How to be a good host: 7 tips to follow for casual and fancy dinners alike

Guests can help you assemble Pork Pot Stickers and Red Cabbage and Apple Slaw before the meal.
Guests can help you assemble Pork Pot Stickers and Red Cabbage and Apple Slaw before the meal.
Published Sep. 13, 2018

A couple of hours into my first time hosting a full-fledged family Thanksgiving, I completely lost it.

Elbows deep in the oven, I was trying to rescue a sheet pan that had fallen off the back of the rack and threatened to ruin the entire meal. There was cursing, and burned knuckles, and one or two scorched dinner rolls. My guests looked on in horror.

A handful of years later, and many dinners since, I've slowly mastered the art of gathering loved ones in your home for a meal. And it is an art, a study in patience and chilling out, a lesson in making sure everything isn't ice cold by the time it hits the table and also in restraint. A love for hosting often begins with a love for cooking, but you don't need to make Julia Child's beef bourguignon for everyone who walks through your front door.

There are things you can do every time to make the experience a good one for all involved. With the holiday season inching closer, it's a good time to think about hosting. And not only the kind that requires fancy china or a fully dressed table. The thing about being a good host is that it shouldn't be limited to special occasions and multicourse meals. You don't need to be a culinary wizard. You just need to make your guests feel comfortable and welcomed, preferably over a plate of something mouth-watering.

The art of hosting isn't something we all grow up learning about in the year 2018, but the idea of a social gathering that revolves around food is very of the moment. Dinner party groups like the multicity Supper Club (their slogan: "good, old fashioned dinner parties") and the Orlando-based Dinner Party Project, which started in 2014, abound. Food TV and the ease with which we can share recipes and learn how to frost a layer cake online has made cooking more accessible.

Younger generations may not be throwing the formal parties their grandparents did, but learning how to make a dish and wanting to impress your friends with it is en vogue in the Age of Instagram.

Jenna Rimensnyder, a 26-year-old freelance food writer, loves to host. She didn't learn from her parents, who "never hosted anyone at our place growing up," but from Bon Appétit magazine. She and her boyfriend, Jake Troyli, 28, developed a love for food, for learning about its provenance and how best to cook certain dishes, and hosting people at their place in Temple Terrace soon followed. For her, it's a way to display cooking skills and hang out with friends at the same time.

"I think our generation is moving away from doing casseroles, or being infatuated with the Instant Pot. And we're instead into making food we can show off," she said. "I think instead of feeding to keep everyone full, we're more into feeding to wow."

There's generally a default host in every friend or family group, no matter the ages involved. You know the person, if it's not you: Maybe they're very into napkin rings, or they have a killer backyard, or they know their way around a charcuterie board.

Dana Marie Roquemore was that person before she started the Dinner Party Project, which just celebrated its fourth anniversary of hosting dinners mostly at people's homes around Orlando. (She is currently thinking about ways to expand the company to Tampa.) Roquemore, 38, got the idea after years of working in events and slowly realizing that all she really wanted to do for a living was host dinner parties.

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"I love the magic that happens around a table," she said. "The slowing down, setting the table, having nice drinks and food, engaging everybody with good food and conversation."

She loves to cook, but said the desire to host has to start somewhere else.

"It doesn't have to begin with a big ordeal dinner. A host can just be about opening your doors and inviting people in, whether that's over drinks and cheese and crackers, or hamburgers," she said. "Start where you can."

Anje Bogott, 56, started hosting 20 years ago when she and her husband, Tim Bogott, CEO of the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort on St. Pete Beach, moved to St. Petersburg. They didn't know anyone, but she quickly found that inviting her daughter's entire elementary school class over for a mother-daughter tea party was a good way to make friends.

Soon after that, she and her husband were asked to be in a supper club with five other couples who lived nearby. The couples would take turns hosting at each other's houses.

"I have such fond memories from that time," Bogott said. "And it really upped my game with the culinary skills. They were total foodies."

Now, Bogott regularly organizes luncheons, holiday parties and other formal functions. Once, she hosted 92 women in her house for a Champagne happy hour.

"Just two hours, from 4 to 6 p.m., very casual, in and out," she said. "I think that's one of my favorite times hosting ever."

Gathering a group of people over food is such a good way to get to know strangers, Bogott said.

And it's always okay if things don't go perfectly according to plan. Bogott has ordered pizza before, to feed her guests after a main course was too overcooked to eat.

"You know what? My guests thought it was the greatest idea in the world," she said.

Whether you're organizing a 20-person Thanksgiving meal or an intimate dinner-game night combo for four, we've cooked up tips to help you remain sane — and tackle any hosting gig like a pro.


