How hard will it be to ramp up throwing a dinner party to 20 (or more)?

September 10, 2019

You’ve mastered the art of hosting a dozen friends for dinner, and you’re getting ambitious. How hard will it be to ramp up to throwing a large dinner party for 20 or more? Not too hard —with careful planning. Feeding large parties at home, is about staying organised to ensure that dinner parties unfold smoothly. Read more, ‘How To Throw A Successful Party.’

You want the ‘wow’ factor but you also have to be realistic—the majority of the work has to be done ahead of time. Preparation is key.


Go for dishes that can be slow-cooked the day before and simply reheated and assembled. Once you have 20 people – or more – in your house, you have to create food and menus that are very versatile and give you a lot of flexibility.

For example, we toss tomatoes in olive oil and roast them with herbs at 250 degrees in the oven for four to six hours. The tomatoes look attractive and work as a great side for dishes such as short ribs, which can also be made ahead. For more casual dinners, we likes to make a one-dish meal such as a ham or slow roast lambs which can be done just before guests arrive. Read more, ‘An Entertaining Plan to Maximise Mingling.’

Avoid dishes that will take the focus off your guests, such as whole roasted chicken. “With 16 people or more, you’ve got to carve four chickens, and that’s not easy. Instead, make simple skin-on roasted chicken breasts, keeping them warm in a warming drawer until dinner. Opt for simple accompaniments, too, such as a fennel salad or olive oil-poached potatoes.

Buy high-quality ingredients so the intense flavour of the sides impresses guests.

Image via Melissa Penfold’s Instagram

If you are preparing a lot of the food, serve hors-d’oeuvres that you simply assemble rather than cook and make (or buy) your dessert ahead of time. Gleaming glasses add instant glamour. Line them up on trays. As for food, keep it simple, but make it look beautiful. So serve your main course on a beautiful platter. Half of your hors d’oeuvres should be things people can just grab, such as freshly sliced prosciutto, ham, cheese, olives and chunks of fresh bread. Supplement these with things like a homemade hummus. If you do pass canapés around, people sometimes get uncomfortable. You want them to settle in right away. Read more, ‘Buon Appetitio: Taking An Italian Approach To Entertaining.’


The luxury of hosting a large dinner party at home is having the freedom to set your table in advance. Lay the tablecloth, set the plates and align the cutlery the day or more before so you can focus on the flowers and focus on the decor on the day of your party.


Small humble moments can be equally as effective as grand gestures. Instead of going over the top with huge floral decorations that are expensive and take a lot of manpower to put together (and take down post-party), opt for a couple of quiet ways to decorate your table.  Multiple bunches of miniature daisies or herbs alternated with big bowls of lemons makes a simple, affordable table decoration, and are easy to do.


Try teaming the plates with textural rattan placemats and napkins in washed natural linen. Choose sparkling glassware like and you can’t go past her silver-plated cutlery, Harrow. You can update your base set every couple of seasons with timeless vases. There’s nothing like a timeless lunch or dinner to make you feel happy. And if you do a table that’s a little irreverent and whimisical, it sets the mood. You’re saying, ‘Let’s go for it’.


It’s easy to have big ideas and be overly ambitious, only to find you are busy and the whole dinner party becomes a race against time. Think ahead – get as much planned up front. Nothing fouls your mood like a panicked whizz around the house with a vacuum cleaner ten minutes before guests arrive. Enlist the help of a cleaner/spouse/partner/child to clean the areas your guests will be using, well before the guests gather.

To keep organised, have three lists. Your prep list notes should detail everything that has to do done before guests arrive, from putting the tomatoes in a certain pan to finishing the sauces. This list details every ingredient and piece of equipment you need to prep the dinner. Read more, ‘Dinner Party Rules and Etiquette.’

Once prepping has finished, clean and put everything away and proceed with your second list, which details what you need to do and have at hand for serving food. Designate a “staging area” where you have all your plates and equipment ready to go. The third list is your cleanup list, which has everything you need to clean the area, including cleaning towels.

A clean kitchen is key for the host.


If your kitchen is a mess, you’re going to be stressed out and you’re not going to enjoy yourself. Consider hiring someone to wash the dishes or ask one of your children to clean up behind you as you cook. We typically don’t hire a waiter because we like setting up an open bar where people can serve themselves – and to keep the mood relaxed. But when we do, we choose someone who fits in.


You want both reds and whites, and plenty of both. A big dinner party at home is not the place to match specific wines to particular dishes.  Plan on one bottle per person.

Go for crowd pleaser wines that are easy-going, refreshing wines – if you are happy with your selection, your guests will be happy, too. If you would like to add rosés or sparkling wines, go ahead, but not at the expense of the reds and white.


Dessert should be pre-made and assembled ahead of time. We love oh-ah puddings, extravagant tarts or special cakes – which provide a peak moment when guests see them. They can then be cut up, and put on pretty plates. The portions look dramatic but are easy to serve – and can be served with fresh berries, stewed fruit such as rhubarb and ice creams.

Don’t forget coffee, tea and liquor. It’s a nice way to wrap an evening up.

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