Overcoming dinner party anxiety

Dinner party anxiety
Pomegranate cake – the sweet ending to my first dinner party!

Once, many years ago, I asked a friend over for dinner. I had just moved into my own place, and was feeling very grown-up and responsible, so it seemed fitting that I should invite people around and cook for them. (Note that I didn’t have any proper furniture). I thought something casual but tasty would do the trick, and pasta with a twist fit the bill. Yet something went horribly wrong between idea and execution, and my poor friend ended up sitting on the floor eating clods of pasta stuck in a tomato and cream cheese sauce that had almost solidified into a lethal weapon. She was sweet enough to eat it, and for that I will always have fondness for her. For me, however, my real-time embarrassment fossilised into a fear of entertaining which I left untackled for close to fifteen years.

Dinner party anxiety = frustration

During these wilderness years, it’s not that I haven’t wanted to cook for others. I have, numerous times. It’s just that the dread of delivering an awful experience has outweighed the excitement of having friends over for a warming evening of food and conversation – to provide a scene of happiness. For isn’t that what entertaining others is about? I have been entertained by others, but my dinner party anxiety has stopped me from reciprocating – and awareness of how impolite that is has made it worse.

My fear has been rooted in a deep lack of confidence in being able to deliver that scene of warming happiness, with tasty, clever food, and people feeling wittily entertained and comfortably looked after. It is safe to say I held a fantasy of what a dinner party should be, and excluded myself from it.

Apparently I’m not alone…

A quick internet search (after I wrote the above, incidentally) produced the results of an older UK-based survey by After Eight mints, where 57% of respondents said that hosting dinner parties was more stressful than commuting to work; 44% said it produced more anxiety than meeting their bank manager. The cause of their anxiety was a fear that dishes will go wrong (36%) and that guests will not enjoy themselves (33%). A belated vindication, and statistics I suspect have not improved with time.

Starting to tackle dinner party anxiety

Over the past couple of years, my love of food and dining and eating has ripened and evolved, resulting in a more mature, relaxed approach to being in the kitchen. It might have something to do with the fact that I left my City job for a lifestyle change, and therefore had more time to explore my love of food. I have cooked more, become more confident with ingredients and techniques, and fed others informally (which was actually a dinner party in disguise, one of my guests told me in the course of discussing this subject). That fifteen-year dinner party freeze was beginning to thaw.

New year, new approach – hello, dinner party

This year, maybe due to new year contagion or just festive cheer, I decided to invite a close friend and her family over for dinner. It would be an out-and-out Dinner Party (as opposed to a dinner party), and not only that, but would involve cooking for two young children. 

I did not go into this lightly, but I also checked myself on going crazy with overambitious projects (I switched lemon meringue pie for a much easier but equally tasty pomegranate cake). Effective planning and preparation was key. My menu built on ingredients and dishes I already knew and liked, with a twist. The kids would get homemade mac and cheese, with steamed broccoli on the side (a guaranteed win, my friend told me). 

My Dinner Party Menu

The main menu was as follows:

My dinner party menu

On the day…

I planned and prepped accordingly (see below in tips for overcoming dinner party anxiety), and created a menu around what I knew. My guests arrived, we talked, we ate, and the evening went without a hitch. More than that, I loved every moment of it. I forgot my ‘self’, my worries and concerns which focused on me – instead, I was present to the pleasure and honour of having an old and dear friend visit my home with her family, and feeding them. 

Dinner party anxiety - roast cod
The main course: roast cod and herby quinoa salad

I have summarised my lessons learned below if you’re in a similar situation and want to tackle the dinner party anxiety.

Turning dinner party anxiety into fun

It was during the course of the evening that I really got why I decided to take on my anxiety around dinner parties and give it another go. Food brings a joy all of its own, and being able to make and share it with others in my home amplifies that joy manifold. It is a gift to be able to feed others; a blessing to be a source of something which is necessary for life but also special. 

My memories of the evening are: being told by a five-year-old that my mac and cheese was some of the best they’d ever had; the lingering warmth that comes with having people fill your home with their presence, conversation, and affection; of planning and preparing well (a breakthrough for me); of being able to host a dear friend after being fed by her many times (she’s a phenomenal baker too); turning my home into a Party House, which is a dream come true. 

I’m adding another goal to my list for the year (see here): to have a Party House and absolutely love it. Dinner party anxiety is so last decade – this year is all about dinner party fun.

Practical tips on how to overcome dinner party anxiety

1. Practise beforehand, and build on what you know

If you’re not really a cook and not comfortable in the kitchen, then deciding to host a dinner party ‘cold’ will be quite daunting. Start becoming more familiar in the kitchen by cooking meals for yourself and close friends/family/housemates/partners.  

Try a dish more than once, so the technique and steps become easier to remember – you’ll find that you’ll start to get a ‘memory path’ in the kitchen for these dishes, which means less to overthink, and less to be anxious over.  

