12 Ina Garten Hacks That Will Have You Throwing The Best Dinner Parties

Ina Garten, otherwise known to millions of fans as the Barefoot Contessa, likely boasts about a zillion dinner party hacks that she's accumulated over her decades-long career in the food business. Despite claiming to be anything but a confident cook, she makes pulling a dinner party together look like, pardon the cliche, a cakewalk. Fortunately for her millions of fans, she's more than willing to pass on the recipe for the cake, as well as the roasted chicken dinner that precedes the cake, allowing her fans to adopt some of her cooking hacks as their own.

Her generosity as a cook, TV host, and cookbook writer stems from a belief that one of the greatest gifts any home chef can give to friends and family is to cook for them. She also brings years of trial and error and testing to the table. Such experiences, instead of breaking the buoyant spirit she's known for, fuel the humor that makes her one of the most engaging cookbook writers around. These qualities also engender trust. As such, her followers allow her to guide them through their own dinner party mishaps on their way to their own version of well-roasted perfection. While it's probably accurate to say that Ina Garten has forgotten more than many of us will ever know about hosting a good dinner party, the gems she has remembered, like these 12 hacks, remind us of just how much she does know about hosting a great party.

Dinner parties don't have to be large

The thought of hosting a dinner party for 12 people can strike fear into many a potential dinner party host. Images pulled out of TV shows, like "Mad Men", which reflect the real-life attitudes about dinner parties during that era, demonstrate that the dinner party wasn't about sharing good food together. Rather, these images reveal dinner parties as a tool for establishing one's status in the social hierarchy. Fortunately, for foodieblogs who love dinner parties because they allow a person to celebrate a good meal with friends, there's Ina Garten and her more relaxed approach to dinner parties.

First, she doesn't believe that dinner parties have to be a large gathering of eight, 10, and 12 more people. Four people sharing a table and a meal can be a perfect size for a dinner party. Having a party of more than 12 is exhausting, even for someone of her status in the food industry. Second, the pandemic affected the way she approaches creating meals for herself and others. Less formal offerings, like breakfast for dinner, taste delicious but come with a lot less work and by Ina Garten's way of thinking, more fun. So, too, do one-pot dinner recipes. Simple equals enjoyable and a good dinner party. The bottom line? There' s no need to fear a dinner for four where a plate of dinner omelets, a side salad, and lively conversations among friends are front and center.

Simple centerpieces go a long way

When it comes to Ina Garten's approach to diner table decor, maximalism, with its penchant for tiger stripes positioned next to pink polka dots, is as far from her usual minimalist table settings as your kitchen table is from the moon. Instead, her approach is best understood by analogy. She has likened good food to clothing made from beautiful fabric. Since the fabric is already gorgeous, there is no need to add lots of embellishments to it to make it even more so.

The same philosophy applies to table arrangements. When she creates centerpieces, often one single kind of flower, like large roses, feature prominently. These she backs with accents of greenery. You won't find roses mixed with lilies mixed with geraniums mixed with four o'clocks in an Ina Garten floral arrangement. Just a single flower type.

And sometimes the centerpiece doesn't feature flowers at all. A bowl of seasonal fruit in a pretty bowl also works well as a centerpiece because most fruit is naturally beautiful and fragrant. No polka-dotted bows or ribbons are required to make the fruit look lovely. It already is.

Make a cheese platter for one of your courses

Elaborate dinner parties consist of course after course of steaming delicacies, sometimes in rapid succession. But, as Ina Garten has demonstrated with her love of cheese platters, some of the best courses aren't cooked and even have a communal, family sort of feel to them. Nervous party hosts take note: A dinner party course that doesn't require an advanced degree in gastronomy can be a welcome addition to your party planning efforts. Cheese platters fit the bill nicely because they consist of naturally lovely, naturally fragrant foods and plenty of decorative elements.

The Barefoot Contessa approaches the construction of a cheese platter with the same goal that she approaches all of her other meal projects: to bring out the simple beauty and taste of each item. Ina Garten starts a cheese platter with a flat leaf, like fig leaves, on the bottom of the platter. This she tops with clusters of grapes surrounded by an assortment of cheeses, crackers, and other fruits, like figs and dried apricots. ​​Finally, she knows when to stop her construction efforts and to get on to the serving part. Less is more for her and it can be for you, too.

