Last-minute dinner party

How to Plan a Last-Minute Dinner Party

Picture this: Just as you’re relaxing after dinner on Thursday night, your phone rings. Your best friend’s future in-laws are coming to town Friday evening and she only just found out ten minutes ago. She wants to organize a small last-minute dinner party for her and her new fiancé, his parents, and his two sisters.

Your friend has never met her fiancé’s family before and they haven’t actually announced their engagement yet, so she needs to make a good impression. She knows you’re a successful event planner and she also knows you’re free tomorrow, so she asks for your help organizing the dinner. You’re always up for a challenge, so you tell her you’ll help.

Here are nine tips for organizing a great last-minute dinner party!

Food for last-minute dinner party

1. Have a game plan

The second you’ve committed to organizing a last minute dinner, start planning immediately! Establish a timeline and make lists so you don’t forget to do or buy important things.

  • Establish a timeline. By when do you need to have certain things done?
  • Make a “to buy” list. What do you need to get started?
  • Make a “to do” list. In what order should you complete your steps?
  • Make a list of reminders. Did your friend tell you her father-in-law is allergic to peanuts? Write down things you’ll need to keep in mind while you plan.
  • Make a last-minute checklist. Which things should you do or check on last minute to make sure everything is ready?

2. Be realistic about cooking

You’re there to plan the event, not to cater. Is your friend a great cook with a list of recipes up her sleeve? Help her decide which dishes are best and gather the ingredients, then leave her to it while you continue planning.

  • Groceries are cheaper than catering
  • You’ll be in more control of the meal preparation timeline

Is your friend the kind of cook who could burn water? Choose a caterer who can provide you with a delicious meal on short notice.

  • Eliminate the risk of a burned meal
  • Menus give you more choices than limited cooking skills

Catering for last-minute dinner party

Weigh your options. Saving money is important but it’s not worth setting the house on fire!

3. Last-minute venues

For a small party like your friend’s, it might make sense to have dinner a home.


  • Most of the things you’ll need are already in place
  • You don’t have to worry about giving the family directions to a venue


  • She’ll have to clean up before and after the dinner

What if her kitchen is under renovation? Perhaps her favorite Italian restaurant has a cozy, stylish back room you can rent, taking care of the venue and the food in one place!


  • Your friend can concentrate on socializing if she’s not worrying about preparing food and drinks
  • The space will be clean and ready


  • Hosting in a venue can be expensive
  • Eating in a restaurant is less intimate, even in a private dining room

Ask your friend what she can afford and where she’d be more comfortable hosting. Remember she’s trying to make a good impression.

Last-minute dinner party at restaurant

4. Keep décor simple

Think about who’s coming to dinner and what kind of party it is. Is décor an essential part of the experience, or is the aesthetic of the venue enough? For this scenario, making sure the area is clean and classy is probably enough. Set out candles, put your friend’s most decorative pieces on display, and concentrate more on atmosphere than decoration. Other last minute events like birthday parties, however, might require actual decorations. Keeping the décor simple and appropriate to the crowd or celebration is the key. Going overboard with colored streamers will seem cheesy.

5. Don’t forget presentation

Whether dinner is cooked or catered, good food presentation is impressive. Just because it’s a last-minute affair doesn’t mean your friend’s family should eat from takeout cartons. Dishes aren’t fun, but making a great impression to announce an engagement is worth getting out the fancy plates. Stylish details, like using heirloom plates rather than scratched plastic dishes, show how much care went into the night.

6. Keep dietary needs in mind

When it comes to last-minute dinners, you might not have time to ask each guest their dietary needs. For a small party like this, your friend’s fiancé can probably tell you whether his family has allergies or food restrictions. If not, practice general caution. Keep common allergies, sensitivities, and diets in mind while you choose the menu.

Food presentation at dinner party

7. Be flexible

Things go wrong even at events that you had months to prepare for. Remember that some things are just beyond your control, especially when you only had 24 hours to plan. Be adaptable to minimize your own stress and keep a flexible mind frame. Don’t assume that everything will go wrong, but be ready to problem-solve.

8. Accept help

You should keep a close eye on each detail, but don’t be afraid to accept help when it’s offered. You don’t necessarily have to do everything yourself. Letting people help you can get things done quickly, giving you “wiggle room” in case of emergencies. Be smart about how you delegate and give people jobs they can handle. Accept help from people who are prepared to listen to you and make things happen.

9. Don’t forget the details

An awesome meal is the focus of your friend’s party, but don’t let other details suffer. Remember that things like music, lighting, seating space, and beverage options also make for a really great night. Would flowers add a nice decorative touch? Maybe your friend’s fiancé knows his mother’s favorite kind. Is your friend’s new father-in-law a die-hard country music fan? Build a playlist beforehand for some comfortable background music. Make sure you have enough dishes for everyone for each course and enough seating in each room they’ll use.
Be confident!

Just because you’re planning last-minute doesn’t mean the event won’t be great! Be smart about which steps you take first and try not to make things too complicated. Hearing guests describe your dinner as “simple and elegant” or “easy and fun” can be even better than “high-class and fancy.” Evaluate the situation, make the best of what you’ve got, and perhaps most importantly, stay calm and confident!

Have you ever organized a dinner party at the last minute? How did you handle the pressure? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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