If you need dinner party ideas, you've come to the right place. Entertaining at home is one of my favorite things, and planning ahead is what makes it work. Here's a list of my most important to-do's:
• Guest list: Eight to ten is the maximum number of people at the dinner table, or the noise level will be too high for civil conversation.
• Theme: Themes add fun and focus to any party. The most basic theme is culinary: base your menu on a country, such as France or Italy, or a region, such as Provence or Tuscany. This is fun to do for special occasions, such as a bon voyage for someone traveling to that country, or a national celebration, such as Bastille Day. It's nice to use menu cards with dishes listed in the language of the country (and the English translation). And of course the table décor, from tablecloths and napkins to the dishes can be in national colors or traditional patterns.
• Allergies: A kind host will ask if anyone has food allergies, but it's really the duty of the guest to call or e-mail ahead of time. Note: This does not include food dislikes, only allergies.
• Keep it simple: One or two appetizers (one vegetarian) and a three-course meal is sufficient. Choose at least one dish that can be prepared ahead of time, and more if possible, so you can relax and enjoy the meal and your guests.
• Seating: Alternate shy guests with those who are more outgoing to keep the conversation alive. Also, it's a good idea to alternate men and women and to not seat married couples next to each other for the same reason.
• Place cards: Handwritten place cards are traditional, but try this on for size: place cards in the form of picture frames with a famous look-alike for each guest. This adds a fun twist and is a great seating ice breaker.
• Menu cards: These let guests know what is to come and makes for great conversation. They are also nice keepsakes, especially if you list the wine or wines served with the meal.
• Party favors: I like to give party favors, even for my own birthday celebrations (sometimes it is more fun to give than to receive, plus at my age I don't need any more gifts). Good party favors include mini bottles of bubbly, a chocolate truffle with pretty wrapping, or a place card inside a small but beautiful picture frame.
• Menu book: If you're a serious entertainer, a great idea is to put together a book of all your invitations (complete with the date), place cards, and menu cards. This way, you won't repeat the same dinner with the same guests.
Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler's Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (www.lisagrotts.com), certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on www.Twitter.com/LisaGrotts and www.Facebook.com/LisaGrotts.