Hosting a dinner party is like having to sauté on stage in front of a crowd of critics. Even the most self-assured person in the world can feel a lot of pressure to create a fancy meal that’s *just right.*
Thanks to our friends at Barilla®, who always hook us up with great cooking tips and tricks, we know that preparing a delicious dinner doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s actually surprisingly easy to create a chef-quality dish without spending hours bent over the stove.
Below, three cooking and hosting pros share their best advice, so you can feel readier than ever to throw a gathering that will bring friends, family, and even strangers together. Your guests won’t even notice that it took almost no time and effort to pull off!
1. Make a good first impression.
Holistic nutritionist Brittany Mullins loves starting out with a veggie tray, so guests have something to snack on as soon as they arrive.
“[Veggie trays] are super easy, and everyone loves to have a healthy snack to munch on before dinner,” she says. “I keep the veggie platters exciting by finding unique, seasonal produce like endive lettuce or watermelon radishes.”
Mullins likes making guacamole to pair with, but she swears by a controversial secret ingredient: peas! Mix them in with the avocado, and you’ve got a lighter version of everyone’s favorite dip—no one will be able to spot the difference.
2. Reimagine classic dishes in new ways.
Nothing brings people together like a bowl of pasta. While you can never go wrong with classic spaghetti and marinara, a dinner party is a good opportunity to mix things up and surprise guests with something unexpected.
Erin Gleeson, the blogger and cookbook author behind The Forest Feast, looks for creative ways to incorporate color and fresh produce. A good example? Her snap pea pasta.
She combines roasted sugar snap peas and asparagus in a warm pot of al dente penne (the recipe calls for whole grain, but you can also try Barilla® Collezione Penne. It’s bronze-cut for a rougher texture that better absorbs sauce—yummm). Then she tosses with chopped basil and cilantro, olive oil, and shaved Parmesan. You’ll love how pretty it looks on your dinner table; your guests will love how totally satisfying it is.
Another pro move? Use Barilla’s recipe builders to create a unique pasta dish that’s all yours. The handy infographics make it easy to turn a box of pasta into a flavorful, plant-based meal that people will be talking about long after the table is clear. (Barilla® Orzo with pomegranate seeds, toasted pine nuts, chickpeas, olive oil, and za’atar, anyone?)
3. Don’t forget the garnish.
Herbs are total game changers when it comes to cooking. They add taste, texture, and color in a single stroke. Blogger Yumna Jawad of Feel Good Foodie says you should never serve a meal herbless. “There’s nothing that brings more flavor to a dish than fresh and crisp herbs added right before serving,” she says.
To keep herbs like parsley and cilantro (her go-tos) as fresh as possible, Jawad stores them with their stems in water or wraps them in a damp paper towel in a plastic bag. When you’re ready to use, just pat dry with a clean towel and chop.
4. Use your freezer.
Don’t be afraid of the freezer! It’s a wonderful tool that will help your ingredients last longer and cut down on day-of cooking.
Mullins has a brilliant trick for preserving fresh ginger: Peel it with the back of a spoon and store it in the freezer. “It lasts longer this way and grates so easily when needed,” she says.
The freezer also comes into play when you want to prep ingredients or meals in advance. For instance, homemade pesto can be frozen in ice cube trays, then reheated in individual servings when you’re ready to serve dinner.
5. Repurpose your food scraps.
Don’t throw out those veggie scraps or chicken bones! Jawad suggests using them to make broth. “Broth is such an easy way to flavor not only soups but also stews, pasta, marinades, casseroles, rice, and stir-fries,” she says.
Our fave: Add the broth to a jar of pasta sauce. This trick comes in handy particularly in vegetarian recipes, where Jawad notes that you don’t have the fat from meat to enhance the flavor (just make sure to use veggie broth if you want to keep the recipe meat-free). No matter what dish you upgrade with this trick, your guests won’t guess your secret—but they’ll definitely notice the taste.
6. Try new gadgets… and methods.
Mullins’s two favorite cooking techniques? Air frying and sous vide. Air fryers are amazing tools because you can cook your favorite indulgences in a healthier way, but they’ll still come out crispy and delicious.
Sous vide is a method that involves sealing food in an airtight container and then cooking it. Sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple—and it helps make sure your meat is cooked evenly throughout. Try cooking steak or chicken sous vide before mixing into Barilla® pasta sauce.
No matter how many you’re hosting or what you’ve got on the menu, these simple tricks will help you pull off dinner with ease. That way you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the best part: sitting around the table with the people you love.