Over the years, we’ve learned how to entertain by hosting countless gatherings with our friends and family. Through successes (and yes, even failures), we’ve learned how to confidently host a gathering, from what to serve, how to set a table, which dishes work best, and what is needed to create a special atmosphere. And we’re still learning!
We are big believers in the value of gathering around your table with those you love, so our mission is to inspire you to make it happen! Especially for those who feel overwhelmed by what to do or unsure where to begin, we recognize the importance of making entertaining easier.
Hence, the inspiration behind and the main purpose of this Ultimate Entertaining Guide. While not every item in this guide is a must for every event, you’re sure to find tips that spark an idea and provide encouragement. For every comfort level, effort level, and mood, we hope you find these steps helpful in preparing for your next gathering, whether it’s large or small.
In this guide, you’ll find everything from prep to post-party and what we’ve learned to help create unforgettable experiences as you bring people together. So, take your excuses off the table and be the host you always dreamed you could be. Let’s plan the gathering everyone will want to attend and create the memories no one will ever forget.
The 5-Step Guide to Entertaining:
- plan your gathering
- create your plan
- plan the execution
- create your execution timeline
- execute your event
Planning Your Gathering
With tips on everything from creating the guest list to setting the mood for the occasion, our entertaining guide will give you the confidence to host gatherings for two or 22! The best place to start is creating a plan so you can stay organized and ensure your event is a success. Depending on the size and attendees of your event, select the items on our ultimate guide you need for your gathering to be a success.
Planning your gathering begins with these crucial steps:
- defining the purpose and budget of your gathering
- making the guest list
- setting the mood
- determining your event’s date, time, and location
Why Define the Purpose and Budget of Your Gathering?
Making people feel special and creating memories is rewarding. And when we put in just a little extra effort, it shows how much we care about them.
As the host, we know you want your gathering to be as close to picture-perfect as possible. Entertaining takes considerable time and thought, but when you start off on the right foot, you can make your gathering seem effortless and set the tone for your plans. So, let's take a look at how you can begin the party planning process with ease and set yourself up for success.
Defining the Purpose of Your Gathering
We highly recommend beginning your planning efforts by defining the purpose of your gathering. Celebrating someone special’s birthday? Hosting a grand holiday dinner with friends and family? Showering a new mom or a bride-to-be? Or just planning to host a few friends for happy hour? Defining the primary purpose of your gathering will help you narrow down the intricate details of the event.
Why Setting Your Budget is Essential
As you move on to the budgeting phase of party planning, we want to point out this entails much more than your monetary parameters. While budgeting, you should also take into account the amount of time you wish to spend on your event. Beginning with your budgeting parameters in mind will help you set expectations for yourself and keep you on track so things don’t get out of hand.
Creating your Guest List
After you’ve outlined the purpose and budget for your gathering or dinner party, it’s time to make your guest list. Who will you be hosting at your event? Do you have an idea of how many guests you will need to invite? Your guest list will help provide the parameters for an array of planning items, including cooking, supplies, and space, so consider your guest list carefully before moving on.
Pro-tip for entertaining novices: If you are feeling a bit intimidated or overwhelmed by entertaining, we recommend starting out with a small, intimate practice gathering.
Invite four to six of your closest friends and family members over to ease yourself into the experience of entertaining. Then do it again, a few times, to boost your confidence in entertaining. This small circle of loved ones creates a large enough group to test out your host skills yet keeps it small enough to sit together at your table and enjoy a meal.
Setting the Mood
Once you’ve finalized your guest list for the luncheon or dinner party, you can use it to help set the desired mood for your gathering. What feelings do you wish to evoke? Are you inspired by a theme for your gathering? These considerations can help add that extra spark when you’re entertaining.
Considering a Theme
While it’s completely optional, incorporating a theme into your gathering can help you enhance your guests’ experience. Themes also may make decision-making easy with fewer choices as well as help to create a memorable affair. A theme can be as simple as using a consistent cookbook or cuisine for the menu or incorporating an elaborate idea, such as a costume party.
