Student dining is so unpredictable. Hall is reliably a cheap option, but the timing isn’t always convenient (why are you always shut when I’m at my hungriest?), and sometimes you just will not want whatever the option is (seriously, why is there only the veggie option left?). Dining out all the time is too expensive for your small student budget, even if it is always the most enticing option (save it for when nothing will assuage your cravings but that big, juicy Byron burger). Cooking may be limited – albeit never an impossibility if you can be creative enough with your resources – if you don’t have a kitchen, or time-consuming and not necessarily what you want to be doing when you’re starving and have an imminent essay deadline (carbs, please).
Now, dinner parties may sound like something totally at odds with student life. Perhaps it’s something you associate more with a smiling bunch of 30-somethings (at youngest), each guest bringing a bottle-of-something, sitting around a candlelit family dining table, tasting the distinguished host’s homemade bruschetta – they got the recipe from a darling restaurant in rural Tuscany. Your student kitchen, shared between far too many people, may not be, ostensibly, the most attractive location for a dinner party. But trust me, it’s not just possible, but it’s actually a really fun and delicious way to unwind with your friends. Depending on how you run it, it may even be less work and significantly less stressful than that time you decided to cook a Christmas dinner in 8th week Michaelmas.
Before even considering food, the drinks and decoration to create the right vibe is important. Décor can be super simple – buying a cheap and plain tablecloth, a small vase of flowers, and some candles (fake, of course, unless you live out – you don’t want to risk destroying your college). Voila – it already looks far more put together (just make sure you don’t destroy your, admittedly low effort, work by leaving out filthy, week-old plates). Drinks can be equally easy. It may be particularly nice to prepare an a drink first.
Aperitif is basically French for preing, right? This can be as simple as serving a shot of gin over ice, and mixing it with lemonade and a dash of flavoured syrup or cordial. If you have the options, serve them in pretty glasses, but realistically you’re probably just going to be using whatever is clean. Beyond this, get everyone to chip in to buy a few bottles of wine to go with your dinner. Feel free to pretend that you understand wine pairings, but obviously just go with the second cheapest bottle of wine you can find (obviously so much classier than getting the cheapest, I know you’ve done this too).
When it comes to the actual meal you have a few options, depending on how much you trust your friends’ cooking abilities. If you’re a control freak in the kitchen (definitely me), and your friends are the type who love food but also seem to eat a disproportionate amount of frozen food, then by all means go all out and make the meal yourself. Although, student budgets being what they are, you may want to have it such that everyone pitches in a bit of cash first and then you buy ingredients based on the budget. There are plenty of things you can make deliciously and cheaply – from a homemade bruschetta or soup starter, to a simple one-tray oven meal from the main, all the way to a dessert that is literally just crushed Maltesers with vanilla ice cream (Jamie Oliver recipe no less, and actually delicious).
Another option, if you have a group of friends happy to pitch in, is a potluck. Make a Facebook thread, and get everyone to add a dish they plan to bring along and have a little buffet – make sure that you have a good mix of sweet and savory options. This is a really easy way to try all your friends’ best dish, and fun way to get an indulgent and varied meal (you’re hardly about to prepare ten different meal constituents yourself are you?).
When you’re in the middle of a bitterly cold Hilary Term, spending some quality time with your friends, getting well-fed and well-boozed, whilst spending an evening forgetting about essay deadlines, may be just what you need.