How to throw a dinner party without being Martha Stewart

Describe your perfect day.

This exercise was the icebreaker one week at the beginning of the small group bible study that Katie and I were in back in college. For some people this might be a tough assignment. But for me, it was easy, and my answer is still the same 4 years later: to spend the day cooking and getting ready for a dinner party with friends.

For a lot of people, the idea of throwing a dinner party is one of the most stressful things--pretty much the opposite of a perfect day! But it can also be so fulfilling to host a gathering where friends can enjoy each other around the table. Food brings people together.

In this post, I'm going to share with you some dinner party hacks from a get-together I threw recently that will hopefully empower even the most anxiety-ridden host, and save some dollars while you're at it! I'll even give you a whole menu of recipes!

Keep It Simple Stupid. This age-old saying definitely applies to stress-free dinner parties. Keep the guest list small, the menu basic, and the booze cheap. Simple does not have to mean boring or bad!

[photobooth fun. just like the college days.]

The Guest List
My friends make fun of me because I tend to "socially construct" get-togethers. I don't just invite every person I know every time, I'm very strategic about it. That might sound mean, but it relieves a lot of anxiety when you don't have to worry about people having a good time or getting along.

I usually aim for around 5 or so guests. There isn't a real science to it--that's just how many fit nicely around my table! I also find it to be a good size for everyone to be together in one conversation. and it's a typical serving size for most recipes, so you don't have to mess with doubling anything ($$$) or running out of food.

For this dinner party in particular, it was myself and four friends from college getting together to catch up. My fellow Happy Eater Amanda was among the mix. :)

[cheese on carbs. doesn't get any better.]

The Menu
Again, keep it simple! Don't have a hundred courses with a zillion complicated recipes. Italian is often a good direction to go--almost everyone likes it, it's fairly simple and it makes a ton! So here's a breakdown of what I served at my dinner party, with full recipes and everything!

It's always nice to have some kind of snacky appetizer while people are arriving and you're wrapping things up in the kitchen. A cheese tray is a simple and solid choice.

I had out a plate of sliced French baguette from the Publix bakery section with two wedges of cheese from the deli section: a Publix-brand brie and a Publix-brand aged sharp cheddar. Simple, cheap (yay generic brands!) and no cooking required! All you have to do is put it all on a plate and set on the table! If you're feeling adventurous, you can grab a pack of sliced salami and proscuitto (also found in the deli) to serve with the cheese.

For the main, I chose to make my dad's baked ziti (recipe below). It's simple and really easy to prepare in advance and pop in the oven when it's time go! oh, and it's also so delicious and makes a ton. wins all around. I started cooking it when I got home from work, assembled the baking dish, and stuck it in the oven to heat through when people started to arrive.

Along with the pasta, I had Amanda bring a Caesar salad (recipe below). Another reason to go Italian--a Caesar salad is much more simple than having to dice and chop lots of veggies because the lettuce and dressing are the stars of the show.

Lastly, I had a loaf of sliced White Mountain Bread from the Publix bakery and wrapped it in foil to heat up and serve with the pasta.

 [ice cream sammies. easiest, most impressive dessert!]

For dessert, one of my guests requested ice cream cookie sandwiches. Sounds intimidating right? Not the way I do it :) I had break-n-bake chocolate chip cookies that I had baked and stuck in the freezer the day before. When it was time for dessert, I pulled them out along with a pint of vanilla ice cream and spoons, and everyone assembled their own! Fun and delicious and impressive and yet nothing from scratch! You could even buy cookies in the bakery and skip the baking step all together! No shame.

The Booze
Yet another way that Italian wins is that wine is cheaper and easier than cocktails! Most likely at least one of your guests will ask if they can bring something, and wine is a great thing to request so you're not shouldering the cost of a few bottles on your own. We ended up with two bottles of red (including my fave, a $10 Mouton Cadet Bordeaux from Publix) and a bottle of white. We had a special treat because one of our guests brought his homemade limoncello--perfect for Italian!

Okay. So I've given you some time- and money-saving tips for throwing a simple, easy-going dinner party. Now it's your turn! I hope you feel empowered to go out and host your own. It's all about spending quality time with people you enjoy, so just breathe and break out another bottle of wine and everything will be great.

Let me know how it goes!


My Dad's Baked Ziti
1 jar of your fave spaghetti sauce (somewhere are 32oz)
1 box of ziti noodles
1 green pepper, chopped
1 lb of Italian sausage (I like using ground better than links)
2 cups shredded mozzarella

Cook noodles to al dente.

Meanwhile, brown sausage in skillet. Remove from pan, and saute green pepper.

Heat sauce in saucepan until bubbling. Add cooked sausage and green pepper and heat through.

Grab a 13x9 dish. Put down a ladle of sauce and spread around the bottom of dish to keep noodles from sticking. Add half the noodles and spread evenly. Spoon half the sauce over top. Add the second half of the noodles. Spoon the rest of the sauce over top, then top with cheese. (You can stop here and stick in the fridge until you're ready to pop it in the oven!)

Bake uncovered at 350 until bubbly and heated through.

Amanda's Caesar Salad

Romaine lettuce, chopped
Your fave croutons
Diced avocado (her secret ingredient!)
Parmesan cheese
Your fave Caesar dressing (Amanda loves Brianna's)

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