How to Throw a Dinner Party

This holiday season, you and your spouse can host a memorable evening for your friends — and enjoy it, too.

Casual get-togethers are certainly fun, but there seem to be few opportunities for spouses to spruce up and enjoy an evening with those closest to them. Having a dinner party can be an opportunity to do just that. But from experience, most of us know that hosting a dinner party and enjoying one are two different things, especially when you and hubby are taking matters into your own hands. So, with the guidance of Ruth Kern, international etiquette consultant and founder of the Chicago-based etiquette consulting firm Modern Etiquette, we've designed an in-depth approach for you and your spouse that will help you create a memorable evening—and enjoy it together, too.

Before the Party Starts

Set your event apart from others by letting your guests know that you are taking great care to create an experience just for them. Instead of giving a casual phone call, set the stage by sending invitations. These do not have to be expensive or adhere to any particular format. Be as creative as you want, and be sure to fit your budgeting goals. Whether hand-written or printed, you'll create anticipation for the evening to come.

Be sure to tell guests information they'll need to know. You may want to describe your party as, "A Couples' Christmas Banquet" or "A Holiday Formal," and let guests know how to dress for the occasion. Try phrases like "casual dress," "Sunday formal," or "black tie" to help guests understand the style. They'll want to know this, and it will help avoid potential embarrassment.

Be sure location and directions are clear. You may want to include maps, in case guests are unfamiliar with the roads. And, since the winter weather can make traveling more difficult, a few extra landmarks couldn't hurt.

For a dinner party, an earlier evening hour may be best. This gives guests time to enjoy themselves and still travel home at a good hour. However, depending on your style, day, and guests, choose a time that works best for all.

Since the holiday season tends to be busier than most, you can send invitations out as early as eight weeks before the day. Be sure to include the notation "R.S.V.P." with a telephone number, signaling guests that you want them to respondez, s'il vous plais or, "Respond, please." This will be important for your advance preparations. Allowing guests to respond up until the week before the party is plenty of time for them to make a decision and gives you ample time to prepare.

If you've decided not to invite children, you may want to note that on the invitation, and confirm how many people from each household will be attending as they respond. If you do not receive a response from a guest, be sure to call them; don't just assume they are not coming. You may find out they did not receive the invitation at all.

Before You Feast

To avoid spending the party in the kitchen, you and your partner will want to take care of food preparations beforehand. The more work you can accomplish in advance, the better. Since the primary point of your dinner party is to enjoy the fellowship of your guests—friends, family, or both—you'll want to make every effort to make this happen. Also, the busyness of preparing foods, while overseeing other things at the same time, can place undesirable stresses on you and your partner. You want to enjoy each other, too! Try choosing dishes that you can create a day or two ahead and simply heat up or arrange quickly. You'll maximize your time with guests and stay on your spouse's good side.

Starting the Party Right

You may want to have some structure to your celebration. Following the standard order of events for a formal dinner party may serve as a useful guide. The average evening party lasts four hours, though you do not have to be stringent about this. You may place the hours of your party on the invitation.

Begin the evening with an hors d'oeuvres and beverage hour, starting at the time you asked guests to arrive. This gives your guests time to relax after their travel, a chance to meet and greet new acquaintances or old friends, warm up if they need to, and take the edge off their appetite with some bite-sized snacks and drinks. For beverages, try some holiday classics: a fruity punch, spiced cider, egg nog, or frothy hot cocoa.

Be sure that both you and your spouse greet guests, introduce them to people they may not know, and offer them food or drinks. You'll want everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable, and your effort to do this will be remembered.

Seating with Style

When the cocktail hour is at an end, call guests to the table, which should be pre-set. You may also want to include place cards at each setting, so guests do not feel awkward or hesitate about where to sit. Depending upon how well you know your company, and how well they know each other, you may want to try some new variations on seating style. Regardless of which seat you choose, be sure to discuss it with your spouse beforehand. Agree on seating, especially if you or your spouse is more familiar with some guests than others.

For lively conversation, try placing spouses across from one another, instead of next to each other, as is typical. Then they will have the opportunities to get to know new people on either side of them, while admiring the view of their significant other.

If the evening is a family occasion, you may want to give spouses an even greater chance to catch up on the family news—place spouses at opposite ends of the table. While remaining comfortably close to their partner, they can enjoy time with family as well.

If the evening is the reunion of old friends, you may even choose to set up two tables, and place the ladies at one and the gentlemen at the other. The ladies will love the chance to catch up and "girl talk," while the roaring laughter from the men's table will keep everyone smiling.

As guests gather and find their places, be sure the lighting is slightly dimmer than usual. At dinner parties, people tend to be less nervous and self-conscious when the atmosphere is more concealing. Keeping lights at a "romantic pitch" is also more complementary to people's faces. Your friends will cherish the view of their glowing spouses.

Service, with Two Smiles

A formal dinner party means that your guests are going to be served, as opposed to having a buffet style or barbecue. However, there are still some variations to serving, so you and your spouse will want to work out your style ahead of time.

You may choose to bring all foods to the table in serving bowls and platters, and pass foods "family style." Or you can team up: hubby arranges plates while you bring them out to each guest. Regardless of your serving style, let your guests know how you will serve, when you will pray, and when they should start eating. This will help avoid any confusion or embarrassment.

Remember to clear dishes only when all guests (or almost all) are finished eating. Clearing plates may cause guests to feel rushed instead of relaxed. When plates are cleared, you may feel free to serve dessert, or usher guests to another room for an activity, resuming dessert afterward.

Make It Memorable

Marking your evening with an activity will make it unforgettable. For a Christmas party, try making copies of favorite holiday carols to sing together—and take requests, too. A video or slide show of you and your loved ones titled, "The Greatest Memories of the Year," will bring laughter and tears as you reminisce together. Or a choice of group games to play can also keep you and your guests smiling. You may even want to consider giving away small gifts as prizes, like specially wrapped baked goods or inexpensive trinkets. Be creative.

Be sure you've designated someone to take photos for the evening, or decide that you and your spouse will take some. You and your guests will cherish these special reminders of the evening spent together. Enjoy!

How to Set a Table

When setting the table, you can certainly mix and match china. You'll give your table charm with the different patterns and individualized settings. If you have enough of one pattern to serve all of your guests, you may want to use that, choosing another element to accent it, such as a central flower arrangement or using bows as napkin rings. Bon appetit!

For more etiquette information, go to: www.modernetiquette.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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