Whether you're hosting a dinner party, having a family Thanksgiving dinner at your house, or just inviting some friends over for a quiet night, proper lighting is important. You don't just need enough light, but you also want to enhance the color of food, see its texture in detail, and be able to see everyone else at the table clearly. Setting the correct mood is also a consideration.
Highlight the Table
The thing you need to get right is having lights pointing down towards the table. Recessed directional lights like spots are great for this application. This will bring out the color of food and make the texture easily discernible. No one enjoys eating dull, drab, unidentifiable food in the dark.
Lights pointing straight down at a dinner table, however, can cause problems.
One problem is the casting of dark shadows on all of the people sitting around the table. For people sitting just barely in the light, noses and chins can easily cast dark shadows across the front of people's faces and necks. People outside of the light may be difficult to see at all.
Another problem is certain tables may reflect strong downlighting, causing distractions. One easy way to fix this is with a tablecloth, either white or colored.
To provide more balanced light around the dining area, place accent lights in the room. With lighter colored walls, you will not need as much extra lighting compared to darker walls.
Take a Cue from Pool Table Lighting
One helpful exercise is to think of a pool hall. There are usually pendant lights pointed down directly at the table, making it easy to see the color of the balls. This is good. Also, think of the green tablecloth, which makes it easy to see the contrast between the colors and stripes of the balls and the dark pockets without creating distracting reflections. This is also good, as a glass pool table would be much more difficult to play on.
But pool halls are usually dimly lit otherwise, so it is difficult to see who is just outside the range of the table, as they are hidden in shadow. While good for concentrating on your next shot, this would make for a poor dining experience.
Address the problem of people hidden in shadow due to strong down lighting with more general lighting throughout the room. Floor lamps around the walls or near objects to provide accent lighting will help you and your guests enjoy the meal and be able to see one another.
Set the Right Mood
Setting the right mood is another important consideration, and can easily be controlled with dimmers for the overhead lights and accent lights. For the festive holidays like children's birthdays or Fourth of July, keep the lights bright. For quiet dinners, Easter, or even Halloween, dim as appropriate.
If you are really interested in setting different moods with your lights, consider warm dimming LEDs, which reduce in color temperature as they are dimmed. This makes the light warmer, rather than just reducing the output of the light.