dinner parties . . . can serve as the very cornerstone of a healthy modern society. –Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party
Kate and I really love having dinner parties. In fact, hardly a month goes by that we don’t have friends over to sup with us at least once.
From anecdotal observation, this proclivity of ours seems more unusual than usual. And research bears this out: according to Bureau of Labor statistics, since 2003 the amount of time Americans spend either attending or hosting social events has declined by 30%. And the drop is even steeper amongst the younger generation; those aged 15 to 24 are spending 40% less time hosting and attending social events than they did a decade ago.
Why is it that folks are so hesitant about throwing dinner parties? It’s likely some combination of a few different factors:
The well-edited version of food and life that’s presented on social media has led to a perception of heightened expectations, and the feeling that if you can’t make a party perfect, you shouldn’t throw one at all.
To a generation raised on consuming experiences instead of creating them, hosting a dinner seems like too much work.
The rise of anxiety has made people skittish about socializing.
And sometimes too, strained finances can make hosting seem like too big a burden on one’s budget.
But as salient at these obstacles may feel, none are needful or insurmountable.
Your dinner party definitely doesn’t have to be perfect. Normal people (which is the type you hopefully keep as friends) don’t expect an Instagram-ready spread in real life. In fact, they’ll find your amateur events refreshing and charming. They’re just grateful for the effort you make, and happy you wanted to have them over. As Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano write in Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party, “Ultimately, NOBODY CARES. You’re inviting people over for free food and drinks. It’s pretty much social bribery.”
On the same number, having a dinner party need not be that much work. Among the guidelines Newnam and Gagliano set out for what makes a dinner party, a dinner party, is that just 51% of the food needs to be homemade. That’s doable. That means you can grab a store-bought bag salad, cook a homemade entrée accompanied by a store-bought side dish, and make some homemade cookies for dessert. It’s not that hard. (FYI: Grilling season makes it even easier — grill some burgers, and serve with interesting toppings, chips, watermelon, and dessert. Dinner party done, with practically zero actual cooking and minimal clean-up.)
As Newnam and Gagliano explain, “The food is the least important part of a dinner party”:
Giving homemade food to your guests is a metaphor for sharing and openness. Gathering around a table to consume it is a metaphor for community. Eating it in unison is a metaphor for mutual understanding. And you’ll be evoking these metaphors even if your baked salmon is overcooked. Or if you burned it and had to serve toast and water instead. The food is only there to get people to chill together.
I’d even recommend and endorse first having friends over just for some restaurant-made pizza pie. It may not count as a real “dinner party,” but you’re still breaking the ice, by breaking bread (brushed with garlic-butter spread); it sets the pattern of you having certain guests over, and their dining in your home, in a low-key way. Even after you’ve served your friends homemade meals a few times, it’s never bad to return to the occasional pizza night. I even participated in a great “Death Over Dinner” party that was accompanied by slices of Costco ‘za. Do something, rather than nothing; get together with people more, rather than less!
As to social anxiety stopping you from hosting, well, it’s a bit of a catch-22, isn’t it? The more people get out of practice with socializing, the more anxiety they feel about it. To break the cycle, you’ve just got to face things head on; intentionally create more opportunities to practice being a social animal, until it’s second nature.
Finally, in regards to the financial question, some people’s budgets are indeed so tight that hosting other people for dinner is difficult. In such cases, remember that, again, dinner doesn’t have to be perfect — some very budget-friendly foods can be served to a still successful result. And you can outsource some of the meal; have one friend bring dessert, and another a bottle of wine (99% of the time when you ask people over for dinner, they will ask in return if they can bring something). Plus, skipping a night out can fund a night in, and if you’re really financially strapped, throwing a party doesn’t have to be something you do frequently, but rather occasionally — even just annually as a special occasion.
Now that I’ve addressed some common negative reservations about hosting a dinner party, if you still aren’t convinced, here are 9 positive reasons you ought to consider throwing one this weekend:
1. Initiates and sustains friendships.
You’ve probably heard about all the incredibly robust, well-attested benefits that strong relationships have on your physical and mental health — even on your very longevity. Yet if you’re like many folks, there’s a good chance you don’t prioritize friendships, don’t amply invest in them.
There’s also a good chance that you’ll say it’s not your fault. You’d like friends, but you just haven’t been able to make them.
Yet there’s a very, very good chance that you actually haven’t made much effort in this department. That in truth, you’ve just kind of been waiting for your friendship to come in; for someone else to make the first move, initiate things, invite you to hang out. Maybe you have an acquaintance that you talk to every week at work, church, or the gym, but you can’t seem to take the next step in getting together outside those places.
Well, inviting them to dinner at your house is that next step. It’s an easy way to take an emerging friendship up a level. “Hey, want to come over for dinner on Saturday?” Making these kinds of invitations doesn’t have to be awkward.
Dinner parties aren’t only a great way to initiate friendships, they’re one of the best ways to sustain them. Breaking bread facilitates deeper discussions and fun, free-ranging, bond-creating conversations.
Eating out with friends at a restaurant is, of course, a good time too, but there’s a qualitative difference to eating with folks in your home. You can let the evening unspool at a leisurely pace, without worrying that other patrons are waiting for your table. And because you’ve invited your friends into your most private, personality-infused space, to partake of food you made yourself, it feels more vulnerable and intimate.
As Newnam and Gagliano put it so well: “The dinner party is the sanctuary of friendship. It is your secular church.”
2. Makes you a creator, and not just a consumer.
As a society, we’ve moved away from the art of cheap, “handcrafted” recreation, to preferring ready-made events — movies, concerts, races, restaurants — where we just have to show up and be waited on and entertained. We like to consume experiences, but don’t have much practice with creating them.
