What on earth should I cook for dinner?

It’s always a treat to sit down and watch shows like, My Kitchen Rules, Masterchef and Junior Masterchef where we see extraordinary dishes created from hard work and pure imagination. But I must admit, they have changed the way people throw a dinner party – and I’m not happy about it.

I remember the days when I’d cook a lamb roast and everyone would be impressed – there’d be oohing and ahhing with friends commenting on how fabulous the meal was – I’d smile and say, “oh, stop it,” while secretly enjoying the flattery….and the best thing was, it was almost effortless to make. Now I see an 11 year old on the TV making a Beetroot and Blue Cheese Salad on a Wonton Base with Caramelised Eschalots, and it makes me want to cry into my two minute noodles.

These shows have now set the bar extraordinarily high and put pressure on all of us regular cooks to be as good as Peter Gilmore or Kylie Kwong. On the last season of Junior Masterchef, the kids (8 to 12 year olds) as part of a challenge, made Donna Hay’s Four Layer Chocolate Cake. I thought, if these little ones can make Donna’s cake, how hard can it be? …Long story short: my version ended up as a two layered crumbly tower, with a hard lean to one side and extra icing to hold the whole sad looking thing together.

Recently, I went to a friend’s house for a dinner party. Every time I go there, it’s like eating at a 3 hat restaurant. This particular time, my friend, Todd, nonchalantly tells us that dinner will be casual, nothing too fancy… then wheels out a six course degustation menu with matching wines. By course six, I’m all like, “No really, I couldn’t have any Chocolate Chipotle Walnut Torte, not after all that Thai Cracked Crab Curry and Pheasant in Orange Sauce. I’m as full as a tic.”

Yikes!!! Is this now the standard of what dinner should look like when having friends over? Has the expectation of the dinner party gone through the roof since Adriano Zumbo introduced the Croquembouche to the masses on Masterchef?

Worse, I was throwing a dinner party only a few weeks after Todd’s soiree, so what the hell was I going to cook that even came close to that? By the end of the night at Todd’s, I resigned myself to asking for the bill, and promised I would leave a generous tip. He laughed at the gag, but I was only half joking.

You’d think after working on a few cooking shows over the years, I’d be an expert cook, right? Learning through osmosis by some of the best culinary experts in the country. Sure I’ve picked up a tip or two, but as far as timing out a meal is concerned – well, let’s just say, it’s all up the ying yang. So for my dinner party – post Todd’s – I decided to invite ten people. I had prepared a highly detailed schedule so I’d know when entree, main and dessert had to be served. I even had alarms going off, so I knew what time I had to start prepping the next part of my menu. Dessert would be out no later than 9pm…Long story short: the veges were overcooked, the meat was undercooked and we were eating sticky date pudding at 10.45pm.


The bad news was, I had obviously blown out my schedule. The good news was, everybody was so hungry by that time, they didn’t notice the lumps of unmixed sugar globules in the pudding mix. Although, when everyone started eating, I’m sure the loud crunching sounds were a tip off.

I thought maybe it was only me feeling the pressure of needing to do a hoity-toity meal.  But after talking to a few people, I realised my fears were many people’s fears. I heard stories of friends of friends who would practice their dishes many times over before having guests around, just to get it right. A workmate told me that she was known as such a good cook that her friends didn’t invite her over for dinner because they were worried what she would think of their food.

After many mistakes and lessons learnt, here are my tips for hosting a successful and fuss free dinner party.

1. Get friends to bring a dish. If you invite 5 or more people, and they each bring a dish, you mightn’t need to cook a thing and be able to put your feet up for the evening.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in the kitchen.
It’s also a great way for some one-on-one time with your guests and stops you from catching DPE, aka, Dinner Party Envy. (Dinner Party Envy is when you are stuck in the kitchen cooking and you can hear everyone laughing and having the best time ever without you)

3. Keep dishes simple

4. Time out the menu – okay, I’m still really crap at this one, so ask someone else. I got nothing.

5. Make up a fancy name for the dish. Something along the lines of; “For entree tonight, I’ll be serving a little provincial Hamburg Tokyo fusion called, Schnippersnauzer Atchoo, followed by the traditional with a twist main course, Pregofaycee Hurgensizen-shin-snin. And dessert won’t be just a Petit four tonight, I’m ramping it up and doing a Petit Five.”

If anyone tries to call your bluff on your made up names, stay on the front foot as much as possible. ”Really, you haven’t heard of the Schnippersnauzer Atchoo? You OBVIOUSLY missed the Heston Blumenthal challenge on Masterchef. Shame on you”.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you cook, because the true secret ingredient to a great dinner party is great company. Friends don’t care what’s on the menu, they come over because they want to see YOU and have fun with YOU. One of my favourite get-togethers at my house was a lunch, late last summer. I invited everyone over at 1pm for a light meal and each guest brought a dish with them. My friends didn’t leave until 8pm that night.

Long story short: I remember the conversations, I remember the non-stop laughter, but, I don’t remember what we ate.

Tara Smithson started in television in 1989, and over the last 20 years, she has worked on over 30 daytime and prime time shows as a Producer, Series Producer and Executive Producer. You can follow her blog here

When you entertain do you keep it simple or do you go all out? What are your tricks? and what can I cook for dinner tonight?


Tags: food , nutrition , recipes
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