By Stepfanie Romine, Staff Writer
Does the idea of hosting a dinner party send you into a panic? You're not alone. A 2009 survey conducted by an after-dinner mints company found that 57 percent of respondents felt that hosting friends for dinner was more stressful than going to work!
When it comes to entertaining, the focus should be on fun--not perfection. In lieu of the traditional, sit-down dinner party, which puts all the stress of the food prep on you, opt for a casual, interactive feast instead. Assign guests to bring an ingredient or a dish, and make dinner a DIY activity. (Everyone always ends up hanging out in the kitchen at parties anyway!) By letting guests at least partially make their own dinner, you can not only deflect attention if something goes awry but also avoid having to cater to picky palates or food allergies. Here, we've compiled a baker's dozen ideas for casual, collaborative dinner parties.
Prepare a batch of sushi rice, and enlist help in chopping or shredding vegetables like cucumber, carrots, and radishes. When guests arrive, have a few rolling stations set up with rice, nori (seaweed), mats wrapped in plastic, and water for sealing the rolls, easier spreading of rice and cleaning hands. Get creative: Use strips of cooked fish (easier and safer), any vegetables, avocado, mango, reduced-fat cream cheese and even scrambled eggs (cooked into an omelet shape and cut into strips). Or try budget-friendly canned salmon or tuna mixed with low-fat mayo, sesame oil and sriracha to taste. Serve the rolls with traditional sides like pickled vegetables and seaweed salad, plus rice crackers and edamame. Don't forget the pickled ginger, soy sauce, and wasabi!
More Easy Sushi Recipes
If seaweed isn't your jam, use rice paper wrappers to make spring rolls with your buddies. Start with shredded meat (chicken or pork work great) or cooked shrimp, plus herbs (cilantro, basil, and/or mint leaves) and shredded vegetables (carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts, and peppers), then roll in rice paper that's been soaked in hot water. Ask each guest to bring a different ingredient and you provide the rice wrappers and various dipping sauces, such as this easy, homemade peanut sauce or ginger-garlic sauce. Encourage guests to collaborate on inventive rolls. Serve up Thai iced tea, too.
Learn How to Make Spring Rolls
Tex-Mex food is easy to customize, so it lends itself well to a party setting. As host, prep a batch of meat, such as ground beef or chicken breasts, and beans and grilled veggies. Keep the meat warm in a slow cooker until guests arrive. Provide or ask guests to bring a variety of tortillas (corn and whole-grain, hard and soft), along with all the fixings: cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, onions, hot peppers, pickled carrots, shredded cabbage, sour cream, olives, avocado, limes, and hot sauce. Start with layered Mexican dip, and don't forget plenty of guacamole and salsa.
Potatoes are pure comfort food, and they're affordable to boot. Whip up a huge batch of mashed potatoes or baked potatoes, then keep them warm in the slow cooker. Comforting as they are on their own, the fun comes from the toppings. Start with green onions or chives, bacon, Cheddar, broccoli, butter, and sour cream. Then get funky: Provide caramelized onions, chili, blue cheese, mustard, truffle salt, infused oils, fresh herbs, herbed butters, chipotle peppers, or salsa.
Pizza is a classic party food. If you don't want to make dough, call your favorite pizzeria and see if they'll sell you a batch of dough or pick up dough balls from the grocery store. Take the easy route with jarred sauces or try this simple from-scratch version. (Tip: Have extra sauce for dipping crusts!) Beyond red sauce, offer Alfredo sauce, plus olive oil or pesto.
In addition to the classics, like pepperoni, onions, peppers, Italian sausage, mozzarella or provolone cheeses, and mushrooms, try: leafy greens like kale, spinach, or arugula; strong cheeses such as chevre, feta, or Gorgonzola; roasted veggies like garlic, squash, and peppers; and flavorful finishes like walnuts, pears and capers.
Chili has been known to start wars among friends and loved ones. Everyone has a recipe they believe to be the best! If your brood is one that likes a healthy competition, host a chili cookoff. Ask each person to cook their own chili recipe and bring it to the party in a slow cooker to keep it warm. Provide plenty of toppings (sour cream, cheese, onions, and hot sauce), plus scorecards to rank the chilis. Don't forget oyster crackers, tortilla chips or cornbread for dipping. If you're not feeling that competitive, make a massive batch of your favorite chili, then let guests bring the accoutrements. For dessert, opt for ice cream, to counter all of that spice!
