There are few things in life that are better than a good dinner party. It’s the perfect excuse to get dressed up and enjoy a delicious home-cooked meal with friends and family. After all, what can be better than eating, drinking and being merry together? But as fun as they are, dinner parties can also be stressful for those who open up their homes to accommodate all of the wining and dining. Drafting the guest list, planning the menu, doing the shopping, cooking the food and ensuring that everything runs smoothly makes for tough and tiring work—especially when it falls on just one person’s shoulders (and wallet). But local marketing expert and cookbook author Tiffany Winter and her friends have found a creative solution to the stress of single-host dinner parties: progressive dinners.
Twice a year, Winter and a group of her close friends put on these progressive dinners, a clever spin on the traditional dinner party. The idea was born from a simple desire: to stay connected and make time for one another, even with busy schedules and life’s complications. Winter is a lake-area native; she grew up in Mound and—along with her friends—is an alum of Mound Westonka High School. After the group graduated from high school in 2002, college and careers quickly took them to different parts of the state and country. Winter, a University of Minnesota grad, says that she simply loved the Lake Minnetonka area too much to stay away for long, a sentiment that her high school besties also share. “One by one, we’ve all moved back to the Lake Minnetonka area over the years,” she says.
But even living close to each other again hasn’t been a guarantee that the friends see each other regularly, especially now that so many of them have spouses, children and demanding jobs. “With all of us being so busy, we really wanted to get together for something special a couple of times a year, but we also wanted to make it a really special occasion, something that we would really look forward to,” Winter says.
Enter the progressive dinner. Every six months or so over the last several years—Winter says the tradition began sometime around 2010—the group of friends has all gotten together for special dinners. They dress up and they cook crowd-pleasing food, but unlike a traditional dinner party, they enjoy each course at a different person’s house, instead of all at once. “We’ll have appetizers at one of our houses, then the actual meal at another person’s house, and then we all drive to the last house for dessert,” Winter says. “So the people hosting don’t have to worry about every single thing. It’s just one part of a meal.”
The progressive dinner group includes five couples—Winter, her fiancé, and her high school friends and their partners. “It’s a bunch of us who graduated together, and now we all have significant others who have become part of the group, or been sworn in, if you will,” she says.
“It’s been the same core group of friends,” says Jamie Geyen, who has been a part of the tradition since the beginning. “We’ve had a few drop out, and we’ve added a few more along the way as people have moved, so it’s just nice to get everyone together. I know we all live close, but it seems hard to plan time to get the whole group together.”
Winter and Geyen say it’s important that no one misses out—otherwise, it defeats the purpose of the dinner. “We always make it a date where everybody can come,” says Winter. She’s in charge of coordinating the event every six months or so. “For our January dinners, by the first week in November, I’m reaching out to everybody, saying that we need to get a date on the calendar. With everyone’s schedules, it’s always pretty difficult—we have to start planning months ahead of time, because we want to make sure that everybody can make it.”
All of that planning is worth it—the dinner is always a night to remember. With minimal prep and cleanup for any single host, all of the participants can instead focus on the best part of their biannual get-togethers: enjoying great food with great company. Winter says that their beloved tradition provides the perfect opportunity to catch up and connect. “All of us are just so busy, and if we didn’t do this, we wouldn’t be able to sit down together and just spend quality time with one another,” she says. “Everybody always gets babysitters for their kids. We usually get dressed up and make it a big night, and it’s something that we look forward to for literally months, because we have to plan that far in advance.”
What about the food? Each host is free to make his or her own specialty. “I usually host the appetizers, because I love making appetizers, and I have a lot of good recipes to draw from,” Winter says. “I’m not much of a dessert person myself, so I leave the baking up to the people who know what they’re doing!”
No matter the course, the food is amazing. This group is full of foodies who are comfortable in the kitchen. Two years ago, Winter published her cookbook, Lake Minnetonka Eats, which is full of recipes and stories from some of the most popular restaurants in the lake area. Another example? Geyen’s husband, Nate, is the son of the owners of Al and Alma’s Supper Club, so he comes from a long line of talented cooks.
Having such special dinners has definitely made for great memories over the years. Winter says some of her most treasured times have been these shared meals with her friends, especially when they’ve added different elements like special themes. “One year, it was a week or two after Christmas, and we really went all out,” she remembers. “I suppose it was kind of a gluttonous occasion, if you will. It was all of the most elaborate-tasting food that we could have. We did a beef tenderloin with a Madeira wine sauce, and that was really, really good.”
Both Geyen and Winter say that their fondue-themed party several years ago still stands out as a particularly memorable event. Their most recent dinner was a Friendsgiving theme, in which each part of the meal put a spin on a classic Thanksgiving dish. “It’s an opportunity to try different variations on traditional Thanksgiving food,” Geyen says. “You can’t always mess with those recipes on Thanksgiving Day, so we thought this would be a fun way to do a little variety.”
Although the varied themes and menu items are certainly fun, participants say that the best part of their tradition is simply the chance to be with one another. “We started this when we were younger, so it was kind of an excuse to act grown up and get out the nice dishes and get a little dressed up,” Geyen says. “The thing I like best about it still is just that we get to see each other and have the chance to get the whole group together.”
If you’re looking for a fun way to get your own gang back together, consider planning a progressive dinner of your own. After all, as the old adage says, those who break bread together stay together.