This week, I've been sharing the plan and menu for a casual weeknight dinner party I threw with our neighbors and their little kids. Today, we'll reveal how it all came together, how we kept it comfy and cheerful for the little kids while still making it a special night for us all. We hope it shows you, like it showed me, that dinner parties don't always have to be elaborately planned affairs, but can simply be a bigger, prettier version of your everyday family meal. Warning: you may be inspired to throw impromptu weeknight or weekend dinner parties all the time now, so grab your crayons and come on in!
The Day Before
We all know that the best way to keep a dinner party relaxed and easy is to do as much as possible ahead. This was an impromptu plan, though, so I really only had a little prep time the day before. I figured I'd do as much as I could the night before, so it could all come together quickly the next day when I got home from work.
I started my cupcakes first, the night before. That way, of course, they would be completely cool the next day so I could frost them properly. While the butter and eggs and cream cheese were coming to room temp, I made the dill dressing for the spring salad and did some basic mise-en-place: measuring out the pasta and cherry tomatoes for the chicken dish, chopping the parsley and onion, slicing the radishes and trimming the snap peas for the salad, and cutting the broccoli into florets for the veggie bake. I also removed the sausage from its casing.
While the cupcakes were in the oven, I made the buttercream frosting and put it in an airtight container in the fridge. Then I did my kraft paper and neon tape tabletop (though I saved some finishing touches for the morning, so my 8-year-old could help with the fun part). I also folded my linen napkins and set the table.
The Day of the Party
As soon as I got home from work, I did the remaining prep work, starting with my favorite part: frosting the cupcakes.
I figured I'd cook the chicken and cherry tomatoes first while I prepped the casserole on the stovetop, then cook the pasta while the casserole baked in the oven and the chicken came to room temp.
If I had two ovens, it would have been even faster, but as it was, the whole thing took just a little more than an hour, including cook time (and I am pretty slow in the kitchen!). I threw the salad elements together while the pasta was cooking.
For this Gathering from the Kitchn, we collaborated with KRAFT FRESH TAKE, a seasoned breadcrumb and cheese mixture. We used the Classic Four Cheese flavor to top our veggie bake, and the Rosemary & Roasted Garlic flavor for the chicken. Prepping the chicken was so much faster and cleaner with the FRESH TAKE bag – you just open the bag and mix the breadcrumbs with the cheese, and then put the chicken right in the bag to coat it. Voila!
Our friends came over a little early so the kids could play, and they immediately remarked on the amazing cooking smell in the house. The cheesy, fragrant rosemary and garlic got us all starving just in time for an early kiddie mealtime.
The menu was easy to prepare, colorful and appealing on the table, and absolutely scrumptious. I'll be making the same menu again (and again and again) for a regular weeknight meal, but it turned out to be a great option for having people over anytime. When you eat as much chicken as we do in our family, it can get a little ho-hum by the middle of the week. The FRESH TAKE took a simple chicken breast from an old standby to a total standout that I was proud to serve to company. Lighter and more flavorful than my typical breaded chicken, this dish was a hit with both the kids and the adults, and no one asked for ketchup!
I couldn't believe how popular the casserole was. I'm blessed with a daughter who loves vegetables, but even she has never before asked for a third portion of her broccoli. I'm inspired to play around some more with this recipe, throwing in different veggies depending on what's in season. The light sprinkling of Classic Four Cheese FRESH TAKE gives the whole dish a taste lift and brings out the savory flavors. I can't wait to try it on a baked potato or on top of eggs.
After dinner, I made the adults some decaf and brought out the pièce-de-résistance, the cupcakes. If you want to feel like a rock star, make cupcakes for a bunch of little kids. "Who wants cupcakes?" I asked, and the crowd. went. WILD.
After dinner, the little ones ran around for a little while, a last burst of energy (thanks, cupcakes) before bedtime, and my daughter and I snuggled and drew on the table. Our neighbors stayed and chatted for a while before we called it a night. We rolled up the kraft paper and it was like it had never happened (oh yeah, thanks, honey, for doing the dishes). Exactly the easy, relaxed dinner with friends I'd hoped for. I'm tempted to do it again next week!
MenuCrunchy Spring Salad with Dill Dressing
Crispy Garlic Chicken with Lemon Pasta
Broccoli, Tomato & Sausage Bake
Vanilla Cupcakes with Very Basic Lemon Buttercream Frosting