How to Host Your Own Dinner Club Series to Build a Sense of Community
Create a budget-friendly, low-stress rotating “family dinner” series to nurture friendships
Contrary to what a quick “how to host a dinner party” search will tell you, dinner parties should not be about what you cook. Or the place settings. Or wearing an apron (“Step 6"). Or even about cleaning up your house to look semi-presentable.
Dinners are about the people who grace our table, and our ever-evolving and intertwined relationships.
Below, I’m going to guide you through how to really host not just one dinner, but a rotating dinner series—on a budget—in order to build and cultivate friendships. These dinners, hosted at various homes, will last and evolve over time, as long as you continue to have them—whether that is 6 weeks, 6 months, or years. Usually, the dinners are held on a regular weekly basis. The host (or host team) prepares and serves dinner in their home; guests simply arrive and enjoy the meal, and help clean up. Next week, someone else hosts.
I’ve done this myself in two cities: Washington D.C. and Cleveland, Ohio. These dinners created friendships that simply wouldn’t have existed otherwise. I’ve seen this routine stabilize people in their new city, and I’ve seen it serve as an anecdote to the February chill. They remind us each week to be with each other. To be human.
My experience with these weekly dinners had roots in the Wesley fellowship I was a part of in college. It continued in a new version in 2015, the summer I spent in Washington DC. When I moved to Cleveland in August 2016 as part of the Venture for America Fellowship, I brought along this tradition of “Family Dinners,” which grounded me in my new city and enabled me to build strong friendships.
Family dinners are a rotating dinner series, usually on Sunday nights, among a group of people that, in my experience, aren’t actually familial kin. Our group of 2016 Venture for America fellows in Cleveland adopted this when we first moved to the city; all except 1 were outsiders to Ohio. Since then, we’ve seen other Cleveland classes of Venture for America fellows adopt and reimagine these traditions in their own ways, and I’ve seen our class build a strong community among each other.
In a world that is becoming more lonely, building an in-person community with much face time is increasingly valuable, and can be a lot of fun! A rotating dinner series is a great way to get started.
Why Community Dinners Are Fun And Simply Good For You
People matter and community matters. They are not just means to an end — they have value in and of themselves. Dinners provide a great way to connect and honor that need.
The science of isolation and loneliness clearly shows that people who are more socially connected are happier and live longer. Loneliness correlates with a host of cardiovascular and inflammatory stress responses. Conversely, high-quality social relationships have a positive effect on mental health, physical health, and better health habits.
I have seen a great ROI on the time spent to develop relationships I’ve built through the dinner series. For example, the D.C. dinner series took place in 2015—almost 4 years ago. But I am still a good friend and in contact with about 75% of the people who were regulars. I literally texted one of them 35 minutes ago.
In Cleveland, two years after our fellowship, 75% of us stayed in the city. While there are many factors for why people stay in a city when you compare the retention rate of Cleveland to other cities, that is very high and I believe the community that family dinners helped facilitate was part of this retention. The practice of hosting and sharing meals regularly led us to share opportunities with each other, build trust, resiliency and enjoy our new city even more.
The most important part is not actually the food (but I’ll help you with that later in this article). “Family” comes before “dinner” —that’s the priority.
So, you might say that you are interested in hosting these family dinners, there are several things whirling through your mind including: Who should I invite? What should I cook? Is the time investment really worth it? How much will it cost? What if we have zero things to talk about or the conversation stays focused on things I don’t care about? Below, I will be able to guide you through all of these common concerns and more.
The Family Part
Family dinners work well for people that are genuinely interested in getting to know each other, learn from one another, and are able and willing to show up. We’ve found this to be good for people in timed cohorts, such as Venture for America fellows, summer interns, and people in school. This can work across ages for people who share a common interest, people who are part of the same religious group or gym or extracurricular hobby group. I’ve found that people going through a similar life stage works well for a shared interest group as well. A prime example of this is people in their early to mid-’20s who have just moved to a new city. Of course, this works well for your group of friends you’ve smattered together and want to see more, of as well. Or even your “real” extended family.
I’ve found that in nurturing a group, there are a couple of different structures:
- The first is a timed track for a specific group of people who will gather regularly for a period of time (for example, a school year or length of an internship). Typically this group works or interacts regularly outside of the dinners in some way.
- The second is ongoing track: more open, with no pre-set end date. These tend to be more socially driven.
For a timed track, you might want to have gentle guidelines recommending that visiting friends can join, but other random friends in the same city should not come. This dinner is about strengthening the relationships of the people in that one cohort experience.
For the more open-ended track, you might choose to organize a group of people who do not share that same kind of cohort bond but creates a crew in and of themselves. With that sort of group, you want to start with 4–6 people who are committed to showing up (ideally because they just really like each other!). These are the sort of people who can attract other people to the dinner, so you might allow guests to invite people for one-off visits.