An intimate, themed gathering can make the event a memorable occasion. It offers conversation starters, shared activities, and lasting memories. As you decide on using a theme, consider how you may want to bring it to life through your party’s details.
Your theme can extend to your:
What Are You Hoping Your Guests Will Experience?
When we put in just a little extra effort, it really shows. Creating a special event includes making our guests feel special, too. It’s the extra details and little personalized experiences that help everyone create lasting memories around your table.
So, when you envision all of your event’s elements coming together, what do you hope your guests will experience? Use this information to help you create a cohesive feel, add personalized touches, and set the mood for your dinner party.
Tips for Making Your Guests Feel Special
No matter how intimate or large your gathering is, you want your guests to feel welcomed and excited to be there. From the moment they walk through the door, you want them to be embraced with the feeling that every detail was planned with them in mind. Keep reading for tips on planning your menu and designing your gathering to learn how best to plan such details.
Another easy way to make guests feel special is to include them in the party prep! Especially if your guests are close friends or family, don't be afraid to ask for help! Their participation generally helps them feel comfortable, wanted, and valuable at intimate gatherings.
You may even consider assigning them small tasks before the party, requesting they be in charge of a small job or bring an item with them. Keep in mind that busy hands fill in the gaps so they aren’t left feeling bored or unattended to.
Determining Your Event’s Date, Time, and Location
Your fourth step in planning your gathering is to map out your date, time, and location. While this may seem straightforward, there are plenty of considerations to make before settling on your choices.
Considering a Date for Your Gathering
There are several considerations to make when selecting a date to entertain. From the time of year to theme possibilities, you'll want to ensure the best atmosphere as well as turnout.
As you narrow down possible dates for your gathering, consider:
- time of year
- day of the week
Time of year: Ensure weather during particular seasons won't affect your outdoor entertaining plans.
Ambiance: Does your chosen date coincide with the theme or mood you want to create? While this isn’t always the intent, it is often an important consideration.
Day of the week: Is your party going to be on a weekend or weekday? You’ll want to consider the prep time involved, as well as the availability of your intended guests when selecting a day of the week.
Pro-tip for entertaining novices: If you are throwing a formal event, plan to send your invitations as early as possible. Allowing your guests plenty of time to plan for your chosen date will benefit everyone's planning.
As you select times for your gathering, consider:
- time of day
- guests’ age ranges
Time of day: This can set the tone for any party, from casual to formal attire and casual lunch to cocktails.
Consider your guests’ age ranges: If you are entertaining children, be mindful of nap time, meal schedules, or early bedtimes as you select possible party times.
Festivities involved: Will you be entertaining with games, live music, or other activities that require extra time? Plan accordingly so your guests may enjoy all your event has to offer.
As you determine a location for your gathering, consider:
- overall space
- diversity within the space
- seating options
- indoors or out
- guest ages
Your space: Planning for more guests doesn’t necessarily require a large venue. Do you have a small space? Then get creative by incorporating your yard or moving furniture to another room to make space for an extended table for the event. We’ve even been known to extend a table through a doorway before!
Go with the flow and keep things moving: When hosting at your own home, hold portions of your gathering in different spaces of your home. For example, hosting cocktails on the patio, appetizers in the living room, and your main course in the dining room helps create movement, spark interaction, and distract from any crowded conditions as the guests flow through the house.
Seating options: Does your chosen location allot for enough space in general, whether you bring in additional chairs or guests remain standing? Will the chosen location accommodate the number of guests you are having? Don’t be afraid to mix and match chairs at a set table or keep things casual by encouraging guests to find a seat or perch anywhere they’re comfortable if a seated dinner isn’t part of the plan.
Indoors or out: Consider the weather possibilities of an outdoor location. Make sure to have a backup plan if you’re counting on an outdoor gathering!
