I hosted a virtual dinner party while social distancing and found that the more over-the-top you make it, the more fun you’ll have

I hosted a virtual dinner party while quarantining and plan to do it again. Erin McDowell/Insider

When it comes to socialising during the coronavirus pandemic, options may seem limited.

I recently travelled from New York City to northeastern Connecticut to avoid the “hotspot,” which has become practically deserted due to the coronavirus. Since being home, it’s been hard to connect with friends who are now scattered across the country.

However, when I discovered that people nationwide were hosting virtual dinner parties using the video-conferencing platform Zoom, I knew I had to give it a try with my family and friends.

For the evening’s meal, I decided to cook one of my favourite Ina Garten recipes, a sausage and fennel pasta dish. Then, my guests and I sat down to eat, toasted, and shared what we had been up to since we all began social distancing.

Here’s what it was like to host a virtual dinner party, and why I’ll be doing it again and again.

The first step to hosting a virtual dinner party is choosing which video-conferencing platform you want to use and inviting your guests.

The Zoom meeting schedule tool.

A few days before the dinner party, I reached out to my guests – two families we tend to spend a lot of time with. I let them know that I was planning a virtual dinner party for that Saturday if they were free. The one good thing about quarantine is that, for once, people’s schedules are practically always open.

On Saturday morning, I set up the meeting. It was easy to sign up for Zoom through my Google email address and then schedule the meeting to start at 7 p.m. that night. I prefer Zoom for virtual meetings like this where everyone wants to participate since you can see everyone at once using Zoom’s “gallery view” feature.

Zoom then gave me the option to add the meeting to my Google Calendar. I added it and then invited my guests using the calendar. My guests then had access to the meeting link, meeting ID, and password.

I prepared the dinner table in advance of the party.

The set dinner table.

I set a place for four – my mother, my mum’s partner, my brother, and me.

Setting the table with some of our nicest plates and glasses made me feel like I was really getting ready for a dinner party.

The set dinner table.

You don’t have to necessarily use fine china for your own virtual dinner party, but making an effort to set – and sit at – the table makes a big difference in making the night feel special.

Since being home, I’ve become accustomed to grabbing a quick bite and sitting in front of the TV to eat. This was a really nice change that made the night feel like more of an event.

To really get into the spirit, we prepared a cheese board and cocktails to eat before getting started on dinner.

Our cheese board and cocktails.

A dinner party simply isn’t complete without some form of charcuterie, in my opinion. For our cheese selection, we went with truffle brie, a Danish blue cheese we’ve become obsessed with, and some fig rainforest crackers.

We also made cocktails using vodka, lime seltzer, and a splash of cranberry juice cocktail.

I also topped my cracker with some fig jam.

My finished cracker with blue cheese and fig jam.

Sitting down, eating cheese and crackers, listening to music, and sipping cocktails transported me to dinner parties and nights out before the coronavirus swept across the country. This was the first time in a while I felt truly relaxed.

I then got started on preparing dinner for the evening.

The ingredients for Ina Garten’s pasta with sausage and fennel.

The recipe my mother and I had decided on for the night’s menu was Ina Garten’s pasta with sausage and fennel.

The dish is comfort food to a T, which is exactly what we were craving.

The recipe calls for one large fennel bulb, white wine, heavy whipping cream, tomato paste, sweet Italian sausages, garlic, and yellow onion. Garten likes to use rigatoni, but we used casarecce.

I started by pouring about 3 tablespoons of olive oil into a large pan.

Pouring olive oil into the saucepan.

I heated the olive oil in the pan over medium heat, and then began adding the sausage.

I pulled the sausage out of its casing, adding small chunks of the meat to the pan using my fingers.

Sausage browning in the pan.

The sausage needs to be cooked for seven to eight minutes until it is nicely browned. If there were larger pieces, I broke them up using a wooden spoon.

I then chopped up the onion and fennel.

Chopping the white onion.

The recipe calls for 1 and a 1/2 cups of chopped yellow onion and 3 cups of chopped fennel, which comes out to around one whole bulb.

I then added my chopped onion and fennel to the sausage.

Adding the onion and fennel to the sausage.

I mixed the ingredients together using a wooden spoon, then added in the garlic, a few dashes of salt, and pepper.

I combined the ingredients together and let the mixture sautée on the stove.

