I’ve been throwing dinner parties my whole life, and I even wrote a book, For The Table, full of recipes to help make hosting more fun and less stressful. When hosting a dinner party, I firmly believe that you do not need to serve a first course or any kind of fancy or fussy appetizer you make from scratch.
You’re making dinner, and that should be your focus. It’s still a good idea to serve something for your guests to nibble on while they drink and chat before dinner (and while you inevitably finish cooking). That’s why, instead of an app, I serve dinner party snacks. Crunchy or salty or fresh—enough to whet the appetite, but not enough to fill up on. And all you have to do is a little bit of chopping or arranging to get them on the table.
Below are three of my favorite tips—many of which are included in my cookbook!—for handling that awkward stretch of time before dinner is ready when your guests are entering at different times and you’re juggling a lot all at once.
1. Assemble Your Snacks Before Your Guests Arrive
No one expects you to have everything ready before your dinner party guests arrive. I’ve learned that as long as I’m not stressed about it, my guests aren’t. What makes me not stress is to have snacks out on the counter before my first guest walks through the door. The rest of the kitchen can be chaotic, but as long as I have some fancy-looking nibbles out, that’s what they’ll focus on, and I can relax and enjoy chatting with them as I finish cooking.
So try this: 10 minutes before your dinner party guests are set to start arriving, stop whatever you’re doing, and put out some snacks. One to three options are all you need. Add a self-serve beverage or two and a stack of cups while you’re at it. Then go pee (I hate having to excuse myself to run to the bathroom right after a guest arrives!), pour yourself a drink, and continue your prep work. You’ve got this!
2. Use the Fancy Dishes
Here’s my big secret for dinner party snacks: They’re just… normal snacks. If I put a little extra thought into presenting them on pretty dishes, they become fancy dinner party snacks. Potato chips suddenly feel special when you pour them into a vintage crystal bowl. Cherries are pure luxury when cascaded over crushed ice on a big porcelain platter. Try it—I promise it works. Here are a few easy no-cook ideas for summertime dinner party snacks to serve in your good china:
Dolled-Up Potato Chips
This one is my signature move and never fails to delight. I keep a bag of potato chips (full-fat, full-salt Cape Cod potato chips to be exact) in my pantry (and another in my backup pantry) at all times in case friends stop by. To doll them up: Spread the chips out on a big platter and sprinkle with finely chopped fresh dill or parsley, some freshly grated lemon zest, and some Aleppo-style chile flakes (or not). They look great, taste great, and go exceptionally well with chilled white wine.
You know what else goes with salty crunchy potato chips? Cold, fresh, sweet, juicy fruit. In early summer, opt for cherries, and make them extra cold by adding ice cubes or crushed ice to the platter. Just don’t forget to put out a bowl for cherry pits and stems. Later in the season, make it a platter of chilled melon (any kind of melon you like will do). Cut into cubes or slices (off the rind if you have time) and douse it in lime juice and sprinkle it with flaky sea salt. If you like spice, add Tajin, too!
Once tomato season hits, I take every possible opportunity to enjoy fresh ripe tomatoes as simply as possible. They make a great snack platter, in several possible ways. The lowest lift option: Throw a bunch of ripe cherry or Sungold tomatoes on a platter—they’re finger food! Add pitted olives and mini mozzarella balls and it’s a fresh antipasto platter. Alternatively, thickly slice juicy heirlooms, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with lots of olive oil and arrange on a platter with fresh herbs if you’ve got them, and serve with bread. Add a serving spoon and let your guests heap tomatoes on bread while they wait for dinner. It’s easier and better than bruschetta.
3. Put Your Guests To Work
This applies to all times, but especially the moment when guests first arrive at your house: let them help! It not only alleviates pressure for you the host, but it lets your guests feel more welcome and included in your home, rather than stiff and uncomfortable waiting for you to serve them.
Especially when I see someone feeling shy or awkward in the early moments of the evening, I find that asking them to help me set the table or handing them a knife to prepare salad with me while we chat helps to ease them into socializing and feeling comfortable in my space. And if you don’t get those snacks out before your guests arrive, just ask them to do it! Dressing up potato chips with a friend is easy and fun, and that’s my goal for dinner party hosting this summer and always.