There are salads. (Ho-hum.) And then there are salad bars, with their endless expanse of tasty ingredients in unlimited portions laid out for your eating pleasure. (Yum!) A salad bar party takes something nutritiously pious and turns it into a jolly good time. This is one of the easiest of parties you can throw. Buy bagged greens in several varieties, along with premium bottled dressings. (Or make one of these salad dressings.) Load up on the veggies, and chop or dice them (enlist help), and meanwhile grill or bake chicken breasts or your salad protein of choice. Ask guests to bring their favorite unconventional salad topping--the sky's the limit. Serve with crusty bread.
Macaroni and cheese is the quintessential comfort food: al dente pasta enveloped in rich, creamy cheese sauce, topped with a buttery breadcrumb topping. No matter which recipe you use, there are plenty of ways to dress up good ol' mac & cheese. Create a mac & cheese bar by serving up all sorts of fun toppings--some virtuous, some not so much. Cooked broccoli, cauliflower or peas; steamed greens; hot sauce or salsa; lobster or tuna; flavored salts and peppers; bacon or sausage; extra cheese; and green onions or herbs. Your guests can then personalize their bowl of cheesy goodness. Dry white wine or beer helps cut the richness, and a side salad balances the meal when you tire of cheese (if that's possible!).
Fondue is the original interactive dinner party. Fire up your fondue pot, grab your pointy forks, and start dunking (just don't double dip)! Start out the night with cheese fondue, paired with chunks of crusty bread, plus blanched broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, or carrots; grilled chicken or cooked sausage chunks; boiled new potatoes and green beans; or steamed mushrooms, pepper strips or pearl onions provided by your guests. Apples, sweet cherries, and pears also make fun, unconventional dippers. Fondue is traditionally served with dry white wine to cut the richness, with fruit as dessert, but we don't think your guests would complain if you serve chocolate fondue. Tip: Use a ceramic or enamel-coated fondue pot for cheese; save the metal pot for chocolate or broth-based fondues.
When it comes to entertaining, brunch is the best meal of the day. Breakfast foods are often quite affordable, so you can party big on a small budget. Eggs are easy to dress up (think: smoked salmon, good cheese, and fresh herbs) or dressed down (ham and American cheese slices) without sacrificing flavor. It's also a way to stretch pricier ingredients, like that smoked salmon. If you're an omelet novice, this video shows how to make one. Pre-scramble eggs, set out toppings, and designate a couple of cooks. Let guests pick their fillings, and serve with fruit salad and various breakfast breads with jams, butter, and cream cheeses. You can't go wrong with breakfast meats, onions, mushrooms, peppers, and cheeses. Or try sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, salsa, and avocado.
Awesome omelet recipes!
If you prefer a sweeter start to your morning, consider a waffle (or pancake) party. Mix up the batter the night before, then heat up the waffle irons as guests start to arrive. (Borrow a couple to keep lines moving.) Set out your waffle fixings in small bowls, along with plenty of butter and maple syrup. Berries and other fruit are always a hit, as are chopped nuts, sliced bananas, jams, whipped cream, chocolate chips, and ricotta cheese sweetened with cinnamon and powdered sugar. Orange juice and milk help cut the richness, and a breakfast meat or two (mmm, bacon dipped in maple syrup!) adds some protein and salty contrast.
Wonderful Waffle Batter Ideas
Expert home cooks might scoff at the idea of dinner parties causing stress. They thrive on cooking for a crowd. Spice up your next party: Ask each guest to bring an ingredient--any ingredient. Once everyone arrives and you've taken inventory, break into teams, divvy up the mystery foods, and start cooking. Whether or not dinner tastes great, you'll have a meal to remember. You might want to make sure you ask someone to bring a loaf of good bread and a bottle of wine--just in case!
Decade theme parties ('80s music, '90s fashion) are quite popular, so why not extend the theme to the food? From tuna noodle casserole and meatloaf, to deviled eggs and pot roast, there's no shortage of tasty, delicious foods that hail from yesteryear. Ask guests to bring their favorite childhood dish--homemade or packaged--and serve cocktails reminiscent of that time in history, too!
Need ideas? Try these modern updates on retro comfort foods--like meatloaf cupcakes!