It’s important to be inclusive, but if you are too inclusive and your group has a high turnover, you cannot build consistency or intimacy.
In setting up a new group, consider who to invite. You want to invite people who are helpful, and fun, and build each other up—and help with dishes. Ultimately, you know who you’re inviting the best, so you make the “rules” for who should come as you please.
The size of the group matters. I would recommend keeping it to around 12 plus or minus 4. You can start smaller by testing this as a concept with a group of 6 people that are eager, who know each other, and who are generally excited about dinner. This can be an easy way to a win for you if you are not 100% sure about the concept. If you have a great dinner and then tell others about it, they can convince people who might be a little bit skeptical about the awesomeness of this experience and you can grow to the optimal size with time.
In large groups (over 15) you tend to only talk with a handful of people that you feel more comfortable with. I recommend that you work to keep it smaller than that so it’s easier to talk with people and for everyone to get to know each other.
Another factor to consider is proximity. If someone has to make 2 metro changes and then do a 1.5-mile walk, I’m not saying they shouldn’t come to dinner. In D.C., I had friends who traveled 40 minutes to these! But it will be harder for them to do so, and it creates a hurdle. Travel time can compound in a way that adds enough friction to make it prohibitive from coming to this weekly routine.
Now that you have a sense of who to invite, I want to give you a sense of who not to invite. You want people who show up, so to the contrary, people who tend to be unable to attend consistently at the last minute are not the people you want. These dinners work when people really buy in — yes, this means showing up, but that also means hosting a dinner whenever it is “their turn”. You essentially do not want someone who shows up for dinners for two years as a guest but only hosts dinner at their place once. There are always exceptions: if you have 1 person who does this and they’re a pretty fun person, the group can usually withstand them and coerce them gently into hosting more over time. But if over half the group has this mentality, you are doomed to hit some friction points with the same people always hosting — and getting frustrated with those that do not.
As a caveat, there are times when we would have a larger family dinner, particularly around Thanksgiving; these dinner settings are slightly less intimate, but a ton of fun. It’s worth bringing together large groups of people a few times a year.
In terms of behavior/rules/etiquette, you can and should create your own rules. I think sometimes we get too stuck thinking dinner “should be this way” or “that way” that we forget to play in the mess and explore other alternatives. There is no need to set a formal table if people are happy, more relaxed and more comfortable sitting around a coffee table on couches and the floor.
You may be nervous or confused about how to decide which people to extend an invitation to. That is perfectly okay. It’s also okay to remember is that not everyone will be able to go, or want to go. That is totally okay as well and I recommend not taking it personally.
The best screening question is this: would I invite this person to my home and want to cook them dinner? If the answer is no, maybe don’t invite them, if so, give them a go!
Guidelines For Being A Good Guest and Host
From my observations, here are a few guidelines that I’ve found to work well. Adopt and change as you will.
Be a gracious host. To be gracious, you have to protect yourself from being overwhelmed by simplifying and getting help. I’ve seen hosting work as a solo effort, but what can also work well is hosting by 2–3 people as a team. In general, I highly recommend having more than one person host. This helps when the situation feels out of control. Overwhelming situations can include chopping 4 onions with tears rolling down your face, realizing you only have 2 spoons in your apartment, or forgetting that you have a work deadline on Monday and people are coming over in 20 minutes. Co-hosts balance you out; this is also a great team-building activity.
Strive to be a rockstar guest, too. Keep phone use to a minimum; only have your phone out if it is somehow enhancing everyone’s experience. Stay to help with dishes and clean up if you possibly can (I cannot stress this enough). Talk with people you don’t know as well those you are familiar with. Make fun of yourselves and each other in the best way. Constantly seek to build each other up
But, what will we talk about when we’re done thanking and complimenting the host?
Conversations are at the heart of the meal. Of course, you want to keep everything pretty natural. The benefits of these dinners come from getting to know and learn from other people and for that, you don’t want to be rigid or make people uncomfortable.
People typically want conversations to be balanced: fun and light and humorous, but also honest and real. I believe the best groups can work their way up to both over time. Sometimes you get both in the same night, but it can take a few weeks or months as this requires building a level of intimacy and trust. Those trust-building activities are built in: showing up for dinner, cleaning up after dinner and hosting dinner. It’s like there’s this sense of “if you have your shit together enough to make lasagna for the 10 of us, you’ve earned my trust.”