Set the tone, read the room

Be clear with your guests about what kind of gathering this is. A casual drop-in? A potluck? A fancy dinner at which they don't need to lift a finger? Let them know beforehand, and reiterate it when they arrive. As the host, it's important to be able to identify any potential party fouls.

"You've got to listen for clues," Roquemore said. "Be able to rein in any rogue guests, and deftly handle any weird subjects."

We all know to avoid politics and religion at the dinner table. But Bogott is intentional with her guest list long before that.

"Think about who you invite," she said, especially for gatherings where everyone will be seated together at a table. "Put some time and energy into that thought process. And make those personalities work. It has to be a nice balance."

Bogott always has assigned seating for a sit-down meal.

"I think the seating is absolutely key to a party," she said. "The middle two seats is where the main energy should be. And you also want some talkative energy people on the outside, to bring it all together. I like to be at the dead center of the table, and plant myself there and try not to get up."

Rimensnyder learned firsthand about the subtleties of dinner party social cues.

"One thing I didn't realize was so pivotal was waiting till your guests leave to clean up," she said. "I don't like leaving stuff in the sink, so I've tried to clean as we go, and people thought they had to leave. I was like, 'No, wait, we still have dessert!'?"

Communicate your needs

If your guests ask what they can bring, and you really need green onions to complete the salad, ask them to bring some green onions. If you aren't comfortable with your guests bringing anything, make that very clear, too. They likely still will, but at least you're on the same page about expectations. If you've gone to town planning every menu detail, encourage your guests to bring the drinks. Always make sure there's something nonalcoholic, too.

Guests who are experienced hosts themselves may know to stay out of your hair when you're running around the kitchen during crunch time. But many will want to help out. Weigh the benefits of letting them, which may mean having to explain where every item in your kitchen is ("The glass measuring cup is usually in that top cabinet, I don't know where it went!") or walking them through a task that would be easier to just do yourself. If their help is welcome, that's fine, too. Don't feel bad about putting anyone to work if they insist, and don't be afraid to tell them to hit the bar cart and leave you alone.

Be considerate of food preferences, but don't go crazy

If one of your guests is actually allergic to an ingredient, pay special attention to that, and be able to tell them which dishes contain that ingredient. It's always a good idea to ask about allergies before you plan your menu. If you've got a vegan or a low-carb eater around the table, it's nice to make sure there is a dish or two they can eat. But don't go overboard preparing multiple dishes. Try asking them to bring something they can eat.

"In my day, you made a pot roast and everyone ate it," said Kathy Saunders, 56, who writes our weekly Taster's Choice column. She hosts frequently at her home in St. Petersburg. "But people have more eating issues these days. So I always have a nonmeat entree, and usually more than one type of meat. I make sure I have a variety of foods, but I limit it because at a certain point, it's just too much."

Don't make your guests wait

If you've invited people to your house with the expectation of feeding them, you should be feeding them within one to two hours of their arrival time. Better yet, have a small snack ready and sitting out on the table when they walk in the door. My go-to is a cheese and charcuterie board that I prepare then stick in the fridge; I put it out in a common area right when the first guests show up. Or try something like shrimp dressed with lemon juice and fresh herbs that can be served cold. Small bites like this say, I know you're hungry, but dinner is still an hour or so away.

"When my guests walk in the door, I immediately hand them a drink and make sure there is food they can grab, a little nibble," Bogott said.

Step away from the stove

Try to plan meals that allow for prepping before your guests come over, so you're not spending the whole night peeking out at the party from over a sizzling skillet. And try to resist tending to every little thing that comes up.

Saunders advised sticking with a limited, cohesive menu to reduce the workload and stress.

"I don't serve anything that can't be pulled out of the oven or put together quickly," she said. "I even make my Thanksgiving turkey the day before."

Make it special

It doesn't take much to make an event feel special. For larger or more formal parties, or a special occasion like someone's birthday, Saunders suggests letting a theme guide you, like ordering or making fish-shaped cookies for a nautical Labor Day party. Personalized paper name tags or place cards that you print from your computer, or festive paper napkins ("I'm a paper napkin freak," Saunders said), also take little effort but make a big impact. Bogott likes to put a welcoming sign on the door and have music playing to conjure that party atmosphere, whether you're having four or 40 people over.

Have a good time

Remember, this is supposed to be fun! If making a three-layer cake stresses you out, don't to it. If your guests are picky eaters, now is not the time to prepare a raw oyster bar. Own your strengths; order takeout to cover your weaknesses. Saunders said she almost never makes dessert, instead choosing to outsource that part of the meal.

