Dinner with the in-laws can be a terrifying affair – especially when you’re hosting. Even when you’ve met them dozens of times before, you don’t want to put a foot wrong.

Tori Allen, director of Melbourne-based event management company Tori Allen Events, knows firsthand how important it is to get off to a good start. Seven years after she met her partner’s parents over dinner at Bistro Thierry, they are one big happy family.

We asked Allen for her tips on what to cook, what to drink and how to navigate the minefield that is hosting a dinner for your in-laws.

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First impressions are important

Never has a first impression counted more. A quick sweep and spray won’t do – embrace the excuse to clean your home properly. Pay special attention to the bathroom: clean everything and maybe light a scented candle or incense stick to mask any dodgy odours, present or yet to come. Open your bathroom cabinet and view its content through the eyes of a 55-year-old snoop. Hide anything you wouldn’t want them to see.

Prepare as much of the meal as you can in advance. It’s hard to be charming when you’re slaving over a hot stove and splattered with food. You’ll have a much better chance of making small talk when not worrying about the state of the kitchen.

The secret lies in creating an inviting atmosphere, says Allen. The right background music helps – if you don’t know what your in-laws like, go with something straddling the classic-cool divide (Talking Heads, Fleetwood Mac). Make sure the house is suitably warm or cool, depending on the season.

Allen says a little etiquette goes a long way, too. Set the table – properly (this may require a visit to YouTube).

Begin with a drink

Let’s face it: a drink can help iron out the wrinkles in an awkward social situation. “Always offer your guests a drink when they arrive,” says Allen. “Ensure they’re served some food first, and give them a tour of your home so they feel a part of your life.” Serve up a crisp, clean-drinking beer like Stella Artois and make sure there’s plenty of drinking water on the table.

Cook to varied tastes

Depending on how adventurous your in-laws are Allen says avoid anything too spicy. A “spice-o-meter” is personal, she says. “Especially the oldies. The last thing you want is your mother-in-law leaving with singed taste buds and sweat dripping down her face.”

Your best bet is a classic dish you’ve had success with before. “Trialling a recipe is a huge risk,” warns Allen. In an era of food intolerances and restrictive diets, it’s also wise to ask your in-laws if they have any dietary requirements. If there’s a better way to make a vegetarian guest spectacularly uncomfortable than serving them your best bloody steak, we haven’t heard it.

Allen says to kick off with something light like olives and warm bread. “None of this cheese board stuff,” says Allen. “That to them is a meal in itself.” Follow it with a roast, slow-cooked ragu or homemade pizzas.

Don’t skip the veggies – a side of steamed beans adds a welcome splash of green to the spread. (You’ll also score points with mum for looking after her darling’s well-being.)

Dessert is a must. “An apple crumble is always a crowd pleaser,” says Allen. Offer your guests tea or coffee after the meal – oldies love that.

Think about what you’re saying

Embarrassing anecdotes are off limits. If you find yourself launching into a story about someone’s misfortune or that hilarious time you set something on fire, pause and reset.

Work and holidays are both safe topics. Avoid politics and news of the day, at least until dessert is on the table and you’ve taken the pulse of the evening. Deflect any probing questions into unwelcome territory by returning fire – ask your in-laws how they first met, says Allen, or talk about their wonderful offspring now sitting here with you. “Parents love that,” says Allen.

Checklist to remember:

  • First impressions are important
  • Begin with a drink
  • Cook to varied tastes
  • Think about what you’re saying
  • Praise their parenting

    This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Stella Artois.