Ina Garten's 4 Dish Rule For Better Dinner Parties

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Oh, to be a guest at one of Ina Garten's dinner parties ... we should all be so lucky. The Barefoot Contessa's gatherings are legendary for everything from her exquisite meals down to the fine details of her table decor. While we won't hold our breath waiting for an invite to her next classy shindig, we can learn from her tried-and-true methods for how to prepare a successful feast for friends and apply her tips to hosting our own dinner parties.

Among Garten's most practical suggestions are the basic steps to take beforehand. These include planning ahead by creating a menu, building your menu around what's in season and readily available, and prepping as much as you can ahead of time. Perhaps her best advice in this regard is the four simple rules she follows when putting together a menu, which she explains on her blog: "I'll prepare a game plan to make sure I can actually pull it off — something served at room temperature, some things in the oven, some on top of the stove, and hopefully a few dishes that I can assemble in advance, so I'm not in a full sweat when my friends arrive!" The goal is to make your role as host and cook stress-free so that you and your guests can enjoy each other's company. While that might sound daunting, it's doable if you stick to your game plan, and plan to make it easy on yourself.

Do the hard part first

The biggest dinner party mistake to avoid at all costs is to spend too much time cooking and being stuck in the kitchen away from your guests. To achieve this feat of hosting grace, use Garten's four-dish rule as your strategy. Two of those rules, make ahead and oven-baked, will likely take the longest, so start there, and you'll be ahead of the game.

For the oven option, you can't go wrong with Ina Garten's simplest roasted chicken dish. Requiring only a minimal amount of prep work, you can have it ready to go on a pan, then just pop it in your oven right before your party, and it will be done by the time everyone is ready for dinner. Add chopped and seasoned vegetables to the tray to roast along with the chicken for a main entree and an accompanying side dish all in one.

For a made-in-advance course, look no further than Garten's aptly named cookbook, "Make It Ahead." The book is chock full of ideas for recipes you can take care of before your event. These include cocktails to prepare and chill the night before, ready to welcome your guests upon their arrival. Soups are perfect to make up to a few days ahead; then, all you have to do come showtime is warm them. Salads and their dressings can be made earlier too, so all that's left to do is toss, plate, and serve.

Ready, set, go

The last two rules Ina Garten recommends for a glamorous soiree are to plan for a stovetop dish and one served at room temperature. Both can be made in advance and heated or finished at mealtime. This could be a fast-cooking basmati rice, any number of pasta dishes, sauteed mushrooms, or grilled fajitas. Have a lovely dessert ready to go in no time by serving fresh-cut fruit with decadent chocolate that's quickly melted in a double boiler. 

Your room-temperature dish should be done before the party. You can take advantage of another chunk of wisdom from Ina Garten's tool chest of tips — she always says that store-bought is fine. You can take the ultimate shortcut by buying things already made — Ina won't judge you for it and neither will your guests. This solution is great for things like jarred pasta sauce, sides like deli salads, or even entire meat and cheese platters.

If you want to cook it all yourself, look for recipes that come together easily and do well without heating or cooling. Garten's "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook" provides some fitting examples too. Her French potato salad recipe is as uncomplicated as boiling potatoes and adding homemade vinaigrette and fresh herbs — the dish gets its magic from a splash of white wine and Dijon mustard and is delicious served at room temperature.