By Margaret Gittins, Bread and Butter Events
If throwing a dinner party feels hopelessly complicated and stressful, we’ve got some news for you: It’s not. Hosting at home can be simple and fuss-free, especially if you start the planning well in advance and don’t sweat the small stuff. Even if you’re not Martha Stewart, here are some tips to make your next dinner party fun for all (including the host!).

Have Fun
Remember the reason for your Christmas parties, New Year’s bash and all the shindigs in between: They are meant to spend time with family, friends and those you love. Don’t lose sight of that in the chaos of planning a get-together. Throughout the planning, keep the focus on your guests, making sure they have fun and that you have fun, too. Nothing else really matters.

Communicate With Your Guests
Let your guests know well in advance all the pertinent party details. This includes the time, place and menu. Be sure to include maps and directions. If your party is a potluck, ensure guests know what you want them to bring. Give others jobs to do. Upon receiving an invitation, people will often ask, “How can I help?” Instead of saying you have it all taken care of, take your guests up on their kindness and ask them to help wherever you need it. Be sure to enlist the help of others in your household, kids included. And, don’t be afraid to hire help if you can’t get it all done alone. Don’t be fooled by the perfect you see on Pinterest or in magazines; even Martha has help with her parties.

Have a Menu
Decide early what you will serve at your party so you’ll have time to gather all the necessary ingredients and supplies. Make things easy on yourself and stick with tried-and-true recipes that you know will turn out fabulously. Chances are, your guests will be expecting you to serve your signature dishes. Avoid food that involves to-order cooking, constant stirring, flipping or checking. Simple is sometimes best.

Have a Plan
This is not the time to fly by the seat of your pants. Spend some time making a list of all you need to get done before your party. Then, create a time line based on that list. When making the time line, it helps to work backward. If your party starts at 6 p.m., and your main dish takes three hours to cook, you need to have it in the oven by 3 p.m. Be sure to build in break time for yourself so you’re not completely frazzled and exhausted when guests arrive. Cooking for a large group takes longer than a meal for two, plus there are probably more courses and add-ons to juggle. Give yourself an extra hour or two in the kitchen just in case.

Start With a Clean Slate
Certainly, you should make sure your house is clean for your party, but you also want a clean slate in the kitchen: clear countertops, an empty dishwasher, a clean sink and a clean refrigerator. This will make your last-minute party prep go smoothly. It might seem like a pain in the moment, but it’s usually a good idea to wash pots and pans as you finish using them. That way, you won’t have a scary pile of dirty dishes at the end of the night.

Set Up Ahead of Time
Don’t wait until the last minute to put out your centerpieces, candlesticks, decorations and serving pieces. Set them out ahead of time. I like to use sticky notes to label my serving dishes so anyone who is helping me in the kitchen knows where food should go when it comes out of the oven. I also like to set up a drink station ahead of time, outside the kitchen and out of the main prep thoroughfare. This helps avoid kitchen congregations. You can also put out tablecloths and silverware two nights before. It’s an easy thing to check off your list and feels satisfying.

Designate a place
Decide ahead of time where you’ll put guests’ coats and purses, plus any hostess gifts and food offerings they bring. The party attitude starts with you. Stay relaxed and cheerful, even if the cake caves and the roasted veggies burn. Greet your guests at the door comfortably, in slippers or barefoot, it sets a fun, chill vibe right away.

Have Extras
Make sure every bathroom in the house is stocked with toilet paper, soap and other necessities. Have extra paper towels and dish towels in the kitchen. Put extra hangers in the coat closet.

Check Your Inventory Ahead of Time
Make sure you have all the serving necessities (serving dishes, wineglasses, extra plates, dessert forks, etc.) the weekend before the party so you’re not rushing around the day of trying to buy, borrow or steal them. Lay everything out the morning of your party to make sure it’s all present and accounted for (and clean). Do the same with your recipe ingredients a day or two before the party. Try to get as much prep work done ahead of time as possible. Look for recipes that include instructions on how to plan ahead and mention what can be prepared (up to a day or two) early.

Plan Menu Items Strategically
Prepping for a dinner party isn’t quite the same as tossing together some pasta and veggies on any given weeknight. Avoid a table laden with dishes that require last-minute prep, exotic ingredients (that necessitate multiple grocery store runs), recipes with long prep times or items that need lots of time in the oven or fridge. It’s ok to have one crazy centerpiece dish, but don’t drive yourself crazy.

Cut yourself Some Slack
Don’t sweat taking easy shortcuts like buying appetizers from the supermarket (cheese and crackers, for example), and heading to the local bakery for bread and sweet treats.

Buy Extra Ice
Stock up on bags of frozen cubes before the big event. It’s never a bad idea to be prepared.
Choose Some Sweet Tunes
Make a playlist or choose a station to set the mood. Classic crooners like Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and the Rolling Stones never fail.

Don’t Forget About Dessert
Unfortunately, the last (and arguably most important) course often doesn’t get enough respect. Serve up the finishing touch that everyone will remember the entire evening by.