How To Host A Seasonally Inspired Dinner Party On A Budget
As a kid, I loved when my parents hosted dinner parties. My mother set the table with wedding china and baked flaky ham and cheese pinwheels as appetizers. I helped with the salad spinner. Then, I got to watch TV upstairs when the guests arrived and blow out the candles when they left. My bedtime was almost always postponed as laughter and chit-chat floated up the stairs from the dining room.
To this day, I am enchanted by this celebration of nothing—a party held for no specific reason other than to enjoy community. Dinner parties are the perfect way to romanticize life and beautify the mundane. Many people regularly spend time with friends in their homes, hosting casual pizza parties or watching sports games. But a dinner party creates a unique space where there are few distractions. The sole focus is sparking connection and enjoying the simple pleasures of home-cooked food and intentional conversation. Preparation for such a gathering certainly requires more energy, but it’s a labor of love.
As I’ve settled into life as a full-fledged adult, I wanted to capture that magic and host a tasteful dinner party for my friends. The problem is, as an unmarried woman, I don’t have fancy wedding china. And as a person in her mid-20s living in Los Angeles, my apartment is tiny. There’s also the challenge of managing costs. Stacked together, the prospect of hosting can seem like a formidable challenge.
However, if you can relate to any of these roadblocks, here’s my case for why they shouldn’t get in your way:
1. Reduce costs with a seasonal, plant-based menu
A few months ago, my roommate and I threw a “Summer Salads” dinner party inspired entirely by one salad we had been making all season: steamed asparagus and sweet corn with mozzarella and marinated artichokes. Not only was it fun to honor the summer season with our friends, but it also reduced the cost of our dinner party and supported our local producers.
You too can posture your dinner party as a seasonal, plant-based celebration. If you fill your cart with fruits and veggies rather than meat, you’ll find your overall bill is much less. The week or two before your dinner, visit your local farmers market to peruse what's in season and get inspired. This online seasonal food guide is another great resource to show what produce is in season in your specific state.
As we move into winter, my roommate and I are already scheming up our next seasonal gathering. We are thinking a holiday tea party—with soul-warming eats like cinnamon apple cake, beet and goat cheese salad, and spiced hot tea on the menu. If you are also contemplating a winter dinner party, gathering around some veggie chili or butternut squash soup as the main course would be cost-effective, easy to prepare, and cozy.
Another top tip? When creating your menu, it’s a good idea to include as many make-ahead dishes as possible. For example, my go-to dinner party dessert is chocolate mousse topped with raspberries and a Trader Joe’s cocoa baton wafer cookie because you can easily prepare it the night before and refrigerate.
2. Create space in your home
For Summer Salads, we made space in our little apartment by borrowing a long folding table and covering it with a pretty tablecloth. We pushed our couch and small dining table to the sides of the room. We gathered whatever stools, benches, and chairs we could find to accommodate our guests at the table—even asking to borrow two patio chairs from our neighbors downstairs.
If you face the same struggle for space in your dining area, remember that there’s no need for everything to be perfect. Call to mind your intentions behind hosting the event; the point is to create a space that is celebratory and fun, not to shoot the next cover of Architectural Digest. If there aren’t any spare folding tables to be found, consider using a picnic bench in a local park. Or you could even use your coffee table as a low dinner table and seat your guests on cushions.
3. Get festive with your table settings
Sticking to a summer theme, our July dinner party utilized green and pink as the main color scheme. For winter, we’ll use the same green-tinged glasses and lean into a more Christmas-y palette by adding evergreen sprigs and tinsel.
When you’re setting your table, there’s no need to have a fully matching set of fancy tableware. Use what you have, borrow from friends, or if you’re in the market for some new pieces, visit a thrift shop. Utilize a consistent color scheme (perhaps a seasonal one!) to create a charming hodgepodge of glassware or plates. And be sure to keep a lookout for antique candlesticks. There’s nothing like the moody flickering of taper candles to elevate the vibe.
Flowers are another essential to creating a dinner party-worthy setup, and you can go as big or small as you wish. My favorite is baby’s breath, which typically costs just a few dollars per bouquet. You can use a vase if you have a nice one, but I also love the look of spreading the flowers along the table in old wine bottles and mason jars.
4. Start with the ice-breakers
Once you’ve prepared the food and the table, all that’s left is to get the party going! As our guests arrived, my roommate and I offered each friend a glass of sparkling rose. You could get extra fancy and have a seasonal drink at the ready for a cocktail hour—something like a winter white cosmopolitan that you can whip up in a large batch beforehand and easily pour for each individual as they arrive. We also had a side table spread with bruschetta and grapes to graze on while everyone trickled in. To break the ice, try conversation cards or a silly prompt for everyone to answer.
5. Invite your guests to help as they can
Finally, a dinner party may be a labor of love, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to carry the entire load yourself. For Summer Salads, we asked our guests to contribute $10 and/or bring a bottle of summery wine if they were able to attend the dinner. It was fun to see the wine that our friends selected to bring. Guests could also help in non-monetary ways, such as washing dishes, creating the playlist, or bringing the icebreaker games.
When my roommate and I hosted our dinner party, we spent the day leading up to it visiting a farmers market and a total of four different grocery stores to find everything we wanted. We spent hours cooking, rearranging our furniture to create space, and cleaning. But when our friends arrived and the party began, time bent and stretched. The golden hour sun streamed in on the table. The wine quickly slipped away. We went around the table sharing the story of our very first kiss, amid much laughter. After our friends left late, my roommate and I couldn’t stop talking about that night, and we immediately started to plan the next one.
There truly is a bit of magic to a thoughtful dinner party, and hosting one is not as intimidating as you may think. You’ll be able to flex your creativity, be mindful about the season you are in (literally and perhaps metaphorically!), and show appreciation to the loved ones in your life. And the best part is there is not one right way to do it. Have fun bringing your vision to life and creating a magical dinner party night of your own.
Mary Cate Long is a writer with a focus on travel, food and lifestyle. She was born and raised in Texas, received her journalism degree from Pepperdine University, and has lived abroad in both London and Australia. In between new adventures, she now calls Santa Monica homebase, where she enjoys reading novels on the beach and doing yoga in the park. You can follow along on Instagram, and see her published work here.