"I use dessert as my centerpiece," she said. "I order cake for everything. And I make it really pretty with flowers and decorations, to make it stand out."

Don't force anything on the evening, and don't fish for compliments. It's natural to want to impress your guests, or try a new recipe, but don't slave over a meal for 10 hours and be upset when no one picks up on the secret ingredient in the paella.

"If the hostess is relaxed and happy, it's going to be a great party," Bogott said. "I think that's very true. When I get stressed it's very noticeable."

It's important to go with the flow of the evening, whether that's a deus ex delivery pizza or a surprise dish someone brings. And along the way, you'll learn to come to terms with a few universal hosting truths, like this one:

"Your guests will always hang out in the kitchen," Saunders said. "There's nothing you can do."


The interactive meal

Try something easy you and your guests can prepare (mostly) together. This works best in groups of six or fewer. It's crucial to have everything prepped and ready to be cooked, so all your guests are doing is the fun part. People often want to help when they come over, and letting them contribute to one part of the meal makes the finished product that much sweeter. (That said, don't force anyone to help who doesn't want to. That's a recipe for disaster.)

One of my favorite things to make with a small group is something like pot stickers. Everyone can help fill the dough pockets with meat, you can quickly cook them on the stove and they're served hot out of a sizzling skillet. Things like choose-your-own-toppings pizza and fresh pasta are also entertaining.

The fresh-from-the-oven meal

These are meals you mostly cook before guests arrive, but continue to cook just after they arrive. Roasted dishes or stews or soups you can keep bubbling on the stove are most amenable to this option. We are suggesting a roasted chicken recipe that cooks for a couple of hours, so you can invite guests over just as it's going in and linger for a while before dinner, or at the 90-minute mark, so by the time everyone arrives and grabs a drink, dinner is served. If guests ask what they can do to help, tell them to dress the salad, or chop some fresh herbs — small tasks to complete the meal.

The ready-to-eat meal

The table is fully set. The fridge is stocked with completed dishes you can easily heat up, or something that doesn't need to be served hot, like ceviche or a hearty salad or a giant antipasto platter. (Think a medley of meats, cheese, olives, artichoke hearts, pickled veggies.) Something like build-it-yourself tacos or a pasta bake work well, because you can spend time before the party cooking the different parts then assemble the whole thing and heat it up right before guests arrive. This is also a good strategy when you're dealing with guests who won't commit to an exact time of arrival, or are in town for the weekend and may surprise you.

Rosemary and Thyme Vodka Lemonade

While wine is an easy and reliable standby to serve at dinner parties, I like to have a fun cocktail, too. This one can be made and served out of a pitcher, so you don't have to worry about mixing. You could sub the vodka for gin. e_SFrB¾ cup sugar

1 sprig fresh rosemary, plus more for garnish

6 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for garnish

2 cups water

12 lemons (about 1 ½ to 2 cups)

2 1/4 cups vodka

Ice cubes, for serving

In a small pot, combine the sugar, rosemary and thyme sprigs and water. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the mixture to cool.

Juice the lemons into a large pitcher. Add the rosemary-thyme syrup and vodka and stir to combine. Chill until ready to serve.

Add ice to serving cups and pour individual drinks from pitcher, garnishing with thyme and rosemary.

Serves 8.

Source: Plated: Weeknight Dinners, Weekend Feasts, and Everything in Between by Elana Karp and Suzanne Dumaine (2016)

Chicken Leg Confit With Potatoes

This recipe is meant for two, but multiplies easily depending on how many people you're serving. If you can't find or don't have whole chicken legs, you can use either just legs or just thighs. e_SFrB2 chicken legs (thigh and drumstick), skin on

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 large shallots, unpeeled and quartered (you can also use 1 small red onion)

1 head of garlic, unpeeled, halved crosswise

8 sprigs thyme, divided

1 ½ cups olive oil

10 ounces fingerling potatoes

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Heat oven to 275 degrees.

Season chicken legs with salt and pepper on both sides and nestle into a 1 ½-quart baking dish. Arrange shallots, garlic and 6 thyme sprigs around chicken and pour oil over. Bake until chicken is cooked through and tender and shallots and garlic have started to caramelize, 2 to 2 ½ hours.

Meanwhile, cook potatoes in a medium pot of boiling salted water until tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Remove chicken from oven. Pour off infused oil, reserving 5 tablespoons. Heat 2 tablespoons infused oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Carefully transfer chicken to skillet, arranging skin side down. Cook, undisturbed, until skin is golden brown and crisp, about 5 minutes. Return chicken to dish, placing skin side up.

