Your Guide to Hosting a Party with Light Appetizers Before Dinner 

Here's how to whet guests' appetites with a few small bites before the big meal.

Even if you've entertained dozens of times, hosting a complete dinner party can feel overwhelming. There are many moving parts, from sending invites and planning the drink menu to selecting the just-right light appetizers before dinner. Not to mention the preliminary cleaning, shopping, and setup required! (Psst… that's where these 6 easy hosting hacks come in handy.)

We're here to walk you through the process of deciding exactly how many items to include on your easy starters menu. We'll help you narrow down the best light appetizers before dinner to please every person on your guest list. Then we'll share pro tips about arranging appetizers so that the soirée is welcoming, communal, and festive without feeling cramped.

Step 1: Confirm Your Dinner Party Guest List

Before deciding how many light appetizers to prepare before dinner, it's helpful to know how many people will likely be at the party. Put together a list of guests and send out invitations. You can use Paperless Post or an email calendar invite with all the place and time details (don't forget the RSVP date!). Invites should go out about a month before the party date so guests can check their availability and RSVP. Then you can forge ahead with easy starter menu planning.

Tip: Tip: Clearly state on the invitation that dinner is part of the evening's events and the kind of dinner it is: casual barbecue, ample buffet, or a coursed sit-down dinner. If it's a bring-your-favorite potluck, make sure they know what course to bring. Everyone will be more comfortable if your guests know what to expect—and what to wear.

Since this guide is for an event that includes light appetizers before dinner, you won't need as many snacks as you would for an appetizers-only party. Instead, plan to serve a mix of appetizers based on your guest count.

Use this list to estimate the number of appetizer selections you need:

  • 10 or fewer guests = 3 appetizer selections
  • 10 to 20 guests = 5 appetizer selections
  • 20to 40 guests = 7 appetizer selections
  • More than 40 guests = 9 appetizer selections

Use our Appetizers Quantity Guide to identify the right mix of appetizers for your party size. It includes the recommended appetizer selections and the appropriate number of servings. And for even more easy starter menu portion inspiration, check out our recipe-packed guide to how many party appetizers per person you'll need.

charcuterie board cocktaie snacks
Dera Burreson

Step 2: Select Your Pre-Dinner Appetizers

When an appetizer spread is the first course at a dinner party, select your finger foods to whet guests' appetites for the main meal.

Once you estimate a guest count, you can create the ideal mix of light appetizers before dinner. It can be helpful to keep the dinner menu main course in mind to find some inspiration for your side dishes and snacks.

As you sort through appetizer recipes to potentially add to your easy starters menu, consider these six factors for the best blend.

  • Keep it simple. Build the pre-dinner appetizers and your overall party menu around familiar dishes you have made. This will cut down on day-of prep-related stress. Round out your menu with convenience items if you wish. (Trader Joe's and Aldi are both known for stocking fantastic freezer aisle heat-and-eat finger foods.)
  • Balance the choices. Alternate rich, highly-flavored foods with simple, fresh items. For example, a bacon-wrapped appetizer alongside a vegetable-topped crostini would make for a nice pairing.
  • Contrast colors and shapes. Keep visual appeal in mind as you envision arranging appetizers for the spread. The bright hues of fresh herbs, fruit, and meats pop near the creamy colors of cheeses, hot dips, and crackers or bread.
  • Consider temperature and texture. Offer both hot and cold foods in your appetizer spread. Remember to include crunchy and creamy foods, too.
  • Plan make-ahead selections. Keep the number of recipes that involve last-minute preparation to a minimum. These make-ahead holiday appetizer ideas are winners any time of year.
  • Avoid repeating flavors. While we're all about using up extra produce, a punch, salad, and dessert all with pineapple as an ingredient is overkill.

When the main course follows the pre-appetizer spread, skip sweets in the first course. Instead, save them for the perfect finish paired with coffee, after-dinner liqueurs, or sparkling wine.

Tip: When you start with an easy starters menu, a lovely idea is to end with a sweets spread to bring the event full circle. Consider serving a buffet of mini desserts if you'd like to encourage guests to linger and keep chatting after a big meal.

pink kale centerpiece table setting
Marty Baldwin

Step 3: Fine Tune the Dinner Party Details

With your guest list ready and your light appetizers before dinner menu (and the rest of the feast) planned, it's time to turn to party planning details. Begin by matching your desired party style with appropriate decorations, dinnerware, serving items, and seating plans.

Here's what to plot out next:

  • Drinks. Establish a beverage station conveniently away from the food prep area but within earshot so everyone can still chat. Aim for a mix of non-alcoholic beverages, beer, and wine. Canned cocktails and punch recipes are a low-fuss option if you don't already have a well-stocked bar. Our ultimate party drinks calculator can help determine how much to stock up on.
  • Decor. Finish nonperishable party decorations a week or so before the party and tuck them away until needed. Purchase fresh flowers and other fragile decorating elements a day or two before the party.
  • Dishes. Make sure dinnerware, glassware, serving dishes, and utensils are ready.
  • Flow. Plan extra seating and open spaces to generate a comfortable traffic flow as guests mingle and wander through your home.
  • Music. Create a playlist that suits your party's style and theme, or cue one of our favorite Spotify mixes. Adjust the music's tone and volume to mesh with different activities during the event. For an upbeat gathering, consider Ina's Dance Party or Feelin' Good, or stream Chill Dinner or Jazzy Dinner for something more relaxing.
  • Timing. Use our free Party Timeline Checklist to schedule all the elements of your party preparation. This suggests timing for shopping, food preparation, serving table setup, and decorating to ensure a stress-free party. Worried about staying on track? Set the alarm on your phone for a reminder to proceed to the next prep step on time.

Now it's time to change into your party clothes and proudly greet your guests. Allow about one hour for pre-dinner appetizers and beverages, but not much more to keep the pace lively, so partygoers won't be famished by the time they sit down to dinner.

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