Secrets to a successful dinner party

Dinner parties used to be formal affairs with sit-down meals and place cards. Since then, the American dinner party has evolved into a far less stuffy buffet meal. Cloth napkins have given way to their kissing cousins made of paper, and the dinner party menu is no longer a tedious affair of multiple courses. Your successful dinner party can now include friends with children, thanks in part to the numerous finger food recipes that have eased their ways onto the menu. Better still, dinner parties no longer have to feature the dreaded kids' table, which is a bane of existence for preteens and toddlers alike.

1. Clean the House (with the kids' help)

While your guests are not likely to give the bookshelves the white glove treatment, you will feel more at ease when you know all is dusted and clean. Have your children help by doling out age-appropriate housecleaning tasks. Taking ownership in the steps needed to clean up the house makes it more likely that the youngsters will keep the home neat and picked up until the guests arrive.

2. Go for an Easy Dinner Party Menu

Dinner parties are not the time to try making a soufflé for the first time. Instead, prepare dishes you already know how to cook well and feel comfortable serving to company. Include plenty of finger food recipes that appeal to children. Since many adults also enjoy mozzarella sticks and finger sandwiches, make enough to feed everyone. A buffet table is the best option for serving all attending guests; just be sure to keep a watchful eye on the food choices the children make. (Boys should not live on stuffed jalapenos alone!)

3. Set an Attractive Table

A large table with plenty of seating is the main space for folks to sit down with their plates. Decorate it with seasonal items. For example, fall tables could use some gourds and leaves, while spring tables will look beautiful with freshly cut flowers. Take the formality out of the room by adding numerous chairs and small tables, even if they do not match. Informal dinner parties thrive on guests' eating, socializing and moving around at will. A formal setting counteracts this goal. Clearly communicate the workings of a dinner party with your children and with young guests. Once the children understand that they are part of the party crowd -- not simply the add-ons -- they are more likely to behave like well-mannered guests.

4. Keep the Drinks Rated "G"

Make sure there are plenty of juice drinks for the children. If the kids are older and unlikely to opt for juice boxes, serve light-colored juices. Examples include white grape juice and lemonade. Spills are easier to clean up and far less likely to leave lasting stains. Water is a must-have. Keep a few cheap sippy cups on hand for friends with toddlers. These cups are notorious for getting lost and it pays to have extras on hand for the pint-sized guests.

5. Organize Appealing Entertainment

Background music should lean toward the classics; you can never go wrong with Frank Sinatra. Have plenty of board games on hand for adults and children. If you intend to let guests also use the backyard of the home, be sure to have some toys and games for outdoor use. Maybe you can string up a badminton net or put up some croquet wickets. There should always be an adult ready to jump in, if the backyard play of the kids gets out of hand. (Giving a toddler a croquet mallet could backfire; opt for other entertainment options for the youngest guests.)

More by Sylvia Cochran