Noshing straight from takeout containers with a couch full of friends is almost always a great time. But maybe you’re ready to step up your hosting game and wondering where, exactly, to even start. Having the right equipment in your kitchen can help guide your meal strategy and save you stress. We talked to professional event planners and prolific hosts to assemble this tool kit of basic pieces to give you the foundation for dinner-party success.
1. Cooking for a group
Before you embark on cooking in large quantities, make sure you have these kitchen workhorses on hand.
Dutch oven. This deep cast-iron pot is the perfect piece for all kinds of jobs, including braising meat and vegetables in the oven, making a saucy pasta on the stove, or even serving something like mulled wine. “And it looks good hitting the table,” says Camille Jetta, a founder and chef at Dinner Party in Brooklyn.
Casserole dish. Consider picking up a couple of these to hold baked mains, sides or desserts. Jetta points out that they’ll help you cut down on dishes since, just like a Dutch oven, they can also transition straight from the oven to the table.
Sheet pans. These kitchen staples are just as suited to roasting vegetables as they are to baking cookies. Meredith Hayden, a private chef and recipe developer, also uses hers to prep and organize ingredients.
Tall pot. Hayden recommends a tall pot (deeper than a Dutch oven) that can be used to boil large amounts of water or stock — for big batches of pasta, soups or stews — without spilling over the sides.
Meat thermometer. Invest in a decent meat thermometer if you want to cook proteins like chicken or steak in large quantities. It’ll take away some of the guesswork — and stress.
2. Place settings
How many? To determine how many place settings you need, Amber Mayfield, founder of event company To Be Hosted, suggests tabulating the maximum number of guests you’re likely to have at your table at one time, then adding four extras. Her preferred number for a dinner party is between eight and 12, which she considers “lively enough so everyone can find someone different to talk to, but still intimate enough so everybody can have the floor.”
Plates. A flat, lipless plate is considered classic, while one with a higher edge can prevent spillage. White or cream will work for any season or occasion. Each setting should have a dinner plate and one smaller plate for appetizers or salads. Standard dinner plates are typically about 10 inches in diameter, and appetizer plates are usually two or three inches smaller. (Salad plates can be used for dessert, too.)
Flatware and utensils. One complete set of flatware includes a dinner spoon, tea spoon, butter knife, dinner fork and salad fork. Don’t forget at least two or three pairs of sturdy serving forks and spoons, too. They can be used together for salads, or separately to spear meat or spoon side dishes. (Mayfield recommends matching the number of serving sets to the number of serving platters and bowls in your stash).
Water glasses. Mayfield recommends tall, 17-ounce glasses for water. Mason jars can make a fun, less formal option.
Wine glasses. Many guests expect wine with dinner — or may bring a bottle as a gift — so you’ll want to have proper glasses, “even if you’re not a person who likes drinking wine in a wineglass,” says Connie Matisse, a frequent host and chief executive of East Fork, a homewares store in Asheville, N.C. Red wineglasses have wider bowls, while white ones are more U-shaped. But really, if you just want to pick one, a white wineglass can work fine for reds, too. While stemless glasses are arguably even more versatile, they won’t prevent warm hands from heating up chilled wines the way that stemmed versions do.
Beyond basic water and wineglasses, choose a set of cocktail glasses “that’s going to service the thing you’re most likely to drink,” says Matisse. Coupes are especially versatile — you can use them for martinis, Manhattans or margaritas, for example. To avoid guests asking for drinks you aren’t prepared to make, try offering one signature cocktail, or a menu of a few options.
Appetizers. Wooden boards are inexpensive vessels for appetizers of all kinds, including cheese and charcuterie, or warm snacks such as mini quiche. Mayfield suggests buying one large board or a couple medium-sized ones to start your collection.
Platters and serving bowls. Flat platters with edges high enough to prevent spillage are both versatile and practical, says Hayden, the private chef. Consider their heft: a couple smaller, lighter-weight options might make more sense than one large platter if you anticipate hosting passed-around, family-style meals. Add a couple shallow bowls for sides, and at least one large wood salad bowl.
Desserts. Even if you’re not a baker, a cake stand elevates — literally and figuratively — just about anything placed on it. Use it to display cakes or pies, or for stacking bread. When it comes to serving ice cream or custardy desserts, Matisse suggests using cocktail glasses: “You can double up in those sorts of ways” to save space and money, she advises.
Creating an appealing looking table can actually be quite simple.
Linens. A white tablecloth is a nice basic piece for a fledgling host, though it tends to convey formality. For more casual events, you might try just a runner or place mats. Swap paper goods for machine-washable linen or cotton napkins.
Flowers. Though flowers are a fun place to get creative, one rule worth following is to keep your arrangement low enough that your guests can see and hear each other over it, says Darcy Miller, chief executive of Darcy Miller Designs and author of “Celebrate Everything! Fun Ideas to Bring Your Parties to Life.” Try one bunch of flowers in a single vase, or a grouping of bud vases.
Candles. Place several small votives around the table, or try a few pillar or taper candles. If you go with tapers, which are tall and slender, use an adhesive like Stick-Um in their holders to keep them stable. Don’t use scented candles that will compete with the food, or so many candles that they interfere with passing dishes.
6. Building your collection
Once you have the basics, you can start to add items based on which types of events you most enjoy hosting, says Miller. If you love serving desserts, collect interesting cake plates. If cocktails are your thing, build up your bar.
“The more you entertain, the more comfortable you get,” she says.