The author of "The Dinner Party Project" on the easy secrets of being a great host

Let cookbook author Natasha Feldman get you out of your social slump and throw a great dinner party

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 20, 2023 12:32PM (EDT)

Group of people enjoying a dinner party with friends and family (Getty Images/SeventyFour)
Group of people enjoying a dinner party with friends and family (Getty Images/SeventyFour)

I used to a party person. I used to have people over, on a weeknight, like it was no big deal. But then the pandemic hit, and the next thing I knew it was three years later and I realized I'd barely entertained a soul in all that time. I knew I needed to get my groove back. Enter Natasha Feldman. "There's just something about having dinner and drinks at a friend's house that is 1,000x more memorable than going to a restaurant," the creator of Nosh with Tash writes in her debut cookbook, "The Dinner Party Project: A No-Stress Guide to Food with Friends." 

In my heart I know this, and you do too, but if you need a little extra motivation, the book doesn't just make a case for having friends over, it offers easy guidance on how to do it with ease and panache. There's a flowchart of strategies depending on how much time you have, if you're feeling fancy or nostalgic, and how much you're all planning on drinking. There are tips for "avoiding disasters." And of course, there are gorgeous recipes — like for a "very adult salad," for "your new favorite herby meatballs," and for Rice Krispies Treats with an addictive secret ingredient. 

I talked to Feldman recently about overcoming our fears around entertaining, and why, even as a cookbook author, she doesn't think you need to cook to show your guests a good time. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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I work from home; my spouse works from home. Sometimes I think I've forgotten how to talk to people in any other format than Zoom.

I feel like as we become people that are more and more obsessed with work, our working relationships and even school relationships become much more about that particular thing, rather than a sense of community.

"Even the most introverted person can find a version of dinner party that makes their life better."

We're social creatures. My husband is incredibly introverted, but he loves when the people that he loves are around and he's in a space where he feels like he can be completely himself. Even the most introverted person can find a version of dinner party that makes their life better, creating an intentional community with people that bring you up, that you can share what your struggles are, that you can all be in each other's corner. There's this small tribal mentality that has been beaten out of our modern society. I don't think our like brains are ready for that yet. We live in a global world. We have access to everyone on the internet. But we still need our little cozy cocoon of friends and family to help us feel safe. 

As the world gets crazier and crazier, I feel the need for intentional creating of community with the people that you want to be in your life. If you don't work at it, it just disappears.

On your Instagram, you've talked about being diagnosed with OCD. I'm sure you have your own personal OCD obstacles around entertaining. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to have a perfectly clean kitchen. But it does mean that there are certain challenges. 

Until you know what you have and what's going on, it's almost impossible to talk about it. Honestly, I didn't even feel like it was something I should talk about. I just thought it was this weird, shameful secret that I had. Then as soon as I started getting real help for it, I was able to bring in my community.

We've all gone on this journey over the years of helping me figure out what it is like. The worst of it was when I was in it by myself, and the shame around it and feeling even more isolated than it makes you feel because your brain just works a little bit differently. My whole life changed when I discovered that it was something that I could talk about, and that nobody cared. Everybody's got something. Not that it's not a big deal to deal with. But it's not a big deal to the people that care about you. It's not a big deal to anybody else. And I think dinner parties and having your people together is the best way to be able to destigmatize it for your own mind.

What's your response to people who say they can't cook, or they're really scared, and ask, "Why can't we just meet at a bar? Why can't we just eat at a restaurant?" 

"Worst-case scenario is you burn dinner and it's really funny and you order pizza."

When anybody asks me that the first thing that I want to dig in is, why are you scared? This book isn't a deep journey into the depths of your mind. But I think if you actually ask somebody that question, it's very hard for them to find an actual reason to be scared. What is the worst-case scenario? You have people over and the dinner is bad? What a great worst-case scenario. There are so many things where the worst case scenario is very bad. With a dinner party, it's absolutely nothing. The worst-case scenario is so manageable. And also doesn't happen. Worst-case scenario is you burn dinner and nobody has a good time. But really, worst-case scenario is you burn dinner and it's really funny and you order pizza. 

I'm going to tell you all of the arguments against entertaining that I can certainly can go through in my head. "My place doesn't look that great anymore. I'm so ashamed of my space. You're going to come and see my mess, and the mess is a metaphor." Because you go on Instagram, and everybody is aspirational and every table looks beautiful. 

I call this the mid-'90s Martha syndrome, where we have decided that a dinner party is a well-set table and sconces, and you have octopus arms, and you can do a zillion things at once. Your makeup is perfect and you have a cute apron on.

The reality of that being a dinner party is antiquated. If you want to hold yourself up to that sort of standard, you also have to understand what comes along with that. If that's what you want to strive to be, then that is one thing. But if you want to be a normal person who has people over for dinner, then you have to hold yourself to a different standard. Yes, some people's homes are disgusting and if that is your home, then there are some things you need to do. You need to have a clean toilet. You need to have toilet paper, you need to not have full trash bins.

You also are who you are. There's a certain level of small tidying that is totally reasonable. If you have an absolute pig pen in your home, set a timer for 30 minutes and clean. The amount that you can actually do if you focus on it is tremendous.

Also be kind to yourself. If you feel like your place is too gross to have people over, then your place is too gross. But if you have papers around because you're working and dog toys and kid stuff and normal life things, that's what everybody else has. This is an opportunity to get closer with people and to become more comfortable with where you are in your life. It might be a little uncomfortable, but I think that that's part of the stew. It's something that you just have to figure out. 

I used to live in a really tiny apartment, and we would just eat at the coffee table and sit on the floor. I would take the cushions off the couch and put them on the floor so you had like something a little bit soft to sit on. You have to think a little bit more strategically about what you want to serve. If we're eating at a coffee table, I used to always keep the food in the kitchen and you would make yourself a plate and then bring it to the table, because family style on a coffee table is not feasible. But having six people that are kind of tight with plates and wine glasses and a pitcher of water is totally feasible. 

It's having the conversation with yourself about, if the place is too messy for you, let's clean. But if it's not, then it's just who you are. That's fine. And nobody cares. 

Your friends love you. Your friends want to see you, and then you can see their homes and realize, "Oh yeah, we're all just doing our best."

The toilet paper, though, you just have to.

Here's another concern. "I don't have any time."

I have an "Always have snacks" policy. I don't care if it's four bags of potato chips or if you open up Oreos and put them out. You have to have something for people to eat so that they don't feel like they're going to starve when they're at your house. But you can have everybody come over, you can put out chips, and you can literally order takeout together. Maybe you made a dessert or maybe you got a Costco apple pie. Or maybe you have a fun bottle of wine that you want to open. The dinner party is not predicated on what you made and what you didn't. 

I wrote a cookbook. I understand the juxtaposition of writing a cookbook and also being like, "You don't have to cook." But I think that's true. Having people over and doing something together and creating that space is the important part. Open a bag of chips. Everyone can be like, "Where are we going to order from?" and just order food. Then nobody's starving, and then the food comes and you have a good time and it's in to-go containers. You can eat off paper plates. You can make it as low lift as you want. Where the dinner party can meet you where you're at is where you should begin. Then I think we should never stop challenging ourselves. 

If cooking a meal is something that scares you, then have a few [takeout parties] and then try it. Your friends are already used to the flow and it's fun for everyone. You have snacks and nobody's starving, and you can play around. But you just have to know who you are and start there. You don't want to start ten steps ahead. 

And if you don't have time to order takeout, then you shouldn't have people over. Then it's not the right week. Then you text your friends and say, "You know what, we've got to do it next week. This week's too crazy." That's fine too.

Which of your recipes would you suggest is doable for even the most frightened person? 

For the most frightened person, I really love the cacio e pepe mac and cheese. It's easy to throw together. All of the recipes in the book have steps that you can do in advance. You can do it a day in advance, you can do two days in advance. The path of least resistance is to work in advance. But something that comes together quickly and is really freaking tasty is cacio e pepe mac and cheese.  

Then I have a simple bistro salad. You wash your greens the day before. You make a dressing the day before and you just toss it together. Super, super duper easy. That's a really fun one. And everybody loves, everybody wants mac and cheese 24 hours a day, right? It's just a reality of human nature, and it's a fun twist on it. It's slightly unique, but it hits that same comforting note. It's really not something you can mess up, because you can just always add more cheese. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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