A fun dinner party is all about timing. As a hostess, you have to strike a balance between socializing and feeding. The best way is to be casual about it on the surface, but have it all planned out ahead of time.
So, how exactly do you time your courses, and how much time should you leave in between each anyway?
For a simple three-course meal consisting of appetizers, main course and dessert, you want to leave this much time between meals:
- Put appetizers out on the table about 30 minutes after your official time that the party starts;
- Give your guests about 30 minutes to enjoy appetizers, and then serve the main course about 10 to 15 minutes after they have finished the appetizers;
- The main course should take at least 45 minutes (more if it’s a four-course or five-course menu);
- After your guests have finished the main course, they’ll be too full, so wait 30 to 45 minutes before you put the dessert out.
This is a timeline that I’ve gotten used to over the years, one that I’ve gotten comfortable with. It may not be the same for you, but keep reading for the specifics and examples to hopefully find a timeline that works for your own dinner party.
Start Time to Appetizers: 30 Minutes
This is a time when you’re situating your guests (taking off their coats, letting them get comfortable, etc.). It’s also a time when some of your guests will be fashionably late.
Unfortunately, for some people fashionably late could be much longer than for most of us.
That’s why it’s good to have something ready for your guests as they arrive. Serve some light cocktails and simple snacks while everyone is still trickling in. Most people will arrive between 10 and 30 minutes later than you told them to arrive.
That’s perfectly fine, but right around the 30-minute mark after your party has officially has started, you’ll want to put out the appetizers.
Don’t worry about the guests who are running late and don’t let their excuses distract you from this timeline. If the majority of those who are on your guest list are already at your home, don’t keep them waiting.
Focus on the guests who are there and give them the attention they deserve. Your party is at your home, it’s not on your phone.
Example: Invitation states party starts at 7:00 pm. A few plates of cheese and crackers, as well as nuts is already on the tables before guests arrive. Cocktails are ready for guests already. Guests start trickling in shortly after 7:00 pm. You serve your appetizers around 7:30 pm.
Appetizer to Main Course: 10 to 15 Minutes
After all your guests have had their hands on starters and you notice that the plates are getting empty, it’s time to serve the main course. As soon as you realize that your guests are finishing up their starters, head to the kitchen and start putting together the main course.
This part shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
Don’t leave your guests waiting too long between appetizers and the main course. The 10- to 15- minute mark is reasonable for both a host and the guests.
Example: You served your appetizers around 7:30 pm. Half an hour is generally a generous amount of time to let your guests enjoy those appetizers. You notice that your guests are finishing up the appetizers around 8:00 pm, so you excuse yourself to the kitchen to get the main course ready.
Everyone is seated at the dinner table between 8:10 pm and 8:15 pm and the main course is ready to be eaten.
Main Course to Dessert: 30 to 45 Minutes
Give your guests ample time to eat the main course. Never rush them along. Even with fast eaters, the main course should take at least 30 minutes. Aim for the 45-minute mark, this is a good amount of time to eat and socialize at the same time.
Once your guests have finished their main course, wait for dessert. Your guests will be stuffed after all the other food they had eaten, and you also don’t want to come across like you’re pushing them to leave your home.
As a hostess, this is a good time to do a little bit of clean-up.
Most of us have a cramped kitchen full of dirty dishes right by this time, so it’s a good time to clear some space, load the dishwasher, and get the dessert and coffee or dessert wine ready.
Don’t go overboard on this one, though. You still need to entertain the entire evening. The real reason why you’re waiting until dessert is because your guests are too full to eat, not so that you can disappear in the kitchen the whole time.
While your guests wait, keep mingling and always keep their glasses full.
Example: You served the main course around 8:15 pm. Give your guests plenty of time to enjoy this course, until about 9:00 pm. Give them a breather after this and don’t serve dessert immediately (they will thank you for it). Right around 9:30 pm would be a good time to serve dessert.
What About a Four-Course or Five-Course Meal?
For most dinner parties, a three-course meal consisting of an appetizer, main course, and dessert is typically served. In a more formal setting, you might consider a four-course or five-course meal.
In the case of a four-course meal, you’d serve soup before the main meal. While in the case of a five-course meal, you’d serve soup and salad before the main meal. Some hosts still offer appetizers, others don’t.
If you’ll be offering appetizers before the main course, the appetizer is served with soup first, then appetizer, and salad last in the example of a five-course meal. In some cultures, a salad is served after the main course.
If you can serve the soup about 40 to 60 minutes before the main course, you should be able to stay within this timeline. See what works for your guests, but whatever you do, don’t rush them.
Example: Continuing on with the story of the 7:00 pm party, serve the soup around 7:15 pm. Then, you can serve the appetizers and salad shortly thereafter, with the main course being served around 7:55 pm to 8:15 pm.
Are you wondering why soup is served so early? It’s because it’s a formal dinner. Chances are, you sent a formal invitation that told your guests clearly when dinner is to be served. There’s no such thing as fashionably late for formal dinner parties, so you have the green light to expect punctuality from your guests.
I hope I’ve helped you figure out the timing for your dinner party.