Heat 2 tablespoons infused oil in same skillet and add potatoes and remaining 2 thyme sprigs. Season with salt and pepper and cook, tossing occasionally, until potatoes are well browned and crisp on all sides, 8 to 10 minutes. (Some pieces will fall off and get extra brown; you want this!). Remove from heat, add lemon juice and toss. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Serve chicken in baking dish (with all those shallots and garlic) with potatoes alongside.

Serves 2.

Source: Adapted from Bon Appétit

Roasted Cauliflower With Cheesy Bread Crumbs

1 head cauliflower, or 2 (10-ounce) bags frozen cauliflower

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup panko bread crumbs

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Chopped fresh parsley, optional

Heat oven to 425 degrees.

Cut the hard bottom off the head of cauliflower and remove any outer leaves. Roughly chop cauliflower into florets and add to a large bowl.

Add olive oil, salt and pepper to the bowl, along with 3 minced cloves of the garlic. Toss to coat the cauliflower.

Spread onto a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray and roast for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, stir cauliflower and return to oven. Cook for another 15 minutes, until cauliflower is golden brown with some darker brown spots throughout. (I like mine on the darker, crispier side.)

Remove from oven when done, and transfer to an oven-safe baking dish measuring 9 by 9 inches or smaller. Turn broiler on.

In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, cheese and remaining garlic clove. Season with salt and pepper, add a drizzle of olive oil and mix thoroughly.

Spoon atop cauliflower and place dish back in oven. Broil for about 5 minutes, until top is browned. Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.

Top with parsley, if using, and serve.

Serves 4.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Sausage and Tomato Rigatoni

8 ounces pasta, preferably rigatoni but any large shaped noodle works

Olive oil

2 links Italian sausage (or chicken sausage)

½ medium red onion, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper

2 cups roughly chopped kale

2 small tomatoes

1 tablespoon butter

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

8 ounces (about 1 cup) mozzarella cheese, grated

Fresh thyme, chopped, for serving

Fill a large pot with water and bring to boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook for 8 minutes, or until al dente. Strain and pour pasta into an oven-safe baking dish. Reserve pasta water for later use.

Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cut sausage into chunks, then add to skillet. Add onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Stir and cook until onion is soft, about 7 minutes.

Add kale, tomatoes and ½ cup pasta water. Stir and lower heat to medium. Cook for about 5 minutes until kale starts to wilt. Add butter and Parmesan cheese and stir. If pan is becoming dry, add a bit more pasta water.

Add sausage mixture to pasta in dish and stir gently to combine everything. Top with mozzarella cheese. Just before serving, broil dish for 5 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Serve with Parmesan cheese and thyme.

Serves 4.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times

Pork Pot Stickers

For the dough:

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more if needed and for dusting

1 ½ teaspoons salt

½ cup boiling water

For the filling:

1 pound ground pork

2 teaspoons sugar

2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger

¼ teaspoon salt

2 scallions, finely chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil, for frying

For the dipping sauce:

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon rice vinegar

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1 scallion, finely chopped

Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Slowly pour in the boiling water while stirring, until you have a coarse meal mixture. Stir in ½ cup cold water to form a dough.

Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface for 10 minutes, adding more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and slightly sticky. Cover the dough with a damp towel and let sit for 20 minutes.

Make the filling: In a large bowl, combine the ground pork, sugar, soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, salt, scallions and a bunch of turns of pepper.

Assemble the dumplings: Divide the dough into 24 balls. Roll them out into 4-inch circles, flouring the surface as needed. Place about 1 tablespoon filling in the center of each and fold in half to make a half-moon shape, pleating the edges to seal well.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Heat a thin layer of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Boil the dumplings in batches for 4 minutes. Remove them with a slotted spoon, allowing excess water to drip off, then transfer to the hot oil. (Be careful during this step.) Cook until the dumplings are browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel and let cool slightly.

Make the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, scallion and red pepper flakes.

Serve the dumplings with the dipping sauce.

Makes about 24.

Source: Adapted from Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh (2016)

Red Cabbage and Apple Slaw

Half a head red cabbage

1 Granny Smith apple

1 small red onion

1 lime

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon sesame oil

Salt and pepper

Use a large box grater to shred cabbage. Alternatively, use a large, sharp knife to roughly chop it. I like this method a bit better to get some thicker pieces, but either works. Add cabbage to a medium bowl.

Cut apple and onion into matchstick-like pieces and add to bowl with cabbage. Squeeze the juice of the lime into the bowl, then add vinegar, olive oil and sesame oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss to incorporate all the ingredients.

Ideally, you'd want to let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours before serving, or overnight. But you can serve it right away.

Serves 4.

Source: Michelle Stark, Tampa Bay Times