Consider the ages of your guests: Small children tend to need more open space with extra supervision around non-childproofed homes, pools, and open doors. Consider the safety needs presented by your guests’ ages when choosing a location.
Creating Your Gathering
With the bulk of your party planning underway, it’s time to move on to the design portion of entertaining … and our very favorite part! From invitations to the menu details, we’ll walk you through the necessary considerations to help create an incredible luncheon or dinner party.
Planning the Invitations
Whether you’re entertaining co-workers or planning a child’s birthday party, your invitations are your guests’ first impression of your party and usually set the tone to follow.
As you consider your invitation needs, think about:
- incorporating your theme
- how you will deliver them
- by phone
- any requirements of your guests
- gift preferences
- food, drink, or other guest contributions
- rsvp requests
Formal and large parties generally provide 8-week advance notice to guests, while less formal events offer a 2- to 4-week notice. Depending on how impromptu your gathering is, you could shoot a text to your group the day before! Sometimes, that makes for the most fun.
Planning the Menu
As you begin planning your menu for the luncheon or dinner party, we recommend starting with limitations. This may include food preparation space, cooking time constraints, keeping food hot or cold for the duration of your gathering, or known food allergies of your guests. Knowing your challenges and limitations upfront will get the tough stuff out of the way and help your menu planning run more smoothly.
We also recommend planning a menu that has a variety of cooking techniques so oven space isn’t an issue and preparing what you can ahead of time so that you aren't stuck in the kitchen throughout the entire party.
Finding Menu Inspiration
We love the menu planning process and draw inspiration from an array of places. However, if you don't have your menu in mind, try starting with a single ingredient, dish, or cuisine, such as Thai cuisine, that’s inspiring to you and use that as a guide for the rest of it to fall into place. Still stuck? What’s fresh, ripe, or in season at the time of your dinner party? If you’re still at a loss, you can also look to:
- your theme
- the guest of honor’s favorite meal
- a family tradition
- a new recipe you want to try
- a single ingredient for season or for color
- time of year and mood - do you want to serve something warm and comforting or cool and refreshing?
Refer to your favorite chef or cookbook author to see what they’ve posted or published recently. Some of our favorites are Ina Garden, Half Baked Harvest, The Defined Dish, Julia Child, and Mimi Thorrison, among many others! Our family even started a Shared Note on our phones to have a shared source of inspiration for dinner parties to help in crunch time!
Planning Food and Beverages
As you browse through your newfound sources for inspiration, take note of those that best fit your dinner party’s needs. We highly recommend deciding on your main dish first, then planning additional food items around it. You could also theme your menu around a specific type of cooking, such as an all-grill menu.
While you plan the menu, ask yourself:
Do the dishes complement each other?
Are any dishes too similar?
Do the dishes offer a variety of flavors and ingredients to satisfy everyone’s palate?
Are any recipes too rich or spicy for your guest list?
Are the foods selected practical to prepare in the allotted amount of time?
Are there some dishes that can be prepared ahead of time?
Additional considerations as you plan your menu include:
- the time of day the event will take place
- the temperature of your serving environment
- heating or chilling requirements throughout the gathering
- the theme of your party
- the number of guests and ages you’ll be serving
- beverage requirements or restrictions, such as alcoholic drinks
Helpful Menu Guidelines
While your gathering or dinner party can incorporate as many dishes as your heart desires, here is a foolproof entertaining menu guide to make sure you have all the essential courses covered:
- drinks and cocktails
- main dish
- salad and sides
Setting out appetizers is a great way to encourage the guests to entertain themselves and spark conversation as they first arrive. This doesn’t need to be lavish; you can set out something as simple as olives or nuts to satisfy them before dinner is served. If you have a heavier main meal planned, we recommend keeping your appetizers light so as to not spoil their appetite.
Keep in mind that some guests may not like to get their hands dirty by touching messy appetizers. This can be especially true when meeting new people. So, provide your guests guiding utensils like toothpicks or forks and plenty of napkins.
