The Secret to a Stress-Free Dinner Party

Dreamstime Awkward dinner party
A three course dinner will give your most interesting guest (in this case, the guy in the middle of this stock photo) plenty of time to tell all of his funny anecdotes. Look how much the women around him are loving it!

There’s something about a dinner party that strikes fear into the heart of the home cook.

When I realise that guests are about the descent upon my home for a sit-down meal, I find myself with an irresistible urge to cook impressive sounding dishes I know nothing about, and impulse-buying expensive cheese. But no more. As part of my challenge to master every technique in Lieth’s Technique Bible, I’m learning how to plan like a chef.

My previous approach to cooking for a dinner party was to either go to ridiculous lengths and expense to cook my guest’s dream meal, or throw down a quick buffet involving burgers and potato salad. It turns out there is a third way.

That third way is a three course meal.

I can see you – finger hovering over the ‘back’ button, imagining ridiculous French banquets and muttering, “This is not the secret I was looking for!” But hear me out.

According to, humans have been eating food in courses for about 10,000 years. And while there is an association between wealth and courses (wealthy people generally have more food to spread around), meals with different stages occur in all societies and socio-economic groups.

So why should you cook a three course meal when you have guests? Won’t it send you bankrupt? Or insane?

Not so. By using the planning guide below, you’ll cook most of the meal in advance, and save on expensive ingredients at every stage. Most importantly,  you’ll be able to enjoy the meal rather than trying to unravel the mysteries of Lobster Thermidor while your best friend’s husband eats all your expensive cheese.

Planning a Three Course Meal in Seven Easy Steps

Adapted from the general meal planning guidelines in Leith’s Technique Bible.

1. Consider your guests.

Do they have any particular preferences or dietary needs? Don’t be grudging about it – even if you’re sceptical about your brother-in-law’s self-diagnosed starch intolerance, you still need to cater for his preference. After all, cooking for someone should be about cooking for them, not in spite of them.

2. Pick your cuisine.

Go with a cuisine that you’re comfortable cooking. Your first Moroccan dish should be a fun experiment on a lazy Saturday, not a panicked disaster as twelve of your friends watch on in sympathetic horror.

3. Choosing a protein for the main course.

Pick the star of your main course: meat, seafood, tofu, eggs, beans or lentils. Make sure this main ingredient is either seasonal (cheap and easy to find) out already in your pantry (even cheaper).

4. Pick the dish for the main course.

Choose the main course dish by finding recipes for your protein in your cuisine that are at your level and look fun. If you already have a tried and tested recipe that fits the bill, then go with that.

5. Balance your main course.

Add balance to the main course with carbs or vegetables. Carbs could consist of rice, pasta, flatbread, a loaf of bread, or potatoes. Vegetables could be roasted, steamed, or in the form of a salad. Most of these options can be made earlier in the day, or with very little attention.

6. Choose your appetizer.

Pick something from the same cuisine, but with a different texture. Ideally, choose something that can be made ahead so you can focus on the main course. Having an appetizer up your sleeve will buy you time to finish the main course, while adding interest to the meal for your guests.

7. Finally, dessert.

Pick something from the same cuisine that is light in summer or heavy in winter. Cakes and biscuits are my favourite options as they can be made in advance and use inexpensive ingredients, but at the same time have a lovely home-made touch.


Using this guide, everything can be made ahead apart from the main meal. Your guests get a culinary journey through a cuisine your love, and all you have to do on the night is cook a single dish like you would for any weeknight dinner.


Tune in on Saturday to see a sample menu, as I turn MJ’s extended family into my meal-planning guinea pigs.

What is your experience of planning a special meal? Would you consider a three course sit-down dinner?

2 thoughts on “The Secret to a Stress-Free Dinner Party

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