Style your dream dinner party in 7 steps

Autumn is the perfect time to step inside and host friends at home.

The perfect dinner party is more than just getting a group of friends together around a table. It’s about the mood you set, the creativity you introduce and the way in which you serve - and share - the food.

Sound fussy? It doesn’t have to be with these seven key tips to the dream dinner party, from Melbourne-based food stylist and recipe developer, Mish Lilley

  • Lighting

“It’s true that lighting sets the mood,” says Mish, adding that the type of lighting you choose should hinge on the kind of ambiance you are hoping to create. “For a romantic or more formal dinner party, candles scattered along the table are perfect,” she says, “or for a cool outdoors vibe, pimp up a tree in the backyard with paper lanterns or hang some outdoor lights in the garden.”

  • Table Dressing

Mish advises having a fixed idea of how you want your table to be dressed before you start shopping. “Start with an overarching theme and get creative with it,” is her number one tip. “I often seek inspiration from the garden and pick some seasonal foliage, such as ivy or gum leaves, to pop in vases or glass jars of varying sizes,” she says, adding that her favorite table settings are always those that are more natural. “A casual table always look good with placemats and a more formal table should have a tablecloth,” she points out. “It’s a good idea to keep the tablecloth and plates relatively neutral, and subtly introduce colour either via flowers or napkins.”

Even though paper serviettes come in many gorgeous designs they should only be used for canapés, Mish explains. “Or at BBQs, picnics or kids parties as they can cheapen the look of the dining table.”

  • Etiquette, Arrivals, and Departures

A smooth dinner party is one that runs on time. For Mish, she always allows a half hour buffer for late arrivals. “Aim to start serving food 30 minutes from the requested arrival time and allow 45 minutes between each course,” she says. “This allows time for guests to engage in conversation and relax,” she says. “It’s pretty easy to wind up a dinner party - aside from yawning and clearing plates - just stop the drink flow!” she laughs. “It’s unlikely that you’ll have any stragglers but if they don’t get the hint, call them a cab.”

  • BYO

A gracious guest will always offer to bring something to a dinner party so be prepared to shoot back some ideas, says Mish. “If you’d prefer to keep in control of the menu, ask guests to bring a bottle of something they’d like to drink (this covers all manner of beverages) or cheese,” she says. “Cheese doesn’t come cheap - especially when buying in bulk - so you’ll be able to assemble a spectacular cheese course from the contributions, boosting the dinner party just that little bit more, without the cost or hassle.”

  • Seating

Seating cards can take the pressure off guests especially if you are hosting a large group or a mixed group of people that don’t know each other very well, says Mish. “You can also have some fun with name tags and incorporate them into your theme or even use cryptic clues to get the conversation started,” she adds.

  • Entrées and Starters

There’s a trend towards shared plates at the moment, Mish points out. “My advice is to embrace it as it can take the pressure off entertaining!” When hosting Mish see’s no need for plated entrees. “Instead, serve some tasty starters on large plates to be passed around and enjoyed with drinks,” she suggests. 

To save time you could plate up some store bought dumplings or warm up some stuffed olives with fresh rosemary and olive oil in the oven. “Dips served with warm flatbread is always a good and inexpensive option that feeds a crowd,” she adds.

  • Main Dish

“Again, shared plates are the way to go,” Mish insists. “Start with a protein and add vegetarian sides with at least one substantial side like roasted potatoes, rice or lentils,” she says. “This is a great way cover all bases and avoid having to check on your guest's dietary requirements.”

Favorites on Mish’s menu include braised meat or fish dish such a curry, slow cooked lamb shoulder or even an Osso Buco. “These are all great crowd pleasers and cook ahead options,” she points out. “You want to be relaxed and seated with your guests as much as possible and to do this, you will need to have food pre-prepared and ready to go.”

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