Having people over for a meal I've cooked is one of my favorite pleasures, but it took awhile to learn how to relax while doing it. Here are some things I've learned about how to make dinner parties fun and delicious for everyone involved, including the chef.
  1. Don't worry about impressing people with your cooking.
    People are generally so thrilled to have someone cook for them that it really doesn't matter how fancy it is. Cook foods you like to eat, platter them nicely, and serve them with wine.
  2. When possible, serve foods that can be cooked in advance--bonus points for food that can be served at room temperature. Think grain salads, quiche, frittata, noodle salads--pretty much anything you would bring to a picnic.
    Your job is made much easier by dishes that can be prepared early in the day, or even the day prior to your gathering. Platter them up, cover them tightly with plastic wrap, and put them on the table an hour before guests arrive.
  3. When people ask what they should bring, tell them wine.
    If you need help with the meal, then, sure, ask people to help out by bringing a dish. But when everyone brings wine, it means that you don't have to worry about handling beverages and that is a good thing.
  4. Don't worry too much about guests' dietary restrictions unless you already know of them or they tell you in advance.
    If someone can't eat something, he or she should be responsible for telling you about it in advance, or bringing something for themselves.
  5. That said, you can structure a meal so that it accommodates some of the more common dietary restrictions.
    Make a simple main protein entree (say, roasted chicken), and accompany it with 3 sides, at least one of which is vegan, and one of which is gluten-free. For example: roasted broccoli, sourdough bread, and a green salad. Vegans and vegetarians can have broccoli, bread, and salad (which should be mostly ok, considering they didn't tell you their dietary restrictions in advance), and gluten-free folks can have everything but the bread.
  6. Try to budget in an hour or so to clean up the kitchen (and yourself) before guests arrive.
    This is doubly helpful in that it makes the kitchen look nice, which will help you relax during the party, and it also makes your post-party cleanup much easier since all of your prep dishes will be out of the way.
  7. Serve snacks to start!
    This is especially smart if you are putting the finishing touches on dinner when people arrive. Snacks can be very simple: crackers with cheese, pickled vegetables, nuts, chips and salsa--no need to get crazy. Just put out something good to munch on.
  8. If a non-drinker is coming to your dinner party, go out of your way to buy him or her something fun to drink, like sparking lemonade or fancy soda.
    It's a nice touch.
  9. Consider the couch(es).
    We have a little dining table with just 4 chairs, but a lot of seating on couches and chairs in the living room. When more than 2 people are coming over, we move dinner into the living room instead. People load up their plates and sit on the couch, chairs, and on pillows on the floor. It's cozy and festive and everyone always ends up staying late into the night and hanging out when we do things this way.
  10. Don't be afraid to comment on how good the food is.
    @evan always laughs at the little sigh I do when I taste something I've cooked and am pleased with it. I'm a firm believer that it's good to praise oneself for a job well done. You worked hard on that meal, celebrate it! And never, ever apologize for something you've cooked. You are likely the only person who thinks there's anything wrong with it. As I said before, people are just happy to be fed a lovingly cooked meal.
  11. When it comes to dessert, simple is great.
    Evan likes to serve really good chocolate bars broken into pieces and little cups of bourbon for dessert. It's casual and delicious. Other good ideas: bowls of ice cream, cookies from a nice bakery, even some plain sliced fruit. If you love to bake, this is a great area to show off, but if not, it's perfectly fine do something uncomplicated.
  12. At the end of the night, if you just can't bear to do the dishes, organize them so they'll be easy to do in the morning.
    Discard all food scraps, stack the plates in the sink and run some water over them to loosen anything stuck-on. Fill a few cups with soapy water and put all the silverware in it to soak. Give the wineglasses a quick rinse so that they don't get stained overnight.