Jan Risher's dinner party table

Taking time to set a table for a dinner party adds to the experience. 

A month ago, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an 81-page report called "Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation." The report's statistics are grim. For example:

  • In 2018, only 16% of Americans reported that they felt very attached to their local community. 
  • Chronic loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia by approximately 50% in older adults.
  • Social connectedness was associated with a 21% reduction in murders and a 20% reduction in motor vehicle thefts, one study found.
  • A three-year study of 26 cities in the U.S. found that those with the highest levels of resident attachment experienced the greatest growth in GDP during the study period.

So, what can we do? The surgeon general's report recommends six pillars to advance social connection. The sixth pillar is the one I believe you and I can immediately further along. It is, "Build a culture of connection."

The report says, "Cultivate values of kindness, respect, service and commitment to one another. Model connection values in positions of leadership and influence. Expand conversation on social connection in schools, workplaces and communities."

The possibilities are limitless, but one way I believe can help all of that is this: Host a dinner party.

Going to the effort of preparing a meal, even a simple one, and then sharing it with others has the potential to change things. Some kind of magic lurks around a crowded table — and it's there for the taking. 

Perhaps you are a dinner party expert? If so, share your tips and secrets with me, and I'll spread the word because the world needs more dinner parties. My friends and family will confirm to you that finding someone who loves to host a dinner party more than me would be a challenge.

Before the pandemic, we hosted dinners at our home on a near weekly basis. (My husband stopped resisting and joined the party in 2009.) To be clear, many of those were simple dinners that didn't require much planning. 

Even so, I am all in when it comes to sharing my significant dinner party experience. Last week I hosted one that made my heart sing. I even ironed the napkins — but that's just because on the rare occasion when I have time to do something along those lines, it gives me great joy.

I've put together a dozen steps to host a lovely dinner party. Also, note that I'm a big believer in planned activities that make my friends mock me a bit, but I also know that they appreciate them too — more on that later!

1. Make your guest list. I used to think eight was the perfect number for a dinner party, but I have come to believe nine people around the table is better. Add in a few extras on your list, in case some invitees have other obligations. I recommend inviting two to four people you know well. Then, invite four people you know casually.

2. Set a time and date for the party. I usually set a non-usual time like 6:23 for the event to start, by the way. It's fun and people remember the time! Invite those on your guest list. I've found that three to four weeks in advance works well for a group of people you don't know well. Chances are that they all will not be able to join you. Go to your backup list. As people accept, ask if there are any food allergies. 

3. Figure out a way to comfortably fit nine people around your table and to have chairs for everyone too. Slide a card table or end table alongside your larger table, if need be.

None of this has to be fancy to look good. People appreciate your efforts. Consider what you can do to make your table pretty — linens, candles, flowers, dishes, flatware. You don't have to have it all, but be thoughtful about what you'll use.

4. Plan your menu. I have a few standby recipes that I call on, depending on the season, theme or occasion. (If you need suggestions, let me know!) Your meal doesn't have to be fancy either, but thoughtfulness and effort goes a long way.

Pasta is a great choice — people like it and the host can usually make the sauce far enough in advance so not to be too tired once guests arrive. The only trick is cooking the pasta just before the meal is served. 

If close friends are on your guest list and they ask if they can bring something — and you think you might be overwhelmed with the preparations, say, "Yes!" Desserts, salads or appetizers are great dishes for guests to bring.

5. Consider which serving dishes you will use. 

6. A week before the event, follow up with your guests to make sure they can all still attend. Figure out your shopping list and start gathering nonperishable items. 

7. Three days before the party, follow up again with your guests. A simple text that says, "Looking forward to seeing you and Joe Saturday!" works.

8. Cook anything that you're able to prepare safely in advance. Otherwise, set aside as much of the day as is practical of the event to set your table and prepare the food. I've found that getting the table set as early in the day as is possible helps. 

9. Prepare the food. 

10. Welcome guests and enjoy the party. If you need to escape to cook the pasta or other last-minute dishes, do so after you're sure everyone has something to drink. 

11. Once everyone has sat down for dinner and enjoyed the meal, explain that you have two activities. The first one is to invite everyone, one by one, to share their highlight of the day, with two rules. The moment should be a specific moment and had to have happened before they arrived at your home. One by one, go around the table.

12. Secondly, ask one more question for all guests to answer — and go the opposite way around the table. Suggested questions include:

  • Who was your favorite teacher and why?
  • If your life was a book, what would be its title?
  • If you could pick one day to live over again, which one would it be?
  • Who is the most famous person you've ever met?
  • What's your walk-up song?
  • Do you or have you ever collected anything?

From there, casual conversation will likely flow. Enjoy the night and continue to build a culture of connection. 

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Email Jan Risher at jan.risher@theadvocate.com.