Natasha Feldman Gives Us 12 No-Fuss Tips For A Dinner Party Table Spread Your Guests Will Love - Exclusive

Meet Natasha Feldman, the dinner party savant you didn't know you needed in your life. Mark our words, she knows a thousand things about food. The chef, who nearly finished culinary school, has taught cooking classes, co-produced, directed, and hosted a couple of cooking shows, worked as a recipe developer, and done an awful lot of food styling — not to name drop, but for Coca-Cola and Campbell's, for example. She's also wildly into hosting dinners, but don't make the mistake of thinking she likes doing it "Mad Men"-style.

Feldman's book, "The Dinner Party Project" is out in mid-April 2023. If Tasting Table's conversation with Feldman is anything to go by, it'll be "Don Quixote"-level good — not because it's about food, but because it's also about people. "There's so much research about happiness indexes and how the happiest countries in the world have this strange overlap with also how frequently people have people in their homes and have dinner parties," Feldman told us. "I know there's a lot of confounding variables, but I do think that creating specific meaningful time with the people that are important to you and bringing new people in and having that ... face-to-face connection, especially as we get meaner and meaner on the internet is just very important." 

You coordinate the people. Feldman — and her new book — can help you with the rest. Start by following these 12 tips and tricks for a fuss-free, fool-proof table spread your guests will love. 

Pick snacks to set the tone

The presence of pre-dinner snacks is a dinner party commandment. Break it at your own risk. "One of the things that I think makes people the most stressed out as guests, and as hosts — so it's like this perfect storm to make everybody feel uncomfortable — is when you're not sure when food is going to exist," Natasha Feldman told Tasting Table. "It doesn't really matter what it is, but as long as there's something that people can ... snack on and hang out with a drink, you really alleviate all of the 'Am I ever going to eat?' pressure that guests are going to feel, and the pressure on you like, 'Are people getting hungry?'"

Snacks may be non-negotiable, but they don't have to be poached, flash-frozen, or cooked sous vide-style — unless you're eager to raise expectations. If you're looking for low-key, go store-bought, says Feldman. "If the first thing you're presenting is like, "I put out a bowl of f***ing chips that I didn't make, and it's maybe even still in the bag, then you've set the intention that people's expectations should be low, right?," Feldman told us. "You're like, 'I already like fed people Lay's potato chips out of a bag.' So, now, sky's the limit." 

In the market for some no-pressure dinner party snack ideas? Try chips, popcorn, or have each guest bring a box of "their favorite childhood cereals," Feldman suggests. 

Know your guests (and how late they'll be)

A dinner party is not a solo performance. Just know which of your ride-or-dies are going to be fashionably late. "I feel like it's stressful when you ask someone to bring ice and they're the last person to arrive," Natasha Feldman advised. "You have to think strategically, a little bit."

Strategic dinner party planning means following three statutes. First, if you don't know a guest, don't ask them for a showstopper. "Don't have them bring anything, or have them bring ... a bonus," Feldman suggested. "There's going be someone who brings the weirdest, wackiest thing, and that's okay, but you don't want to have to be reliant on it." Second, Feldman says, have an early bird bring drinks, but don't count on them. "I always like to have a backup of a first thing," Feldman told us. "If someone's supposed to bring wine ... but you don't want to have to worry about it, I'll have a bottle in the fridge, ready. My expectation is not that I have to use it." 

Finally, ask your chronically late friend to contribute dessert. "One of my best friends ... she always texts like, 'I'm so sorry I"m running 45 minutes late.' You're like, 'You don't even have to send that text, you're literally never on time,'" Feldman recounted. "If we have her bring anything, it's always a part of the dessert, because she's going to be there by then, but maybe not that much before."

Don't keep guests guessing

So you want to host a dinner party, but you want to avoid a Ben Stiller-style disaster in "Meet the Parents?" You can avoid a lot of awkwardness by letting your guest know what's on the menu, especially if they're tasked with bringing liquid refreshments. "I always feel uncomfortable when someone's like, 'Bring wine,'" Feldman told us. "And I'm like, 'What are you serving?'"

That's not a comfortable question — neither for guests nor for hosts. "You feel awkward asking what someone's serving. Cause then you're like, 'Do they think I'm asking because they're worried [that] I'm not going to like it? Or maybe I'm deciding if I'm not going to come or not,'" Feldman explained. It's your job as host to be upfront, from the get-go. "I always as the host, volunteer ... I always tell them like, 'Hey can you bring a wine, and this is the meal.'" Feldman told us. "That way, if they want to go to their local wine shop and talk to their local sommelier and say, 'Hey, we're having a lamb tajin for dinner,' then they can help them pick it out."