Sausage, fennel, and onion.

As you can see, your sausage doesn’t have to be completely browned before you add in the other ingredients. This recipe is super easy and can be made in less than 30 minutes.

Next, I brought out my crushed red pepper flakes.

Crushed red pepper flakes.

I added about 1/2 a teaspoon, or three dashes, of red pepper flakes. If you want the sauce to be really spicy, you can add in a little more.

I then mixed that together to evenly distribute the red pepper flakes throughout and added in the garlic.

The mixture of sausage, fennel, onion, red pepper, and garlic.

The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of minced garlic. By this time, my sausage had completely browned.

The recipe calls for about a cup of dry white wine.

Adding in the white wine and garlic.

Any white wine will work for this. We used Yellow Tail’s Chardonnay.

I then added the tomato paste.

Adding in the tomato paste.

The recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. This is what gives the sauce a thicker, more dynamic texture and flavour.

Next, we added arguably my favourite ingredient — heavy cream.

Adding the heavy cream.

I personally go less off measurements and more off colour when it comes to heavy cream. Add enough so that your sauce becomes a beautiful light orangey-red colour, around a cup and a half.

Ina Garten’s recipe calls for part heavy cream, part half-and-half, but we only used heavy cream in ours. We also decided not to use fennel seeds.

While the pasta finished boiling, we logged onto our Zoom hangout.

The Zoom hangout.

Our guests had also taken the time to set their own tables and prepare their meals. Even though we didn’t start eating at the same exact time, coming together to enjoy our meal made it feel like we were greeting guests at a real-life dinner party.

We chatted with our guests while dinner finished cooking.

Logging onto the Zoom hangout.

We had decided that we would also change into nice clothes for the evening – I decided on a comfortable yet “dressy” dress, and my mum changed into a sequin blouse. It felt unbelievably good to get dressed up for the first time in what felt like years.

You can either all cook the same meal, or do your own thing.

Our finished dinner.

For this dinner party, we decided to cook different dishes. This made it even more fun and interesting because we got to share the recipes with each other and show everyone what we were eating.

However, cooking the same thing can be just as entertaining – especially if you attempt to out-do your friends with your cooking expertise.

As the dinner stretched on, we were surprised — and delighted — at how varied the conversation was.

My dinner and the Zoom hangout.

We had 11 dinner guests in total, split across three different family units. We invited my mum’s childhood friend, her husband, and their son, who is home from college. We were also joined by two other family friends, their daughter, who is a student at Columbia University in New York, and her friend from school who accompanied her home.

The conversation ranged from missing New York City, to how we were spending our days, to gardening plans, exercising, food, and funny stories we had heard on the news. We did talk briefly about the coronavirus, but it didn’t dominate the conversation.

There were a couple of times where people talked over each other, which can easily happen on video calls versus in-real-life interactions, but it didn’t pose a major issue. Since we were split up into groups of three and four, there were more IRL cues to guide who was speaking at a time.

Zoom also has a feature where the screen of the person who’s speaking will have a green-yellow border, which makes it easier to follow who’s talking. Asking specific people questions made it easier to guide the conversation, so everyone had a chance to talk.

It was refreshing to speak to people outside my immediate household and team at work.

The Zoom hangout.

Zoom usually only allows you 40 minutes of talk-time for free, and then the call will end. However, right at 7:40 p.m., the call said we had been given unlimited time as a “free gift,” perhaps since it was my first-ever call.

To celebrate, we toasted with our wine glasses, lifting them up to the camera to simulate a “cheers.” We also celebrated one of our family friend’s birthdays on the Zoom call and even sang him “Happy Birthday” in what I can assume was a very glitchy and out-of-sync rendition.

Nevertheless, it was an incredibly fun evening catching up with friends we haven’t seen since the lockdown began. The night stretched on for another half an hour, which ended up being the perfect time to chat, connect, and finish our meals.

Overall, this is something we’ll be doing a lot more of as the quarantine stretches on.

My mum, her partner, me, and the Zoom hangout.

After we logged off, we cleaned up and reflected on the evening. We had gotten the chance to eat delicious food and connect with some of our closest friends, but only had to clean up, cook for, and pay for the ingredients of four people!

I sent a quick thank-you text to all of our guests and said we would have to do it again sometime soon.

“It was so fun! With no worry of drinking and driving!” joked one guest.