Skip the trendy stuff

Some people believe that hosting a dinner party means bringing the skills of a Michelin-star chef to the table. The ability to make fancy French dishes with names like boeuf bourguignon and potatoes dauphinoise count among the prerequisites to cook for others with any kind of authority. However, Ina Garten challenges this notion and recommends that people skip trendy, fancy-sounding dishes and instead opt for foods like roast chicken and chocolate cake, the kind of food people came into her store, The Barefoot Contessa, to buy. 

There's nothing wrong with trying different cuisines and fancier dishes from time to time, but sometimes the most satisfying foods for a dinner party are foods that people like to eat at home. For Ina Garten, these types of foods consist of quality ingredients that go from good to great because they're cooked in a way that enhances their natural flavors. For the nervous would-be dinner party host outside the world of the celebrity chef, it's good advice because it prevents the kind of performance paralysis that comes from trying to cook exotic foods that feel too far removed from how most people cook and eat on a day-to-day basis.

Plan your menu around what's in season

Food that's in season tastes, as the Mad Hatter would say, muchier, particularly if it's combined with unexpected ingredients that take its fundamental flavor to the next level. Ina Garten lives by this adage when it comes to all things food, and it's why she gravitates toward the seasonal fare that she finds at the farmers' market when she entertains.

Once Mother Nature's treasures are sitting on her kitchen counter after her market trip, she only adds ingredients to it that make the food taste more like itself. Take plums, for example. Cassis, the fruit-flavored liqueur from Burgundy, France, makes plums taste plummier due to the tangy tartness of the black currents in the liqueur. The recipient of such subtle cooking wizardry might not understand why those plums taste so much better. They just know that they do.

Aside from that, there's another reason to choose farmers' market fare for dinner parties. Usually, the fare costs less due to its seasonal availability, making it more economical to build a whole dinner party around a trip to the Saturday market.

Make up some of the food ahead of time

Ina Garten espouses the concept of make-it-ahead so much that she even named one of her cookbooks "Make It Ahead." The home chef also believes that it's perfectly acceptable to serve some of the food at your dinner party at room temperature. Moreover, like just about every other dinner party host, she occasionally gets caught off guard, discovering too late that everything she needs for dinner — that is, appetizers, drinks, sides, desserts — is all ready except for dinner. If Ina Garten is in danger of getting caught without dinner, just as the guests start tinkling the front doorbell, she does what every other home dinner party host worth her salt does. She orders in.

If this kind of Mrs. Doubtfire move seems contrary to the life of a famous cook, it isn't, at least not for her. One of the chief reasons you have a dinner party is to have fun with friends and family. Serving something that didn't come out of your oven doesn't take away from the fun they have, particularly if taking such steps relieves some of the stress that inevitably comes with making a big dinner, particularly one like Thanksgiving dinner. Make 90% of your dinner party fare ahead and be willing to order in if necessary — two Ina Garten secrets for a successful dinner party that aren't so secret, just common sense.

Go with fuss-free appetizers for big events

Stuffed mushrooms. Mini crab bites. Sweet potato crostini. Elaborate and no doubt delicious appetizers all, and by Ina Garten's way of thinking, entirely unnecessary for a great party. While such appetizers look and taste impressive, overwhelmed home cooks don't need to add more to their proverbial plate than what they're already juggling when they're prepping for a dinner party.

Ina Garten recommends replacing the overwhelm that comes with trying to pull together fancy appetizers with the calm that comes from simple appetizers. Potato chips, cucumbers, sausage, olives, cheese shavings, nuts, and even Doritos suffice. A set of beautiful bowls and dishes, plus a smattering of quality ingredients that the people coming to the party really like, creates a lovely and appetizing display, particularly if you arrange them on the charcuterie board. You don't need fancier ingredients to fill the board. These items, plus a welcome cocktail that everyone drinks together, kick off a party in a fun and casually tasty way.

Serve both white and red wines

A 2022 poll commissioned by Woodbridge Wine and executed by OnePoll revealed that while 67% of people embrace the idea of wine rules, only 17% of any of them actually follow said vino rules (via Yahoo News). With stats like that, it's no wonder that dinner party hosts would rather skip the wine service part of party planning. Of course, America's favorite dinner party host extraordinaire, Ina Garten, has a simple rule to end the angst that such vino rules engender in people. Serve both white and red wine at your party. If you do, your guests will likely appreciate you even more, given that according to the poll, 70% of people admit that vino is their holiday drink of choice.

As it turns out, Ina Garten herself is a fan of rosé wine, and it probably wouldn't come as a surprise to foodieblogs who follow her career if she ever happens to suggest serving something like that, too, at a party. As far as encouraging the guests to enjoy the wine, the Barefoot Contessa takes her stance further by suggesting that hosts leave the wine bottles on the table so that people can help themselves to a second glass if the mood strikes them.