Ask guests to bring fuss-free dishes

What should you ask your dinner party guests to bring? It's all about convenience — both for you and your invitees. Think: "Salads, veggie sides, desserts that are easy to carry, drinks, snacks [or] ice," suggested Feldman. Don't ask for a chocolate fountain or fondue. "Some friends ... love to work, and if you give them like, a complicated cake, they're going to love it, so you have to obviously think about who you're giving the assignment to," Feldman recommended. "It's about, 'Is it something you're going to have to fuss with a lot when it arrives? Because if so, then, no-go." 

That means not asking guests to bring something that needs to be served ice-cold or piping hot. "I never ask people to bring things that are temperature sensitive," Feldman told us. "Because then you have to find something else to reheat it in, or it just becomes an extra added layer of stress."

Bringing dishes to a dinner party should not be moon-landing-difficult for guests, either. "Where I draw the line is at like, s*** that's going to spill over your car," Feldman quipped. "I would never ask someone to bring soup, or a stew, or a brisket — something that's like uber-inconvenient to schlepp."

Stuck on appetizers? Think cheese

Your chips have been reduced to crumbs in their bags. Wine has been served. It's appetizer time. If you haven't asked guests to contribute with canapés, opt for a cheese plate. "Nobody doesn't like a cheese plate," Natasha Feldman told us. "You don't have to think about people's tastes, because you can do like a baby cheese, and a cheese that's more sophisticated, and then like, cheddar." 

No need to make a cheese board fit for the Louvre. If simple cheeses are all you've got, dress them up. "Even if you get bland mozzarella, and you put some balsamic vinegar on it, or a little bit of olive oil and salt, you can lipstick the ... pig of a lot of bland cheese," Feldman suggested. "If you get that bland a** mozzarella, and you took some sundried tomatoes, and basil and you threw that sh** together, it's probably pretty good." 

Beyond cheese selection, put as much effort and forethought into curating your cheese board as you want to. "I usually use cheese boards as an opportunity to get rid of the random sh** in my pantry," Feldman admitted. "So, I'm like, I have strawberry jam. Okay, that's going on it. I have this strange honey, I have pickles, I have like three different kinds of half-eaten boxes of crackers, nuts, all that sh** goes on the cheese board." It's also okay if your cheese board leans heavily on meat. As per Feldman, "That's really good with mustard and crackers." 

Only serve one temperature-sensitive dish

You're not a born-again Julia Child (are you?), so stay away from a dinner party menu that boasts her French onion soup, quiche Lorraine, beef bourguignon, and roast chicken ... all at once. "If you want a non-stressful dinner party for the host, only make one thing that's temperature sensitive," Natasha Feldman advised us. "So if you are kind of a novice, and you're feeling a little nervous, you can [only] have one thing that goes in the oven or one thing that goes on the cooktop, and everything else has to be room temperature."

Lean into room-temperature appetizers, specifically. "Basically any appetizer [is] room temperature. Most baked things can be [served at] room temperature. Almost every salad and vegetable side can be served at room temperature," Feldman extrapolated. "I feel like you want a hot potato, but other than that, nobody's like 'This asparagus isn't hot enough;' ... And that's really easy." 

Bread-based appetizers are a solid room-temperature option, too, especially when served with a pain-free yogurt-based dip, says Feldman. "If you throw like any herb, and a little bit of garlic, and a little bit of lemon juice, and olive oil in plain yogurt and, you serve it with any kind of crispy, yummy bread, that's delicious."

Pivot to pasta

If the thought of a show-stopping main dish for your dinner party is causing cold sweats, pivot to pasta. "I think the easiest, best thing to do is pasta because you can make the sauce in advance if you want ... and then all you have to do is have boiling water," Feldman advised. "You can make as complicated or easy a sauce as you want ... and there's no nervousness that it's not going to be good, [because] you already made it."

Wondering how to up your sauce-making game? Use your pasta water, Feldman advised. The easiest way to use pasta water is by transferring your pasta "directly out of the boiling water, straight into the pot with the sauce." Doing that, says Feldman, is a recipe for magic. "It's naturally going to make the sauce more viscose and have the noodles adhere to it really, really nicely," the chef explained. 

The hotter your pasta sauce is, the more effective the hack. "I always turn the heat up really high and stir it really vigorously so the starch from the pasta and the starch from the water and everything really combines with the sauce, and it's just so f***ing good," Feldman said.

Wine support is closer than you think

Don't whine about wine. If you're not sure what to serve, ask for help. Sommelier or not, there's someone in charge of selecting the wines at your local supermarket. Find them, says Feldman. "At every grocery store, there's always a wine person," she told Tasting Table. "You just have to be like, 'Can I talk to the wine person?' And somebody will come out and be excited because nobody ever wants to ask them any questions about their wine." 