Dinner party anxiety - burrata salad
Burrata, pea shoot and burnt clementine salad (one of my favourite salads which I’ve made several times, and can always be given a twist)

Don’t try completely new dishes, unless they’re building on an element of something you already know.

2. Keep your menu easy and focus on flavour over technique 

You don’t need fancy techniques and elaborate cooking (read here: hours spent in the kitchen) to produce good, tasty food. Flavour triumphs over fuss every time, so choose simple, flavoursome dishes which can be prepared in stages, ideally the night or even days before (doughs, sauces, pastry). Planning around ease can make the difference between you relaxing and enjoying the evening and being an exhausted, highly-strung host who wants it all to be over. 

I took inspiration from the following chefs and cookbooks, which I thoroughly recommend:

Sabrina Ghayour’s Feasts – I used the burrata salad, tomato salad and roast cod recipes from here, and was tempted by a lot more! This book is great for dinner parties, and provides easy, flavoursome recipes which can be rustled up for groups…

John Gregory-Smith is a British chef who loves Middle Eastern food and shares lots of recipes on Instagram as well as writes cookbooks. Check out his Instagram here. I used his herby tabbouleh recipe (available in his Instagram stories) as the inspiration for my herby quinoa recipe.

I used the perennially reliable Nigella Lawson’s recipe for pomegranate jewel cake, which you can find here. It’s easy and delicious, like all of her recipes I have tried, so she’s a great go-to for dinner parties.

Other menu planning tips include:

  • Salads are a great menu choice because they can often be prepped in advance, and can be insanely delicious. 
  • Keep the in-meal cooking to a minimum – for my meal, I just had to toast the ciabatta sticks and oven roast the cod after the starters. 
  • Cook what you enjoy, because you’ll enjoy making it and it will show!
  • If you really must create a show-stopping course – and that’s subjective depending on your experience in the kitchen – then keep the rest of your menu even easier, ideally things you can make the evening before and just assemble before serving.  

3. Remember why you’re doing it

Maybe this should be number 1, but what really tipped the scales from dreading dinner parties to wanting to have one was the prospect of doing something for people I care about. It wasn’t about me, ultimately – it was about welcoming friends into my home, spending some time with them, and enjoying our evening. In other words, fun. Approaching your dinner party with that spirit will keep your mind off the worries and fears that can threaten to derail you – and also keep you on track to plan and prepare properly (see below)…

4. Prepare and plan your time (VERY IMPORTANT)

One of my fears was leaving everything too late, and still being in the kitchen while my guests were waiting for food – it has happened before, and left me really irked and embarrassed.

The root cause was underestimating the time I needed to get everything ready, so this time I overestimated the time required and started preparing in advance. I prepared as much as possible the night before (cake and quinoa salad without dressing), and then in the morning (deseeding pomegranates, juicing and zesting lemons, chopping herbs, marinating cod, peeling the clementines, preparing the dressings), and then a couple of hours before my guests arrived (assembling salads, setting table, finishing off the cake). I had minimal work to do once my guests arrived, which was a huge personal triumph. It meant I could relax and enjoy having guests over.

Note: Do not underestimate the time it takes to chop herbs, peel vegetables, assemble salads and dress them (definitely make the dressing beforehand but don’t dress the salad until you’re about to serve) etc. Do as much as you can as early as you can without compromising the quality and freshness of the dish.

5. Clean as you go (as much as possible)

I’ve trained myself to clean up in the kitchen as I cook, and it makes a huge difference to my peace of mind and also the work left once I’ve finished cooking. Try and do as much of the washing up before your guests arrive. I like to do some cleaning up while I’m in the kitchen waiting for something to cook and serve for the next course, but it’s not always possible so don’t do it at the expense of being with your guests. Manage what you can after they’ve gone. I love having a pristine kitchen before I go to sleep so I’ll clean everything once my guests leave, but it’s not for everyone. Cleaning up as you go will make your life a lot easier, though.

 6. Entertaining for kids – trust the parents

I was quite worried about cooking for the kids, as they’re pretty honest about what they like and don’t like. I didn’t get creative here, but took guidance from my friend about what they like, and made it without any fancy twists. If you’re cooking for kids and are unsure about what they’ll like, ask the parents and just take the advice without fooling around with it.

7. It’s your home, not a hotel – it doesn’t have to be pristine

Of course you’re proud of your home and you want to make a good impression on your guests, for them as much as for you, but it doesn’t have to be immaculate. It’s your home, it’s meant to be lived in, and sometimes it can be intimidating for guests when things are too perfect and shiny and neat. You also don’t want to add extensive cleaning to your list of things to do. Do a respectable amount, and focus on the food and your company instead.

Also, don’t get too hung up on place settings, matching tablecloths and crockery etc. You’re hosting a dinner party, not a supper club, so save that for special occasions.

8. If it still feels like too much…

If you’re still anxious about dinner parties but really want to have one and tackle that demon, then have a crappy dinner party. I quite like the devil-may-care attitude of this approach, set out in this Kitchn blog post. It’s as good a place to start as any…

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