Main Dish Ideas
While you may want to make a big impression, keep things simple, especially if you are just starting out. Prepare a dish you are comfortable and confident cooking rather than trying a new dish for the event. If “Bridget Jones’s Diary” taught us anything, it is that you should not try out a new recipe on the day of a dinner party. If you must be adventurous, try experimenting with the appetizers or cocktail course instead.
Pro tip for entertaining or cooking novices: read the entire recipe, from start to finish, before you even go shopping. You may find you need a kitchen tool or staple ingredient you don't have. Or you may need to marinate or brine something overnight or plan for an extended cook time.
Salad and Sides
For your salad, try something seasonal that will complement the main dish. We have a go-to salad recipe that is very versatile for most menus. Generally, a total of two sides is a good baseline: one that’s on the lighter/simpler side and one that's on the heartier side, like a starch.
Always Offer Dessert
No matter how simple, having a dessert is typically something that helps wrap up your gathering so that it ends on a sweet note – literally! Guests usually like to indulge in a small, sweet sampling, and you can even make it to-go, like a gourmet chocolate bar, a cake pop, or a pre-wrapped cookie if you don’t feel like serving a whole dessert course for your dinner party.
Designing Your Event
Designing your event helps you plan ahead for all the intricate details that will make your gathering memorable. From the entertainment spaces to décor, each component helps create an event your guests will never forget.
As you design your gathering, you’ll want to consider:
- serving/dining space
- entertaining space
- miscellaneous spaces
- visual elements
- colors and décor
- kitchen and dining
Designing Your Layout
The layout of your gathering is an overview of the dinner party area, including the movement of your guests. As you plan your layout, consider the number of people attending, how you will serve food and beverages, and where they will be served. For instance, if you plan to treat your guests to a beautifully set table in the dining room, this key decision will help you in your planning for entertaining and gathering areas. Designing your intended layout will help you create a natural flow that allows your guests to congregate and mingle freely.
Remember to include spaces for every aspect of your event, including:
- ample room for serving buffet-style from a console or family-style on a big, set table
- drinks and cocktail bar
- dining space
- play areas for children or other entertainment for your guests
- a designated spot for dirty dishes, trash, cleanup supplies for spills, etc.
Planning Your Music
No dinner party is complete without a little music to help set the tone. So, prepare a playlist in advance that complements your theme, the guests, and overall mood you’re hoping to create.
If music isn’t your area of expertise, we have personally curated playlists for a variety of moods and gatherings for you to use.
Perfecting the Lighting
The gradual change in lighting should always be taken into consideration ahead of time, especially if your guests will flow in and out of doors. You’ll be busy with an array of host duties, so planning your lighting needs in advance is a tremendous help. Trust us; it only takes one pitch-black dinner party to learn this lesson the hard way! Let us spare you.
Dining by candlelight? Plan for enough candles ahead of time and light them with enough burn time throughout your dinner party.
Pro tip: Votives burn through quickly, so have a backup stock for quick refills to keep the glow going!
Dazzle with Visual Elements
There are many ways you can design your event to create a “wow” factor and a memorable experience for all. Visual elements are our favorite ways to show our style and personality while entertaining. You can pull all the elements together through décor and our stylish and functional kitchen and dining pieces to create a cohesive dinner part.
Your Décor Choices
Try narrowing down a color palette (up to five colors is a good, safe number to start with) to keep things cohesive. Add your chosen colors to centerpieces, candles, and napkins. Play with color saturation for a minimalist or maximalist look and to add depth to your décor or tablescape. If there are areas you wish to draw your guests’ attention to, like your centerpiece or place setting, highlight them with the boldest use of color or pattern.
Incorporate your theme by selecting certain décor elements around your home. Then, place themed décor at the serving stations, bar, or outside on the patio to pull all your areas together.