Overall, you want everyone to have everyone say something and be heard by everyone else. To do this, you may have to introduce a sort of interruption in your regular conversations. I have tested a few different “tool kits” regarding what to talk about at/during family dinners. I have found two tools that work the best:
- Rose, Bud, Thorn: each week, everyone shares a highlight (rose), a lowlight (thorn) and something they’re looking forward to (bud). This is the format we used, during dessert, in our VFA Cleveland 2016 group for two years of family dinners. The 2017 Cleveland VFA class added “mushroom” as a category where you share an awkward moment from your week. Add mushrooms at your own discretion. These highs and lows are nice because you can scale how personal you want to go. For example, a shallow low is: “my low was that it rained on my walk to work on Thursday and my pants got soaked.” A more intimate low could be “I didn’t get the promotion I had really been hoping for.” As your group becomes more comfortable with one another, you can be more vulnerable.
- The second format is asking a question that everyone takes turns answering. To be clear, not just any question will do. You want to be thinking about questions that are actually interesting to ask, answer and bring the group closer together. Social psychologist Arthur Aron was behind the NY Times 36 questions to fall in love, and those questions are scientifically crafted over time and raise levels of intimacy and understanding across both parties.
In 2015 in Washington DC, our group answered 4–6 of Aron’s questions per week. At one point, one of my friends made the comment “I feel like we’re falling in love with each other!” Touché, Susanna!
Alternatively, you could take the dinners as a basis to answer one question more in-depth. Priya Parker, a facilitator and the author of The Art of Gathering, describes several one-off dinners she hosts among people that do not know each other well but have a shared interest. One format of these dinner gatherings is 15 Toasts, where each of 15 dinner guests answers a question of the big theme of the night. These night themes can be “to friendship,” “to dignity,” or “to fear.” Each guest is to share a story about that theme or understanding they have of the theme. Some are prepared, but many guests come up with these toasts on the spot. Questions to prompt this kind of dinner could be “what does friendship mean to you?” or “how do you find time to keep playing in your life?”
Whether you facilitate your dinner with 15 Toasts, social questions, rose/bud/thorn, or something else, this should not become the entire experience of the dinner. Choose one conversation-generating format or another; more can be overwhelming. Allow plenty of space for people to informally catch up, make jokes and tell stories. Make time for people to breathe, and eat, and simply be with each other.
It’s during those unstructured times that almost anything can happen. You also might all decide that nothing could possibly be better than going to Puxatawny, PA for Groundhog Day, so you spend the evening learning about the strange ceremonial experience of “the inner circle” and making plans that actually culminate in a group trip to Groundhog Day Festivities.
Scheduling and Communicating
You can send invites and any helpful follow-ups communicate with the group ahead of time via email, GroupMe, text, etc. — whatever is easiest for you and your people.
In order for things to actually happen, you need to set a time and a day. Building a new habit can take time and steam to form. Ideally, setting an ongoing time and date will help get it on everyone’s calendar. We came up with Sunday night for a few reasons. The first was that hardly anyone had anything scheduled on a Sunday night and, for many of us, Sunday night can be a lonely/isolating time (have you heard of the Sunday Scaries?). Filling that evening with a bout of community is pretty powerful.
As a rule of thumb, stay regular, but keep an end in mind; commit to trying this with the group for 6–8 weeks and see how it goes. If you’re in a year-long or 2-year long fellowship, try to commit it for that time. Each of you will change so much during these years; this can be an awesome group of people to realize that change through/with.
Rotate apartments/houses weekly. If you want to, you can be more formal with the scheduling and have sign-ups in advance (it can be nice to know who is hosting 2–3 weeks out), but keep in mind the philosophy that everyone will host in due time.
As a tool for this, a super easy Google spreadsheet can work, but in our 2-year dinner rotation, our group organized the next several weeks anecdotally at dinner. We didn’t opt to keep track/tabs of who hosted when, how much they paid for food. If you dive into that, you may risk becoming resentful. I mentioned earlier that you might have 1–2 moochers in your group. Accept that, but remember your goal is not to feel judgmental towards one human but to have awesome experiences and memories and build community among several. With this kind of regularity, not everyone will be able to show up every week, so it works out okay if attendance isn’t always 100%.
The first two months in the dinner series matters the most when forming the group habit. I remember when we were getting Cleveland off the ground, the 4th or 5th Sunday had arrived and no one was able to host—everyone was too busy. I was too busy too (laundry, workout, meal prep), but these dinner series mattered to me. I put everything else aside for that afternoon, made sure it was okay with my stressed out roommates (also part of the dinner group) and got their agreement that if I cooked and cleaned, we could have people over. They said, sure that’s fine, so I went out and grocery shopped. No, the dinner I made was unremarkable (I don’t even remember what it was), but we did all come together and that tradition kept going. The early stages are very fragile, so it’s important to have a backup plan/someone who can help host that week!
If your group needs to take a week off when it’s more established, that is okay! Still, make a commitment to getting back to it.
Practical Concerns on Food and Cooking
Food costs money. This could get expensive fast, you might object. This is true — if you decide to blow the budget on food. But I know it is possible to host an affordable rotating dinner series. There are 2 ways to do this.
