After a festive season full of holiday dinners, cocktail parties and sequin-y soirees, the last thing you’re probably ready to think about are the dos and don’ts of a formal affair. But, think again! How many of the recent bevy of dinner parties were done properly? Did you enjoy all of them, or were there things you would have changed had you hosted your own? Formal dinner parties don’t have to be stuffy, and there are right and wrong ways to do them. With our list of 10 do’s and don’ts for a formal affair, your fear of hosting will be left in 2012. Whether you’re entertaining future in-laws or hosting your best girlfriends, you’ll rest easy knowing you won’t be judged for using the wrong wine glass. You might even teach them a thing or two!


Send out invitations: Invitations these days don’t have to be letterpressed and encased in a wax seal, but take the time to send something more than a quick email. It will help guests get excited for the evening, and details will be easier to find than in their (ever-growing) inbox. We like Paperless Post as an online option, but fill in the blank invitations are great to have on hand for a snail mail alternative.

Plan the menu in advance: Check with your guests to make sure no one has any allergies or dietary restrictions. From there, think about your budget, how much time you will have to prepare the meal, and what’s in season. And don’t forget to think about the dishes that you feel comfortable making. While you may be excited to impress your guests, making a Julia Child recipe from scratch the day of the event could be a bit challenging, and worse, might not come together in time for dinner. Lastly, prepare what you can the day before so you can spend most of your time engaging with guests as they arrive.

Think about seating arrangements: If you’re having a fairly large dinner party, take the time to set out place cards. You know your guests better than anyone, so if cousin John happened to go to the same school as your best friend Kara and you think they might hit it off, do them a favor and seat them next to each other. This kind of thoughtfulness will guarantee great conversation and a great evening.

Have a playlist prepared: Think about the theme or tone of the evening and plan songs accordingly. Don’t choose music that will put guests to sleep, but as this is a formal event, you won’t want songs that make them feel like they’re in a bar or club. Make sure the playlist is long enough to last through the evening so you don’t have to play DJ all night.

Set the table properly: The dinner plate goes center to the chair with knife directly on the right, blade facing in, and spoon to its right. On the left is the folded (cloth!) napkin, with the dinner fork closest to the plate and salad fork on the outside. Water and wine glass go at the top right of the dinner plate. These are basics, but a set table also means a centerpiece (we love fresh flowers or (unscented) candles), salt and pepper shakers, and place cards or favors for guests.


Serve hard to eat or messy foods: Your guests will be dressed in their finest, and the last thing they want to do is get elbow deep in ribs, chicken wings, or lobster (yes, even lobster). And they definitely don’t want to use a special tool to eat their food. Keep it simple and delicious and you can’t go wrong.

Forget about appetizers: It’s guaranteed that your guests will arrive at different times, no matter what time you put on the invitation. As they start streaming in, make sure to have out a tray of finger foods and a specialty cocktail so the party can start while you put the finishing touches on the main course. You’ll have your hands too full to play bartender, and this will keep guests happy and occupied until everyone has arrived.

Splurge on alcohol: There are plenty of great wines under $20, and prosecco (champagne’s Italian cousin), can generally be found for much cheaper than champagne and will taste just as nice. For a cheat sheet, check out this list from Bon Appetit, of “8 Wines Under $20 That You Can Actually Find.”

Throw all of your dirty laundry in the bedroom and shut the door: Make sure to tidy up before guests arrive, especially if they’ve never been to your home before. Welcoming guests into your home is one of the most intimate and lovely things you can do, so don’t make them feel like they’re only allowed in certain spaces. And if nothing else, make sure the bathroom is clean and there is fresh hand soap and a guest towel left out for them.

Get hung up on details: Yes this is a lot to remember, but at the end of the day the point is to have fun with some of your favorite people. Do the best you can, but know that something is bound to go wrong and relax knowing that you’ve done all you can to create a beautiful evening. Now have a glass of prosecco and enjoy!