How to host the perfect dinner party

Dinner parties are the type of occasion that TV programmes and documentaries love because of their propensity to go horribly wrong. Whether it's fiction or factual, gathering a group of people together with food and drink has the potential for disaster but entertaining family, friends or business colleagues is actually a lot easier than you might think.

If you plan well and don't try to be too clever, you can throw a dinner party that will have your guests talking approvingly about it for months, if not years into the future.

Follow a few simple rules (and remember, rules can be broken if they don't fit) and you're well on the way to hosting a successful and enjoyable dinner party.

Choosing the menu

Cook what you know you can cook well. Yes, it's great to try out new recipes but not on your dinner guests. No matter how detailed a recipe, cooking is always a mix of trial and error. Frequently error because you haven't measured out the ingredients properly, the mixing hasn't gone quite right, the time for preparation and cooking is grossly underestimated, and the oven is on a slightly too high or too low setting.

So go for something you're familiar with, that you can comfortably prepare and that doesn't need a zillion ingredients. Think about a light starter, a substantial main and an utterly delicious and sweet dessert.

Prep time

It may seem obvious but don't leave things until the last moment. Even if you know what you're doing and have done it many times before, get everything ready for cooking long before that doorbell goes. Welcome your guests in with tantalising odours from the kitchen to get them gently salivating at the prospect of what's to come.

If you're doing a roast, for example, then leave time for it to rest, so the meat relaxes and is moist and easy to eat rather than tough and chewy. Vegetables should not be reduced to mush. Slightly al dente gives a pleasing crunch and much better flavour to the taste buds.

Welcome drinks

Have a good selection of aperitifs available to please all palates. Depending on the occasion you may be supplying champagne to start with, and many people enjoy a glass of wine before sitting down to eat.

A choice of spirits is also a good idea, and though many would prefer to have whisky at the end of a meal (especially a good single malt) you can still offer others. Gin is an increasingly popular tipple for a drink at the beginning of an evening, and with so many specialist craft gins now available you could invest in a couple of bottles and finish them off over the next few weeks.

Make sure you have high quality glassware for all of the drinks you'll be serving. Good gin glasses show you've taken the trouble to provide the ideal vessel for the drink, and always serve your wine in attractive stemware. For digestifs at the end of dinner, have glasses that suit each particular type of drink, such as brandy balloons, whisky tumblers, port and liqueur glasses.

Table settings

A dinner party needs cloth napkins so put away the paper ones until you're throwing a party for children. Place mats and coasters should match, and cutlery must be spotlessly clean and placed so that guests uncertain what to use start from the outside and move inwards with the knives, forks and spoons. Unless you know everyone really well don't make using tableware complicated. You don't want to inadvertently embarrass anyone.

If you have space then have some candles on the table, and consider a floral centrepiece but with flowers that don't have a scent. Candles should be scentless because you don't want to interfere with those delicious smells emanating from the kitchen.

If you have up to eight people for your dinner party, you don't need to have place settings, but for more than that, you might want to consider it. It can add to the formality of an occasion, but you need to be the judge of what's most appropriate.

An enjoyable evening

Look after the food and drink, provide a pleasant ambience with some background music, welcome your guests with genuine pleasure and you're well on the way to providing that superb experience that everyone will remember. It needs planning and hard work but is well worth the time. If you're tired at the end of the evening, make a start at some clearing, so you don't have to face everything in the morning. Could be a good time for an extra shot of gin!