DINNER parties - the very words put the fear of God into most people. All that effort, all those people - having to make your house look nice, having to be on your very best behaviour (suppress all arguments with your husband).

And, worst of all, having to present numerous courses on time and in an edible state.

On such occasions, formality reigns. Or at least it did. But now - thanks to TV chefs - that is changing.

The laid-back 'get a big pan and chuck it all in' approach of celebrity cooks like young Naked Chef Jamie Oliver has turned the often tense social gathering into a relaxed affair in which the host simply throws the ingredients into a pan, douses them in sauce or oil, heats it up then heaps it into giant serving bowls.

Fine - if you can make it work. If you're one of those people who can open a cupboard, take out a tomato, a handful of pasta tubes, a sprig of parsley and half a lemon, stick it in a bowl and hey presto! there's a mouth-watering Italian-style meal worthy of the best Trattoria in Rome. But if you're not ...

We recently dined at my friend's home and watched aghast as her husband grabbed a few items from the vegetable rack, jostled them around in a pan, slapped in some sauce and - within ten minutes - served up a delicious concoction.

The following week we invited them back to our house and I pictured myself doing the same. I bought an entire market garden, plus the usual pasta, sauce, herbs and spices.

The night before I tried it out on my family. Aiming for the best possible results, I took an ultra-casual approach, snatching up ingredients at random while drinking a glass of wine, reading a newspaper and darning a hole in my daughter's socks.

Everything went in the pan and, for a couple of seconds it looked ... well ... the ingredients were identifiable at least. After that it was downhill all the way. It quickly turned into the sort of gunky congealed mass more suited to a trough than a trendy dinner plate from Habitat.

Despite the off-putting appearance, we did sit down to eat it. Chewing the cud is how my husband described it. All I can say is, thank heaven for garlic bread and red wine.

So, for our 'dinner party' it was back to the usual, the tried and tested - oven chips and pizza with ready-to-serve salad snacks.

This new caution-to-the-wind, no-need-for-instructions style of cooking may look a doddle, but if you're not inclined towards the culinary, it's not worth the 'minimum effort' you need to put in.

I can, however, cope with the new 'minimum fuss' style of dinner party eating. With our one table permanently piled high with objects ranging from a word-processor to a pair of children's shorts and our one piece of furniture that could pass for a dining chair, my home is perfectly suited to the growing trend of seating people on the floor, on stools, on beanbags and cushions.

The sloppy style of cooking has brought with it a great spin-off that every member of my family can manage effortlessly - the even sloppier practice of eating off our knees.