We're in the middle of the winter in the middle of a pandemic, and I know I'm not the only one who is craving some social interaction. While we may not be able to host a group of friends at our house for dinner, we CAN host a group of friends for a virtual dinner party!
I hosted a virtual dinner party around Christmas for a group of 12 friends, and I wanted to share the process of planning and "hosting" the party.
A virtual dinner party can be a variety of things, but basically it's sitting down to eat dinner while on Zoom/FaceTime with your friends. Our Christmas virtual dinner party was with friends who live both near and far, so cooking for everyone wasn't an option. Instead, I sent out the menu along with the recipes for the menu, and everyone cooked the same meal. Sure, it would have worked if everyone cooked something of their choice and we Zoomed dinnertime, but I wanted it to feel special and more like we were all together.
In addition, since I was hosting, I made dessert for the people who were local, along with a fun simple syrup for a cocktail. This is obviously optional but I love baking for others and, again, felt it added a special touch to the night.
First, you need to decide the guest list. This can be a group of close friends, family you haven't seen in months, or you can make it a virtual girls night with dinner! It can be a smaller group of 4-6 people, or a larger group - it's up to you!
Before I sent out the online invitation, I sent out a quick text to everyone, checking to make sure everyone was interested in it, and we decided on a date collectively so we knew we could all make it. This was pretty easy considering our social calendars are wide open these days.
Once the guest list is decided, you'll want to figure out the menu. Since most of the couples in our friend group have kids and would be eating right after putting kids to bed, I wanted a meal that felt special but didn't have a lot of prep at the very end. I ended up choosing this Bolognese sauce, which is an Italian pasta sauce that simmers for hours, so most of the prep is done earlier in the day.
I would recommend choosing a main dish and a salad/side dish and then let the dinner party invitees choose any bread or other accompaniments. As I mentioned, I made dessert (mini Nutella cheesecakes!) and cocktail kits for four other couples that were able to come and pick it up, and I'd highly recommend doing something like this, if you're able! Plus, it gave us a chance to have a quick, outdoor, masked catch-up with them!
Once you've decided on your menu, it's time to make the invitations. You could do something simple like an email, with the time of dinner, links to the recipes, and link to the Zoom call. I used a free online invitation website which included the links to the recipes and I texted the Zoom link the day of the dinner. Below are the details I included in our invitation.
You can choose to include kids, or not. Most of the couples in our friends group have young kids which possibly would have made it challenging to have a meaningful conversation, so we chose to have our virtual dinner party after bedtime. Sure, this meant eating dinner at 8 p.m., but again, it was a special night and completely worth a later mealtime.
If you want to include kids, consider making it a virtual brunch or lunch party. This way, the kids can join for as long as they remain engaged, and then they can go play so the adults can have continued conversation.
You'll want to decide how you'll connect virtually. The two most common ways would be Zoom or FaceTime. If you choose FaceTime, everyone will need to have an iPhone or some sort of Apple product like a MacBook or iPad that allows FaceTime. For Zoom, someone will need to have a paid account if you want to go longer than 40 minutes and have more than 3 people. Of course, there are other apps and options for this, but I would say Zoom and FaceTime are the two most common.
On the day of the dinner party, there really isn't much more you need to do aside from preparing your meal. You can start texting your dinner party attendees with a photo of you cooking, to get everyone excited about the party. We did this, and it was really fun seeing all of the different bolognese sauces coming together and photos of everyone's individual cocktails (I made a cranberry simple syrup that could be used in an Old Fashioned, in champagne, or a martini!). If someone else doesn't start this, I'd suggest sending out a photo first to encourage others to share, too.
As the dinner party was about to start, I felt a little nervous about the dinner party seeming awkward in the virtual setting. Sure, we could spend hours at the dinner table with these friends in real life, but would it translate to the virtual world? I can say, without hesitation, it absolutely did! We began by singing the prayer we typically sing at our in-person dinners ("Be Present"), followed by lots of random conversation and group questions. We ended up staying at our tables "together" for three hours!
Have a conversation starter. One friend in our group asked everyone what was one positive thing about Christmas 2020 and what was one bummer about Christmas 2020. It led to great conversation with laughs, tears, and great reflection.
Talk about the food. Ask if the recipe went well for everyone and how they are enjoying it.
Just have fun. I think most people will find that conversation will flow naturally if they are doing a virtual dinner party with a group of friends where conversation is easy in real life.
That's it! You've successfully hosted your first virtual dinner party. I hope it was so fun you want to do it again next week!