Set the table for comfort and conversation

If you're after a table setting a la Emily Post, you've probably wrestled with the age-old question of which fork goes where and why. While table-setting etiquette has its place at formal events, Ina Garten embraces a much more relaxed approach to setting the table. She lays it out so that it maximizes her guests' comfort and the conversation that flows between them and suggests that other party hosts follow suit.

Although it's likely that she understands that the fork you use first goes on the outside and that you work your way through your utensils going from the outside in until none are left, Ina Garten makes her own adjustments to the rules that favor comfort. Instead of placing all the forks on the napkin as etiquette dictates, she places the napkin on the outside of the forks. This small detail allows guests to pick up their napkins and place them on their laps without disrupting the order of the forks. 

And since dinner parties are for bringing family and friends together to have a great time and to chat, she positions everything on the table so that it's below eye level — centerpieces, candles, glasses. Anything above eye level obstructs guests' ability to look one another in the eye while they're talking. Obstructed eyes. Obstructed conversation. Parties for Garten aren't about decorations. They're about fabulous noshery and more fabulous conversations with friends. This decorating hack epitomizes this philosophy to a "T."

Avoid disasters by making easy, tried-and-true recipes

Wanna know Ina Garten's secret for creating a disaster-free dinner party? Make whatever it is you're going to make for the dinner party several times in the weeks before the big night. Don't know what to make for dinner tonight? How about the lamb chop recipe you intend to serve your guests at your party two weeks from now? Need a cool brunch idea? Yeah. Try the lamb chops for that, too. In fact, pretty much anytime you can make lamb chops (or whatever you're serving for the Big Event), do it.

Making only tried and true recipes for every dinner party mitigates the possibility of the disaster that can come from making a brand new recipe you've never tried before. You definitely don't want to find out you've gotten it wrong when 10 of your closest friends are coming over to nosh. It's even better if you make the bulk of the meal ahead of time so that you're not stuck in the kitchen on the day of the party, drinking a glass of your cooking wine to relax your stress response. Ina Garten's worst dinner party experiences came from sidestepping this personal rule that she now keeps for herself. Think Ina Garten making 20 omelets for 20 guests she barely knew. Her guests pretty much entertained themselves, which equaled no laughter and no fun because she wasn't around to entertain them. 

Remember that parties are about people

A person's closest family and friends turn life's basic sustenance into a party, and while every dinner party host wants to cook something memorable for a dinner party, Ina Garten insists that it's the people and the fun, and not the food, that is the purpose of the party. That being said, it would be inaccurate — clearly — to say that she doesn't care about the cooking part of the meal. Preparing for a dinner party, including buying some store-bought items, as well as making many of the dishes ahead of time, allows party hosts to play a central role in the party's goings-on and not act as some background prop.

There's an added bonus to this party-planning approach, aside from facilitating more interactions between host and guests. The host isn't so bone tired on the day of the party that all she wants to do is find a bed in the guest room and partake in a post-prandial nap that lasts for a couple of weeks. Instead, the well-prepared dinner party host can spend that post-dinner-party time planning the next shindig without the embarrassment that sometimes comes from a dinner party gone bad.

Have fun!

It probably goes without saying that for a woman who considers fun a big part of her brand, having fun at a dinner party is job No. 1. It probably also goes without saying that those who consider Ina Garten the Patron Saint of Party Planning also consider fun important, too. And some party planning steps, like having a great playlist on Spotify playing in the background as guests arrive, go a long way to starting such a soirée off right. Other tips to consider? Having cocktails in-hand when the guests arrive ups the frivolity quotient, and chilled glasses add an extra touch that raises the guests' fun and comfort levels. Few things feel quite as refreshing as slowing sipping on a chilled drink at a backyard barbecue, particularly if the drive over to the party was a scorcher.

And while fans may enjoy the mom's-cooking-for-me aspect of Ina Garten's show and personality, she doesn't advocate hiding out in the kitchen once guests arrive. Instead, the Barefoot Contessa suggests that party hosts make a simple dinner so that their hosting duties don't cut into their own enjoyment factor. Her advice on how to do this includes roasting and carving a turkey ahead of time on big occasions, like Thanksgiving, and serving dinner rolls from the bakery instead of trying to make them from scratch. Aside from tasting delish, these kinds of party hacks reduce the host's stress levels, allowing them to be more fully present come party time.

Recommended