Kitchen & Dinnerware Choices
If you’ll be plating from the kitchen, adding eye-catching cookware to complement your beautifully set dining table can bring visual appeal into your kitchen and help distract from a small or chaotic space. Just adding that extra-special touch ties in the overall aesthetic and makes your guests take note of the extra details in your party planning.
As you envision the dining area, think about the look and feel you want for your guests. Imagine what they will gaze at as they are seated for their meal or gathered around enjoying appetizers and conversation.
Take this opportunity to add beauty to your event with your choices of:
Take this opportunity to add beauty to your event with your choices of:
Planning the Execution
As you near the date of the event, it’s time to plan your execution. We have a list of basic to-dos to help you move through this step easily:
- create checklists
- contact vendors
- shop/pick up items
Create Your Checklists
Group your checklists according to items you need to buy versus things you need to do. This may include food to prep, cooking, and plating to prepare for the event.
Contact Your Vendors
If your gathering uses vendors, make sure to place your orders ahead of time. Secure your date and time, work through any deposits, and check back to verify your order is being handled according to your time needs.
Shop or Pickup Items
We prefer to create our entertaining shopping lists by location to streamline our day-of pickups. As you run down your list, we highly recommend pulling all ingredients out to ensure you have what you need or to make sure that it makes it to your list.
Cook/Prep/Plate in Advance
Depending on the scale and size of your event, you may find that there’s quite a lot to do the day of the event. If you can, try cooking, prepping, and plating anything you can ahead of time. You’ll find you’ll enjoy yourself more during the actual dinner party.
4. Create Your Execution Timeline
Regardless of the size of your gathering, creating a timeline of what needs to be done the day of is incredibly beneficial. It will help you easily flow through the necessary steps to prepare for your guests’ arrival. Trust us – the time will fly by quickly, and you'll want to give yourself plenty of time for unforeseen issues as well as time to get yourself ready!
Pro tip: set alerts for yourself on your phone to ensure you don't lose track of the day.
When creating a timeline, we find it helpful to start with the time you plan to have your guests arrive, then work backward, incorporating any cooking or prep time you still need for food. It’s a helpful planning tip we’ve adopted from Ina Garten that we just know you’ll love.
For all our checklist lovers:
While your to-do list and timeline will certainly depend on the size, scale, and effort level you wish to put into your gathering, your checklist will vary. Here are a few helpful suggestions to keep you on task:
Do any dishes need last-minute cook time or reheating?
Have you set out your extra tables and chairs?
Is it almost time to turn on outdoor lighting or light candles?
What time should appetizers be ready for early arrivals?
We know preparing all your food to be ready at once can be challenging. Creating a rough timeline will help keep you on task, so everything is as you intended when your guests are ready to be seated at the table.
Additional tips for your timeline:
- Entertaining should bring you joy! Slow down and savor the experience while learning as you go. Try to accomplish a little bit each day, rather than trying to conquer everything the day before or the day of.
- We find it helpful to add about 25% more time than you think necessary so you never feel rushed.
- Example execution timeline
The Big Event
Embrace this experience and enjoy your last few hours of preparation and plating. Just remember to give yourself grace. Do one thing well, and then make sure to cut yourself slack on everything else.
Once dinner is finished, clear the plates and place them in the sink, then rejoin guests. You deserve to relax and enjoy your hard work, and your guests will enjoy the extra time with you.
The old saying “one learns by doing” is exactly how we do what we do. Creating a memorable gathering, luncheon, or dinner party doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, we hope our entertaining guide helps make your party planning so easy that it almost feels effortless.
As you continue to host and entertain, we hope you’ll find favorite tips from this guide that make entertaining as enjoyable as it is for our family. At Coton Colors, we love to entertain and create products that bring people together.
We hope you’ve found some inspiration and encouragement from our tried-and-true entertaining tips to use at your next dinner tip…how’s this weekend? Just remember, the most important thing is to savor the time you spend together and create a memorable event for everyone you’ve invited to gather around your table!