If the mere idea of a dinner party sends you into panic mode, look no further than Natasha Feldman’s new book, The Dinner Party Project. The culinary school dropout turned private chef, TV cooking show host, and now cookbook author is quick to remind readers that when it comes to dinner parties, the stakes are much lower than we might think. “Getting upset about things that don’t matter is such a colossal waste of time,” she told me during a recent interview over Zoom.
Feldman’s book is filled with fun, easy-to-execute recipes designed for any dinner party hopeful at any stage in their cooking journey. For her, the point of a dinner party is to gather and share joy with friends and loved ones, and her book is dedicated to removing any barriers one might feel when inviting people over. She shared with me six smart tips for kicking off your next dinner party:
1. Go Ahead, Just Schedule It
Before she even gets to a recipe, Feldman encourages people to stop and send that email or text inviting folks over—after that, everything else will start to come together. “Inertia is powerful,” says Feldman. “Just taking the first step starts to unravel things and make the dinner party feel possible.”
Even after you pick a date, don’t ever feel pressured to cook the most elaborate meal. Make the gathering a potluck, or ask friends to come early to cook—or even buy a few pre-made items and focus on one or two easy, achievable recipes.
The Dinner Party Project comes with a flowchart guiding people toward recipes that match their skill level, time commitment, and available equipment, but none of the suggestions are meant to be prescriptive. “One of the things I thought a lot about as I wrote is the difference between inspiration and aspiration,” she says. “I’m sure my book is not going to feel that way to everyone, but my goal was to inspire—that you flip through and say, ‘I can do this.'”
2. Set the Mood
If there’s a record you love or a set of glassware that makes you feel fancy, this is the time to pull it out. “We are deeply affected by sight and smell,” says Feldman. “For example, one of the things that makes a huge difference is lighting. It won’t feel as cozy if you have every light on in your house. I always want to dim the lights so your brain’s expectation of being chill is there.”
But picking items to set the mood isn’t about impressing your guests with expensive tableware, but finding items that make you feel good. “I love candles. They just make me really happy, and I always have one in the bathroom and one on the coffee table,” says Feldman. “Things like candles are just easy things that tell your brain, ‘Okay, we’re going into chill mode.'”
3. Embrace Mistakes—They Make Great Stories
Feldman reminds readers that the stakes are low when it comes to dinner parties. The worst thing you can do is ruin dinner, which Feldman says has happened to her. “I had a dinner party once where I didn’t realize that our stove was not working. I put the chicken in and didn’t realize the oven wasn’t hot. I opened it an hour later, and it was a slightly warmed salmonella disaster.”
If you mess up dinner, Feldman says it’s easy to find a solution: “I can walk to the grocery store or get in the car and get a rotisserie chicken,” she says.
And a dinner party snafu can turn into a great story for future get-togethers. “One time I brought these beautiful bonbons to a dinner party that I had been saving because I wanted to share. I was like, ‘We should play “Guess the Flavor.”‘ I was so excited. We chopped them into little bits. The response for the first one was, ‘This tastes like blue cheese.’ They all tasted like cheese. I looked at the package, and it said to refrigerate—and they should have been eaten six months ago. So we were eating super rotten chocolate,” Feldman says. “Now, every time I bring chocolate, my friends are like, ‘Blue cheese chocolate?'”
4. Always Have Snacks
Feldman’s book has plenty of easy snack recipes, many of which you can make a few days ahead of time and set out for guests as you’re cooking. She also has a whole page of snack suggestions that you don’t have to make. Pre-party snacks can be anything: a bag of chips; whatever cheese you have in your fridge; your kid’s Goldfish crackers.
Snacks are vital to keeping your guests occupied as you’re getting dinner set up, but they can also serve as a bridge just in case a guest is late or dinner is delayed—or you have a broken oven or blue cheese chocolate situation: “Because then you’re not starving; if you mess up, it’s okay.”
5. Shush the Inner Martha in Your Head
When it comes to dinner party barriers, perhaps the biggest one is the vision of the dinner party we have in our heads. “I like to call it the mid-’90s Martha Syndrome,” says Feldman, referring to the ultimate queen of entertaining, Martha Stewart.
No shade on Martha, but her meticulously put-together table settings and pre-warmed plates can be intimidating, as are the well-curated meals we see pros put together. “We see people on TV and in restaurants producing these dishes that are so fantastic and so exciting, and they make it look so easy, but there are so many elements that go into making these dishes that you don’t see.”
6. When in Doubt, Order Takeout
Takeout isn’t just a last-ditch effort if making dinner goes awry—it can be a smartly planned thing. Invite your friends over, pick a spot to order from, and you’ve still got the makings of a successful dinner party. “It doesn’t matter if people are late, it doesn’t matter if the food has a theme,” says Feldman. “The dinner party is really just the act of having people around the table and enjoying yourself.”