Growing up as an Army brat, change has been a constant in my life. Whether I was changing schools, houses, states, or even countries, my life was always in motion. This can be challenging, having to move into a new neighborhood, into a community full of new people. The thought of meeting and greeting is daunting. But in the Army world, everyone’s life is as transient as ours. We find ways to connect with others, and one of the best ways to do that is over a meal.
I’ve watched my parents throw dinner parties ever since I can remember. It was a staple of my childhood. I would look forward to it, the smells wafting from the kitchen to my bedroom, the soft hum of music and finally, when the guests came over, the laughs and shouts from the first floor of my house, the sound of people happy and full, enjoying each other’s company. My mother is a master of the craft, a dinner party expert, so I decided to call her up and get some insights. This is a military family’s guide to throwing a dinner party.
In the words of my mother, the goal of dinner parties was always to curate a comfortable and cozy energy throughout the house. “I always tried to go for warm and welcoming, lots of candles, some scented ones away from the food so the house would smell good. Lots of seating is important, it gives people space to gather and get off their feet for a while. I want it to feel informal and casual, someplace people could relax and feel at home.” I remember walking around my parents’ parties, people’s faces glowing in the light. Ambience is crucial, and the warmth I felt in my house is a feeling that stuck with me, as I’m sure it stuck with everyone who entered as well.
Music is also an important aspect of the ambience. My mother laughed as she said, “you don’t want people to walk into a silent house and feel awkward!” Whether it be something you curate yourself or a premade playlist you find on Spotify or Apple Music (two of my go-to’s: Dinner Party & Dinner w/ Friends) pick something smooth and easy, with a mix of things people know and new finds (because throwing a dinner party is really an excuse to show off your music taste). You want something you can just hit shuffle on and not think about, allowing you to enjoy the night.
In the military, dinner parties were a way to get to know people outside of the office. This line of work forces the personal and professional lives to be more intertwined than in most occupations. Soldiers, spouses, and families all play a role. That’s what makes the dinner party the perfect opportunity to make connections, feel comfortable with each other, and foster “esprit de corps” a French term used by the military to describe, “a spirit of solidarity; a sense of pride, and honor among the members of a group”. When you’re in the military, you’re a part of a team. And what’s better for team bonding than a dinner party?
But this concept transcends military life. As a college student, I view my friends and I as a team, my roommates and I as a team, and my peers as a team, all working together towards a common goal: an amazing four years. The relationships you have with the people you care about are important, the people you have on your team are everything. A dinner party celebrates that and gives people opportunities to get closer and connect with those around them.
As a host, you see the behind-the-scenes science that goes into throwing a party. “These are a chance to bring people together,” my mom says, “they provide opportunities to make new friends, build your team, and really get to know each other. Being the host means you’re helping curate that. Always greet everyone, make them feel welcome. Get them a drink and try to connect them with someone else.” Mixing and mingling is the best part about attending a dinner party, and it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of throwing them. Bringing people together is what this is all about.
Finally, the most important part of any dinner party is the food. My mom’s advice was simple: “good food and good drink.” I remember my mom making one of two dishes: stuffed shells or marinated steak. “Keep it easy! Try and make most of it things you can cook ahead of time so you can be present during the party and not stuck in the kitchen.”
Photo Courtesy of Fork Knife Swoon
She would float around the house, occasionally disappearing into the kitchen, but you’d blink and she was right back, getting someone another drink or introducing two people who had been making their way around the house. Scattered around were little bowls of snacks, picking items like almonds or dried fruit. A charcuterie board with crackers, cheeses and meats is always a good idea. My parents were used to hosting larger parties, so buffet style was always the way to go. Lining up a salad (Ina Garten’s Cape Cod salad was a staple in our house), the main dish, and a few loaves of a warmed baguette along an old maple table we had, guests could come up and help themselves. I found myself going up for that salad numerous times, and then making my way back to the table or the chair in the living room I had made mine for the night.
“I always liked to have an open bar area too, something where people could go and refresh their drink, grab a water, or try something new.” My mom would line up decorative tubs filled with ice, home to seltzers, beers, sodas and waters. A little something for everyone.
The dessert would come when everyone had seemed to slow down and the trips to the buffet were becoming few and far between. It was then my mom would bring out something like a platter of chocolate-covered profiteroles or an assortment of cookies she picked up from a bakery early that morning. She never felt a pressure to cook everything. Cook what you can, cook what you want, and cook it well. Then fill in the gaps with your favorite treat from the bakery or grocery store.
At the end of the day, dinner parties are fun. In the words of my mom, “they’re a great way to show the people you love that you care.” They provide us with an opportunity to break bread with others, build bridges and form connections that you wouldn’t be able to make in other settings or circumstances. With a few pro tips and tricks up your sleeve, you can make throwing an amazing dinner party easy and stress-free. Whether you’re in a house, apartment, or dorm room (I promise it can be done), the energy is the same. It’s a night to connect with others, celebrate the people around you and tell your team thank you for sticking by your side.
Cover Photo courtesy of Vox