Feldman, herself, says she uses a wine subscription service for her wine-related needs — Las Jaras, for anyone eager to copycat. She likes it because the wines they serve are all-purpose. "None of the flavors are so in the outliers where you'd be like, 'If I'm not eating this with a giant bowl of pasta, or a big hearty steak, it doesn't work.'" As a general rule, maybe stay away from those flavors for dinner party purposes. 

For a good, all-purpose wine that will "give you a lot of padding," Feldman suggests something similar to Las Jaras' Glou Glou, a zinfandel-based red blend that the company describes as juicy and well-balanced. "That's one that you can literally bring to eat with everything," Feldman assured us. "You could bring it to a funeral. "

Keep dessert simple and ready-made

You may have the baking skills of a contestant on Netflix's "Nailed It," but that doesn't mean you should call it quits on dessert forever. Permission granted, for example, to go store-bought. "Dessert, I think, is one of those things that you don't want to fuss with when people are over," Feldman explained. "It's just fun for it to be kind of like magic. Pull it out of the fridge, pull it off the counter, it's like 'Wow!'"

For a simple, mess-up-proof, people-pleasing dessert, Feldman suggests any combination of fruit and chocolate. "You can either melt chocolate in the microwave or on the cooktop. Then if I'm feeling mega-lazy, I'll just put out a bowl of melted chocolate and a bowl of fruit, and you can dip it yourself," she said. If you have more time, pre-dip your fruit and chill it on parchment paper. "I put a little bit of salt on top of each piece of fruit — a little bit of flaky sea salt– and just throw [it] in the fridge," Feldman advised.

Alternatively, ask guests to bring their own desserts. "One of my favorite things to do is to have everyone bring their favorite ice cream. Cause then it's like kind of an activity," Feldman extrapolated. "People get to talk about the stuff that they like. It's kind of like a weirdly intimate detail. It's fun to know, 'This person's a rocky road person,' and 'This person's a chocolate chip-whatever person.'" 

Clean as much as you can beforehand

Natasha Feldman is not trying to be your nagging, nitpicking great-aunt thrice removed when she tells you to clean up before people come, please. You're going to have to put the time into tidying up your kitchen eventually, and having a clean space when guests come lowers tensions. "Something that I find is a great stress reliever is cleaning as much as you can before people come over," Feldman explained to Tasting Table. "It seems fussy to prep in advance, but it's really not, because you have to do that sh** anyways. So if you space it out ... it's way less cleanup, and then you're not tired when people come."

That's the ideal. But don't sweat it if your kitchen looks like Dr. Frankenstein's experiment lab when guests come over, either. "Just have fun, let the mess be," Feldman said. "At the end of the meal if someone wants to linger and help you clean, great." If not, clean when you can. "Sometimes even if I'm tired, I'll just put the stuff in the sink with water that's gonna be disgusting the next day so it's not all caked on, and just deal with it tomorrow," she admitted.

What to do with diet limitations

Dietary limitations and "no fuss" dinner parties might seem like mortal enemies, but Natasha Feldman's advice can help do damage control. Some restrictions are easier to plan for than others. "There are so many vegetables that you can cook in olive oil, proteins that you can cook in olive oil. Avoiding dairy is pretty easy to be satisfactory for everyone," Feldman said. 

Barring a simple workaround, you may have to consider your options. Number one? Limit your diet-restricted invitees. "If I know that I have somebody coming that has a particular dietary restriction, the best thing I can do is invite other people who are really not picky," Feldman suggested. "I just sort of, like, cater to that one person." Alternatively, consider asking guests with difficult dietary restrictions to bring their own food, just in case. 

"If someone has a ton of allergies, I'll have them bring a dish so that I can feel comfortable knowing if all else fails they'll have something that they like," she advised. "That also makes people feel more comfortable, knowing that they're sort of in control of that."

When in doubt, order out

Natasha Feldman's third and final workaround for dietary restrictions may also become your go-to. "If you're not an excellent cook and really used to cooking for people, in that instance, that might be the time to order take out too, so you can run things by them, or maybe even help pick out the menu," Feldman recommended. "If you're feeling stressed out about it, go one-rung below. You don't always have to rise to the challenge." 

That's Feldman's philosophy about dinner parties, in general. If any part of dinner-party planning scares you, you've probably gone too far. "The expectation that we have on ourselves as hosts ... is like bananas, and doesn't make any sense," Feldman told us. "All of this sh** you see on TV, it's all bull****, like nobody cooks like that, nothing is that perfect. Everyone burns food." 

So what, exactly, is the perfect dinner party? Anything you want it to be. "You can order pizza. And that is a dinner party. You have to have the dinner party meet you where you are, not vice-versa. None of us are gonna be mid-90s Marthas, and that's okay."