But being purely a consumer keeps you childlike (your parents furnish the whole structure of your existence when you’re growing up), while developing maturity means embracing the role of creator as well.
Think of viewing art in a gallery versus making it yourself. Each has its time and place, and each has its satisfactions. But those satisfactions are of two different kinds. And a rich life encompasses both!
Yes, eating at a restaurant is fun, but so is hosting a dinner party, in its own distinct way. It’s more work, but it generates a different kind of excitement and enjoyment, the unique gratifications attendant to any creative endeavor: that of combining parts to make a whole, practicing skills (of both the culinary and social variety), bringing to life an experience for other people, and making memories out of thin air.
While most everyone likes to get invited to a dinner party, far fewer folks offer to host them; but as we learn from the story of the Little Red Hen, if you want to eat the (literal and metaphorical) bread, you need to help make the bread.
3. Catalyzes the joys of generosity.
Hosting a dinner party not only makes you a creator, it makes you a giver — of food, of hospitality, of an enjoyable experience. It’s really a wonderful service to offer one’s friends.
But this giving isn’t wholly altruistic. Research has found that being generous makes you happier, reduces stress and anxiety, and just plain feels great. That’s because it quiets down the part of the brain that produces your angsty, fearful, flight-or-fight response, while boosting feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin.
So when you have people over for dinner, and end up feeling flushed by a warm glow, it isn’t just coming from the oven.
4. Gives you a natural high.
Hosting a dinner party not only generates good vibes from the generosity it requires, but from the sense of social connectedness it creates.
Even if you don’t lubricate your gathering with wine and spirits, you and your guests will still feel buzzed from the conversation alone. When we talk with others, cortisol, a stress hormone, goes down, and oxytocin goes up, which makes social cues more salient and paying attention to social information more rewarding. Emotions heighten. The clarity of our mental signals sharpens, as distracting background neural activity dials down. We feel connected to the people we are with, while the rest of the world fades out.
All in all, alcohol or not, dinner parties can feel downright intoxicating.
5. Offers a chance to exercise courage.
There are different types of courage, and while we don’t typically get to exercise the physical variety in modern life, dinner parties are a great opportunity to flex the social kind.
Hosting an event involves plenty of risk. You don’t know how the food you make will turn out, and don’t know how it will be received. You don’t know how the conversation will go. As Newnam and Gagliano observe, a dinner party is “a space where you’re not exactly sure what someone will do or say next.” There’s a chance things will go really well, and a chance they’ll go completely awry.
Embrace risk; be brave; have a dinner party.
6. Offers a chance to practice your social skills.
When you don’t practice your social skills, they get rusty. When your social skills get rusty, you become even less likely to practice them. And as mentioned in the introduction, this can turn into a cycle that leads to paralyzing social anxiety. At the least, your ability to successfully interact with others gets downright awkward and clunky.
Hosting people for dinner is a good way thwart this negative cycle and keep your social skills sharp and fresh. Do you know how to make small talk? Do you know how to listen well and ask good questions? Are you able to avoid the trap of conversational narcissism? Do you know how to keep a conversation going? Include others? Tell a good story? Even deal with guests who threaten to push things off the rails?
Create an opportunity to get better in these areas of social acumen and more, by inviting a crowd to your place to dine.
7. Creates anticipation.
While dopamine is often known as the pleasure chemical, it’s really better understood as the anticipation chemical. Its charge of excitement is generated when you look ahead to things in the future, and when you’re hoping for a particular reward or outcome, but are uncertain of its attainment.
Setting a date for a dinner party gins up dopamine for both guests and host alike. Guests have something to look forward to; hosts get off on wondering how things will turn out, and imagining a smashing success. The latter feel some stress as they make their preparations, but a little stress isn’t a bad thing; it gives you a boost of adrenaline, energy, and motivation — it lends interest to life.
As Newnam and Gagliano put it:
One of the main reasons to throw a dinner party is to make a typical week atypical. To add a night of bright spontaneity to the otherwise ho-hum workaday routine. Remember, as a kid, how excited you’d be for Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas? Some time off from schoolwork, lots of food, a chance to relax? That’s exactly how adults should feel before a dinner party.
8. Motivates you to clean up your house better than anything else.
Man, I’ll tell you what, much as I appreciate the more philosophical reasons for having a dinner party described above, I think this very practical reason is really one of the most compelling.
Nothing motivates like the fear of social shame. Once you’ve got a dinner party on the calendar, you’ll finally find the wherewithal to move the shipping boxes out of the living room, wipe that weird stain off the backsplash, restock the bathrooms with toilet paper rolls. You’ll be surprised at how well you’ll clean up your house once you start imagining how it’ll look through the eyes of others.
Yes, if you want to consistently keep your home clean, consistently invite people over to it.
9. It’s fun.
Good food. Good friends. Good conversation.
Risk. Spontaneity. Improvisation. Connection.
Really, what’s not to like?
Adults need more hang-out. It adds meaning and texture to life. And it’s just plain fun.
Newnam and Gagliano put it perfectly: “dinner parties are recess for adults.”
In truth, I don’t think that everyone gets the same rise out of hosting dinner parties. Some people, like us, thoroughly dig it; others are more indifferent. A lot of it seems to come down to personality. But, don’t decide you’re in the non-hosting camp ‘til you try it. In breaking bread with your buds, you may end up breaking your preconceptions of how doable throwing a dinner party really is, and how much you’ll enjoy it.
Listen to my podcast with Brendan on why dinner parties are awesome (especially compared to going out for brunch), and how to successfully pull one off: