Some easy guidelines to follow.

Outdoor Tablescape by Amy Neunsinger and Kate Martindale
Amy Neunsinger

Think back to the most fun dinner party you’ve attended. What do you remember most about it? Was it the beautiful tablescape and table settings? Was it the delicious food? Or maybe it was the company and how much fun you had laughing and talking the whole night. You can’t argue that all of the above are the elements that make up a perfect gathering.

Putting together a dinner party can be a time-consuming and stressful task. You’ve got a menu to plan, people to invite, a table to decorate, logistics to figure out, and more. And of course, you want everything to be just so.

Since we’re in the midst of party planning season, I tapped prop stylist Kate Martindale and lifestyle photographer Amy Neunsinger—who happen to be entertaining extraordinaires—to share their best tips. The pair also have their own home renovation show on the Magnolia Network and produced by Anchor Entertainment, Capturing Home. See below for their hacks and tricks.

1. Prioritize Your Budget

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Setting the table can be quite pricey, which is a problem if you’re on a tight budget, especially after accounting for food and drinks. “Use what you have and spend the money on things that are going to bring [it] a higher level, like florals,” Martindale says. “I always say buy some beautiful linen napkins, because it falls so pretty, and all you need to do is throw it on the plate.” Just pair it with your everyday dinnerware, or even bring out the stuff you save for special occasions.

You can also head to a thrift store and shop for china there—and don’t be afraid to mix and match. 

Amy Neunsinger

2. Add Interesting Objects

“Amy and I always feel like every table needs interesting objects,” Martindale says. “We like to put fun, interesting conversation pieces on a table, like a bust or a bird cage.” The pair even include beautiful messages on their tables—anything goes, as long as it helps start conversations with people.

3. Read the Room

Really think about your guest list and decorate and plan the dinner party from there, because different groupings of people might require different vibes. For example, if you’re having your in-laws over you might feel like you need to be more formal. Or, if you’re having friends over, it might feel a bit more casual. “Allow yourself to know who your guests are and dress the table kind of accordingly,” Martindale says.

4. Think About the Table Shape

Keep the table shape in mind when mapping out your decorating plan. If you have a circular table, you can go a little higher in height with table decorations. You can also go a little bit more theatrical, too, because you have more space to play with. “With round, there’s so much depth between you and the person across from, you usually aren’t able to speak to the person across from you. It’s usually next to you or two over. So decorating does change,” Neunsinger says. “Whereas if you’re at a long rectangular table, we try to keep it the decoration low so you can speak to the person across from you.”

5. Seat People Close Together

Martindale and Neunsinger like placing their guests close together, so close they might be touching shoulders with their tablemates. They say it helps people connect. “It creates an ambiance and creates warmth immediately. You already feel connected, literally,” Neunsinger says.

Amy Neunsinger

6. Go Big Whether You’re Throwing a Small or Huge Gathering

The guest list shouldn’t determine how all out you go. In fact, Martindale and Neunsinger suggest doing it big no matter what. They don’t think having a smaller gathering is a chance to put in less work.

7. Add Candlelight

Lighting is so important and the duo say that having candlelight is a must.

8, Put a Height Limit on Arrangements

While you can have taller arrangements with round tables, you shouldn’t go so high with any table shape. “I can’t see who I’m speaking to across the table,” Neunsinger says. “It is a massive pet peeve of mine. It’s like you just blocked 50% of my access to people.”

Amy Neunsinger

9. Set the Table Early

Both Martindale and Neunsinger like to set the table in advance so they can get to other tasks like prepping the food. “We like to get it done early. And even sometimes that means just walking back by it, maybe tweaking it a little bit,” Martindale says. “We definitely don’t like to wait until the last minute. That’s incredibly stressful.”

If you’re having an outdoor gathering, you may want to wait a bit later because leaves or other things might drop on the table.

10. Strategize With Photos

You probably want to take a photo of your dinner table, right? Neunsinger recommends getting a photo closest to the event time as possible to get some prettier light. “Get it when the candles are lit, and get it with people and without people. And personally, I love an overhead with hands and commotion—we’re not doing food photography on these things,” she explains. “It’s more of what’s the essence of this party? What’s the emotion? And it’s a bit of the mess. I always love the aftermath of a party, what’s left behind, the remnants. I think that is actually more telling, because it says that there was a good time.” So get a beginning, middle, and end shot at a medium angle instead of a wide angle, which Neunsinger says feels unnatural.

11. Give People Jobs

There’s always a guest or two asking if there’s anything they can help with. Instead of brushing them off, give them a task. “So everybody feels like they’re a part [of the gathering]. ‘You’re going to help serve, you’re going to bring this out, you’re going to pour the water, you’re going to help seat everybody…’ We give everybody jobs, so everybody’s invested,” Neunsinger says.

Amy Neunsinger

12. Leave the Dirty Dishes

After dinner is done, don’t start cleaning immediately. It will ruin the vibe and signal to guests that it’s time to go when perhaps the party is just getting started. “What we do is we always move dessert into another room,” Neunsinger says. “So we leave all the dinner dishes in at the table and then we move dessert, you move people through the house and dessert goes into a new room. It’s clean, it’s fresh, and then you’re not staring at all those dirty dishes.”

13. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Fight the urge to strive for absolute perfection. What’s the fun in that? “You’re welcoming people into your home. And so if it’s too perfect or too contrived, people aren’t going to feel at home,” Martindale says. “So we love to set it with thought and curation, but when everybody gets there, it’s like whatever happens, happens. You’re just there to enjoy a good meal.”

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