How to Host a Last-Minute Dinner Party

Do you want to be the kind of person who throws spur-of-the-moment dinner parties that are totally fabulous? We’ll let you in on a few little secrets to pulling it off.

Who are these fabulous people who entertain their friends over a casual dinner on a Wednesday night, all without weeks of stressing and prepping? Julia Sullivan, chef-owner of oyster bar Henrietta Red, one of Nashville’s standout restaurants at the moment, is certainly one of them. “I’ll usually shoot off texts or emails a couple days beforehand,” says Sullivan. “Come over. The more the merrier.”

Does it seem a little bit unnerving to have guests come over without a real plan in place? Do you literally want to know how she does it? And how you can do it, even if you’re not a chef with a hip restaurant in Nashville? We asked, and Sullivan dished up a handful of pro tips for hosting a I-feel-like-having-people-over-tonight-so-why-not dinner party.

Always Be Prepared

The grocery store trip ahead of a dinner partycan itself be intimidating, especially if you don’t have a lot of spare time. That’s why Sullivan is always stocking up on the building blocks of cooking a solid dinner. “Having a good pantryin place is very strategic,” she says. “You should always have these things on hand: olive oil; chicken stock; a tomato product, either paste or canned.”

Non- and semi-perishables are also key: tinned fish (check out these sardine snack recipes for inspiration), nice cheeses, olives, and crackers, for example, are easy to put out. We’d also add jams, preserves, and fancy condiments to that list; with a little cheese, they can do a lot to dress up simple toast. And pasta; with tinned sardines, capers, tomatoes, olives, and a few other pantry items, it can be a great last-minute meal.

Also, don’t forget the beverages. “Around the holidays, every time I go to the store, I pick up at least one of the usual suspects—seltzer water, tonic, a mixer, maybe a handle of something.” Not a bad habit to get into all year round, either.

Read More: How to Stock a Low-Alcohol Home Bar Cart

Cook a One-Pot Meal

Don’t try to produce a multi-course meal. Instead, go with something that all ends up in the same pot.  “With a soup, you can streamline,” says Sullivan. “It’s just one dish—one timeline—to think about.” Soups generally do not involve a lot of prep work; plus, they’re easy to build around. Add a salad and boom! You have a meal. “If you buy really nice protein, you know, that can get more expensive,” adds Sullivan. “But stew meat is lighter on a budget, and it satisfies an appetite.”

Delegate This and That

Pot-luck is great. Everyone knows this. But your friends can be counted on beyond prepping dishes, especially if you’re hosting last minute. “Someone can bring flowers or put together a playlist if that’s their talent,” says Sullivan. Put any former Boy or Girl Scouts on fireplace (or firepit) duty. “Wood!” adds Sullivan. “That’s another thing to keep around.” (Or ask friends to bring over with them.)

Order Dessert In

There are countless simple desserts that do not require hours in the kitchen nor specialty pans or bakeware. Think custards and meringues, Sullivan suggests. “But hey, don’t forget to check if you can order dessert for pickup. You can do that from most of your favorite spots through apps these days. You could even have it delivered.”

Reward Helping Hands With A Nightcap

Sullivan never asks—and doesn’t expect—guests to pitch in with the cleanup, but actually, it can be a nice communal moment for everyone. Someone corrals the glasses; someone loads the dishwasher (or washes and/or dries by hand). “It can be the natural wind down. Then you have a nightcap—and then you wake up without a huge mess hanging over your head!”