The first is that the hosts divide the cost of food among themselves (as I mentioned before, I highly recommend having more than one person hosting, even if that means teaming up with people who don’t live in the same home where the dinner is being held). As you rotate locations for hosting, each host team pays, and when you’re a guest you’re really a guest.
Alternatively, you can have guests offset the price of food or cover it themselves. This seems to work better for more short term series, or when there are people coming in and out of the dinner, or even when you’re earlier in your career. This can be done by having each guest Venmo the host $3–5 (an incredible value for dinner) or take the final bill and divide evenly—in D.C. we did this.
What to cook
While it is great to show off fancy culinary skills, the goal is to make the dinner series happen, and you don’t have to have a super masterpiece for that to be the case. Stressing yourself out over cooking impressive food adds unnecessary friction and deter you from the bigger goal again of hosting awesome people.
If you still feel intimidated, know that the funny unexpected “problems” or messes can really lead to great stories and bonding moments. One night, as a throwback to the glory years of preschool, we decided to make “dirt” and so we added the chocolate pudding, Oreos, gummy worms and then as a last minute thought we put raw broccoli on top for trees. (Have you ever had chocolate pudding and broccoli? Yeah, you don’t need to do this.)
In my experience, pasta is always a winner. The time needed is minimal: you boil noodles, heat up the sauce, add meat if you want, voila! (That usually runs $10-$20 for 10–20 people, 20 minutes of cooking time). You have an option of adding salad, garlic bread, on-sale wine and brownies (one or two of those might increase things $30 if you shop at Aldi). You can chop your own veggies. Use Zoodles. Whatever you want. If there are two of you cooking this, that total cost could be $25 per person. Not bad…think about what you’d be spending out at a restaurant. And you’re feeding 8–12 more people!
Another great option is chili. I think there might have been a 7-week stretch where we had this three times in Cleveland. To do this, Google a chili recipe, buy lots of canned beans, make sure you have a working can opener, dump everything into a crockpot the night before, sha-bam!
The most important thing is to keep it simple. That being said, hosting awesome dinners can be a fun way to grow as a chef and experiment a little bit as you get experience. Over the course of the years. I’ve had some incredible dinners including:
- Chinese hot pot (thanks Bill and Jeff!)
- BBQ-ed pork, cheese-jalapeno cornbread, green beans, cole slaw (thanks Stu and Leo!)
- Homemade pizza—dough with pizza toppings provided to assemble and bake as a group
- Breakfast for dinner (thanks Olivia!)
- Lebanese (thanks Angelo!)
Shopping is as easy as buying extra when you go to get your regular groceries. Or just order more food when you order your deliverable groceries.
Cleaning your home beforehand might take some time, and most people like to do this. It’s okay to use it as a detox and a reinforcement to keep your place awesome. But please don’t get carried away here. If you think you’ll be tempted to, set a timer for 20 minutes. What gets done gets done, what doesn’t, doesn’t.
Dinner itself can take 1–3 hours depending on if you get sucked into a vortex of Britney Spears music videos as a group after dinner.
Cleanup can take 30 minutes to an hour if a few people are not schmucks and help. Encourage people to not be schmucks. Invite people who will help with dishes (those are the kinds of friends I want anyway!) Also, cleaning up is not just about cleaning up — it’s time spent working to achieve a small common goal with someone/a group of people. This time is valuable to build individual and group trust and respect.
Alternatives to cooking dinner
If dinners are too time or monetarily intensive to commit to, you can just do dessert. This could include anything from baking cookies to buying a cake from a store and eating it while drinking tea. These are good options. Maybe for your group, it’s not Sunday night dinners, but Hump Day desserts.
Potlucks or bring your own dinner (BYOD) can work too, but we found these are a better as short-term solutions: a one-week placeholder for when life is really crazy and you need to keep up the habit, but folks are too swamped to host.
There is something inherently dynamic and magical about being able to show up for dinner as a guest and not having to provide anything and alternatively when it is your turn to host, cooking and providing dinner for everyone else.
Commitment? Yes. Worth it? Very much so.
As a host, it might take up to 5 hours of your weekend. 2–3, if you are efficient. With a small group, you might host once every 6–8 weeks for the host. As a guest with travel time, this might take 1–3 hours of your Sunday.
Sure, that could be considered “a lot”. This is the true time costs of these things. But remember when we spoke earlier about being happier and living longer and being more fulfilled and taking random trips to Puxatawny, PA and building memories? Yep — this is that time cost for all of that.
I also see it this way: most people do have to eat something on Sunday night for dinner, and this is a time that you are probably not likely to be doing something super productive anyway. So using the time to laugh with your friends is a better use of time than having reruns of The Office playing in the background while frantically putting your clothes away.
Ultimately, it takes time, effort, and commitment to building community, but it’s worth it.
Let me know what adventures and connections your dinners lead to!