Do We Really Need Dinner Party Planners ?

It was one of those mindless afternoons. I was sitting in a waiting room and flicking through a glossy magazine. There were features on everything from turning an old chapel into a house to beauty tips for brides. Since neither of these is likely to concern me any time soon, I picked up another - a foodie magazine, after all we all have to eat. As I casually skimmed through something caught my eye - buried deep in an article about something entirely unconnected - a woman casually mentioned her dinner party planners. Dinner party planners? 'There are dinner party planners?' I asked myself. Well, yes, it seems there are. Believe it or not, there are now several companies set up entirely dedicated to helping us organise the perfect dinner party.

In honesty, I thought, at first, they might be redundant. I mean, does anyone actually hold dinner parties any more? But then it occurred to me that most of us do - we just don't call them that. We have supper, invite friends round for a meal and get together over dinner. But do we really need someone to help us organise them? Surely people know how to do that? Why would you want to spend heaps of money having someone tell you the completely obvious?

And that was when it occurred to me that these organisers were targeting a very specific type of client. And it was not one who was ever likely to invite me to their dinner party. No, this particular service was for rich, stylish people who socialise in a competitive way. The types who want their dinner party to be the best, to put all the others in the shadows. And who don't really want to make the effort to do it themselves. Apparently they're simply too posh to puree.

So it really is true - some people have more money than sense. Now I'm all for getting in a bit of professional help to organise big events like weddings. On a smaller scale, I've relied on good old Marks and Spencer several times to provide some of the food for big parties, but I can't ever imagine needing professional help for the occasions I have a few close friends to my house for a meal.  Is it really that difficult? To get together a few of your favourite people? To supply enough decent drinks to suit their tastes? To feed them food that is tasty but doesn't take so long to prepare that you have to desert your guests for more than a few minutes at a time? It had always seemed quite simple to me. Had I been doing it wrong all this time?

I'm always wary of finding yet another reason to beat yourself up for not doing things 'just so' but, if I really was making a massive error here, then I wanted to know. So, when I got home, I decided to investigate online and, while I couldn't immediately locate an online dinner party planning service, I did find plenty of websites offering advice on how to do it yourself. Even a cursory glance at these sites revealed that I had much to learn. To begin with, I wasn't putting nearly enough effort into choosing my guests. I should, apparently, always endeavour to include in my guests at least one person with  sparkling or witty conversation skills and someone with a fascinating career (preferably one that brings them into contact with celebrities), as well as several people who are happy to listen. Now, I don't know about you, but I tend to choose my dinner guests because I enjoy their company, not because they score high on some imaginary scale of wit, fame or avid attentiveness. And, besides, I'm pretty sure that most of us don't have a single acquaintance who mingles with the stars.

Should the worst come to the worst and your especially invited sparkling and witty friends prove not up to the task, several of the sites suggested games that could be played during dinner. I'm not even going to go into detail here because, frankly, most of them would be sniffed at as pointless by even the most easily-pleased eight-year-old.  And I remember a scene in that wonderful comedy 'Ever Decreasing Circles'.  It featured a rather desperate attempt at stimulating dinner party conversation with the question 'what's everyone's favourite jam?' and following it with a round of 'what's everyone's second favourite jam?'  In my opinion, if you have to prop up the dinner table conversation with questions like that, then you'd be better off inviting people round for a pizza and a DVD!

Most of the websites offered advice on the type of food to serve, how to lay the table correctly and even what type of flowers to use in the centrepiece. Now on the last point, at least, I do agree caution is necessary. As someone who's had waiters in restaurants from Soho to Toronto remove vases of lilies from dining rooms, I state with some experience that, unless you know none of your guests have allergies to flower pollen, you're probably better steering clear of flowers altogether. I mean, causing your guests to lose their voices is bad enough, but triggering an all-out asthma attack tends to take the edge off the evening …  But barring that, I see no reason why a few nice candles and some crisp napkins won't perfectly suffice. Your friends are there to be with you and with each other and they're far more likely to remember your dinner party as a great occasion for the food and the company than they are for the colour of your table linen!

Surely, the point of having people over for dinner is to share a meal in good company? It's not about impressing the people about whom we know so little that we have to pay someone else to help us think of ways to entertain them. It shouldn't need more pre-planning than the invasion of Iraq (although I think we're all agreed that could have done with a bit more thinking through). The whole point is to enjoy yourselves. And that shouldn't be hard work at all!