china, and silverware you'll be using.

    And launder and iron linens.

One Week Before

  • Clean the house thoroughly.

    To maintain it for the rest of the week, do a quick daily routine.

  • Take inventory of tableware, cookware, and serving dishes.

    If you don't have enough for every dish you're serving, consider purchasing inexpensive pieces from a discount or thrift store or borrowing—don't be afraid to mix compatible patterns. Allocate a serving dish for each menu item, and label the dish with a Post-it note.

  • Make a detailed shopping list and cooking schedule.

    Map out where you'll buy each ingredient or beverage to streamline your shopping route. Rule of thumb: Calculate three bottles of wine for every four guests. Place an order with the local butcher, fish shop, baker, or liquor store as needed.

  • Set the stage.

    Arrange the furniture as you'll want it for the party, checking for the flow and removing any clutter. Designate a coffee table or side table for coffee and dessert if you wish. Figure out the lighting: Using low-wattage bulbs or candlelight will create the right mood.

  • Create a seating plan if desired.

    Mix together people who aren't familiar with one another, and set out placecards.

Three Days Before

  • Decorate.

    Lay out all decorations but the flowers.

  • Check the medicine cabinet.

    Remove any personal items you wouldn't want guests to see.

  • Designate a place for coats.

    Make space in a front closet and fill it with hangers, or designate a bed for coats (and make sure the room's especially tidy and clear of valuables, so you won't need to worry about them).

  • Shop for food and beverages.

One Day Before

  • Set the table.
  • Buy flowers.

    Arrange and set out around the house.

  • Do as much of the cooking as you can.

    Also, for any foods that require cooking on party day, do as much prep (dicing, marinating, rinsing lettuce, etc.) as possible.

  • Make a sweep through the house.

    Do cleaning touch-ups where necessary.

One Hour Before

  • Be sure the dishwasher is empty.
  • Change into your party clothes.

30 Minutes Before

  • Light the candles.

    And turn on the music.

  • Uncork the wine.
  • Toss the salad.
  • Sip a glass of wine.

    And relax!

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