Make your next dinner comfy and fun as well as easy to pull off, our new entertaining expert tells how.
elisa marshall setting a table
Credit: Lara Sneidermanis

Of course I love hosting large celebrations and parties, but there's something special about an intimate gathering at home, bringing your closest family and friends around the table. A smaller group allows for conversation and community while enjoying a delicious meal. I always recommend keeping the menu simple; using tried-and-true recipes and adding seasonal twists makes for foolproof dining. For the setting, I go eclectic and rich in detail.

Planning the Menu

I'm always dreaming up dinner parties in my head, but I usually start the actual planning about a week before the party. I love adding seasonal twists to old family recipes and other go-tos. Simple takes on favorites makes the menu personal, festive, and delicious.


Having a fun, seasonal drink on the counter to welcome everyone as they arrive helps create a relaxed atmosphere. Who says sangria is just for summer? Play on a classic recipe, like this one that uses apples and cinnamon sticks to add some warmth to this easy big-batch drink. The fall flavors pair great with that cheese platter you always make, so guests can start with a little snack while they wait for the others to arrive.


Of course you love to serve a cheese platter! Who doesn't? Choose your favorite selection of cheeses and give the platter a seasonal flair by adding Spiced Pumpkin Seeds, roasted nuts, and some chutney.

soup in teacup
Credit: Lara Sneidermanis


One of my favorite dinner party appetizers is soup. Many recipes can be made in advance, and I like to knock some things off my checklist before the day of the dinner party. To give this cozy starter an autumn twist, play with presentation and garnish. My favorite is to serve the soup in an assortment of vintage tea cups or carved-out mini pumpkins. Something as simple as presentation can give a family classic a whole new slant.


If a classic Caesar salad is what you always make, well it's time to change things up a bit. Go all out fall and switch salad greens for shredded Brussels sprouts in a salad like this or give your Caesar a seasonal slant, this Kale Caesar is just the thing.


Nothing brings back delectable memories like my mom's chicken potpie! It's something I love to make for a dinner party. Use a favorite recipe and consider subbing some of the usual vegetables for cubed winter squash.


My favorite go-to side is a medley of roasted fall root vegetables. They're a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.


Although I am a sucker for pumpkin-spice everything (like this cake), my favorite easy dinner party dessert is a seasonal crisp or crumble. From berries to stone fruit with a spiced brown sugar crumble in the summer to apples and pears right now, these desserts offer the comfort of a pie without the work.

place setting
Credit: Lara Sneidermanis

Setting the Table

My settings are full of personality, and like my menus, nothing is too contrived or uptight. I love using pieces from all over my home to work within my tablescape's color palete or theme, and then adding elements inspired by the season. Few things bring a fall tablescape to life like pumpkins and woodland finds, and I always incorporate beautiful florals and various eclectic treasures to add a new dimension of interest -- and make my table Pinterest-worthy!


Instead of a classic bouquet or contrived centerpiece, a fun, impactful arrangement can start with things you have around your home. Maybe grandma's old teapot that has a broken lid, or those cute glass yogurt containers that are too painful to toss will be the perfect vessels for your flowers. My favorite vases are my collection of assorted glass bottles. I use them for simple singular fall stems. This creates height, dimension, and personality -- and is much more cost-effective than buying bouquets. Having slim vases along the length of the table rather than a couple of large arrangements is also more practical if food is served family-style on the table.


Although that pumpkin-spice scent is hard to resist, let the food ignite the senses -- save aromatic candles for the washroom. Get creative with the vessels that hold your candles; this is the time to carve out mini pumpkins to hold tea lights.


Throw out the ‘rules' for table decor and place settings (unless you are hosting the royal family!). Be creative and have fun. Your friends are more likely to admire your exquisite details than judge you if your water glass is 90 degrees above the knife. For some dinner parties I make place cards. It's a lovely additional touch and especially helpful if you have a few guests who don't know everybody. Be sure to place them next to new friends -- and allow the conversation to flow.


We don't all have a 12-piece setting of perfectly matched porcelain, and if you were not lucky enough to get such family treasures, start a collection of your own. The secret to making your table and dinnerware not look like it was pulled together from a garage sale (even if it was!) is to find a unified theme. Stick with a color/pattern and size. My favorite collection is mismatched blue-and-white florals, and it was inspired by a set of plates given to us by my mother-in-law. Now I am always scouring markets and stores for blue-and-white designs!

place settings at table
Credit: Lara Sneidermanis

Always a Sweet Ending

Hosting and cooking is all about bringing people together around the table and sharing great food, drink, and company. At any dinner party or event, I always love to find creative ways to include my guests and host a more memorable and engaging event. One way is to take a course and turn it into a potluck. This is easiest when done with dessert or pre-dinner eats and drinks. Ask guests to bring a sweet that sparks nostalgic fall memories -- it could be something store-bought or a rendition of their grandma's pumpkin cheesecake. Enjoying these sweet treats and sharing memories around the table can create some of the richest conversations of the evening and make certain the dinner ends on a sweet note.


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