I grew up in a home with an open door policy. Friends dropped by for lunch last minute and we were grand central for large dinner parties. The fridge was flung open for casual meals with guests and it was a “help yourself to leftovers + salad + good toasted bread” situation. But for suppers (or large lunches) my mom and I carefully plan the menu and cooked elaborate feasts. The table was always full from the multitude of dishes we prepared. If my mom knew that you loved blueberry pie or hated cinnamon, she wrote it down in her entertaining book and it would appear/disappear from the meal. My grandfather’s moto “if you go home hungry it’s your own damn fault” rang true. Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up between being my mom’s assistant, and hosting my own plethora of dinners and dinner parties.
1. Entertaining can be as simple or as complicated as you’d like it to be.
To quote Ina Garten (I love youuuu), store bought is fine. If it will make your life easier to buy a component of your meal, then do it. You can buy a quiche or soup or make a quick lunch of store-bought hummus, baba ganoush, dolmadakias, and simply make a salad and toast some thick pita. But there are so many inexpensive store bought cheats that will make dinner a few steps easier too. A jar of tomato sauce means that ratatouille (with couscous or spicy garlicky noodles) is 20 minutes away. I love buying frozen dumplings, steamed and then crisped up, and serving them with broccoli and pan fried tofu. A can of refried beans (they’re genuinely delicious when heated) makes build-your-own-burrito/taco night a snap. Sauté peppers, onions, and corn (frozen or from a can), mash an avocado or two with cilantro, lime, and scallions, and open up a jar of salsa or make some pico de gallo. Roast some sweet potatoes if you have time.
2. Don’t overfeed your guests.
Yes, it’s lovely to make a huge feast, but it’s just as special an event if your guests don’t have to roll themselves out the door. Make food that’s satisfying, delicious, and easy. For big crowds rely on big dishes. Chili with corn bread and guacamole with a salad as a starter, (vegan) spanakopita with Greek salad and Greek lentil soup as a appetizer, miso bouillon followed by sweet and sour tofu with coconut ginger rice, squash soup and veggie sheperd’s pie, parsley garlic bread and lasagna…
3. Family style is the best.
Everyone eats a different amount and has different food preferences. My mom wants a small amount of carbs and a large amount of veggies. I am the opposite. When you have the dish on the table, you can either serve your guests the amount they want, or pass the plates around and let people take what feels right. It also looks generous and celebratory and allows you to slow down the pace of the meal.
3. Keep dessert simple.
People are genuinely happy to eat fruit to end a meal; baked apples, clementines or chopped up oranges (sprinkled with cinnamon sugar), sliced pineapple or melon, grapes and strawberries, etc. Ice cream/sorbet with cookies is also great, and most cookies can be made ages ahead of time and kept frozen in logs (homemade slice and bake). If you want to make a cake, that’s glorious! My mom can almost always find a reason to stick birthday candles in a dessert… if someone at the table celebrated/is celebrating their birthday within the month, the cake goes in front of them. I used to cringe (sorry mom I love youuuuu) at this but people light up. It’s a beautiful gesture, and you’ve already made the cake. They don’t have it know it wasn’t for them specifically.
4. Entertaining books are useful.
Document people’s likes/dislikes/allergies, etc. It sounds old-fashioned, but when someone comes over and you remembered that carrot cake is their favorite and you made it for them, they will be very pleased. If you have a guest who hates cilantro, maybe it’s not burrito night. This will help you ensure that you have balanced meal, and allows you to make a pre-party cooking plan. Write down who’s bringing what, when the drinks need to go into the fridge to chill, and when you need to start cooking each dish. Having your old dinner party menus can also provide inspiration or remind you which meals were easier to make or were better received than others.
5. Cook what you want to eat.
As nice as it is to make your guests favorite foods, it is your house, you’re doing the work, and the leftovers are yours. So you should make what you’re in the mood to eat. Obviously, don’t make spicy food for someone who can’t take the heat, but most people aren’t so picky and they’re just happy to be invited over. Make a new recipe that you’ve been dying to try, or a big pot of pasta if you need some comfort. Your guests are probably more easy going than you give them credit for.
6. Do it Ahead.
Make dishes ahead of time, or get prep out of the way – chop your onions, make and freeze cookie dough, peel your pumpkin, etc. Write out your plan of action and stick to it. When are you getting groceries? Do you like to clean your house before you have people over? Do you need to bring chairs up from downstairs? Don’t leave the little things to the last minute. An hour or two before people come over, aim to have 85% of the cooking done so that you can clean the kitchen, go and get changed, and then come back all gussied up to do the final touches (with an apron on) as your guests arrive.
Get someone to buy the drinks/ice/dessert/appetizers. If you have a friend who likes settling the table, let them do it. Some people love cooking and are more than happy to share the load with you. Tell them what you have planned as a main course and ask for an appetizer, side dish, or dessert that they think would complement it. Or ask them if you can send them a recipe to make to help you out.
9. Good friends do the dishes.
After appetizers and dinner and lingering at the table for a while, move the party to the kitchen and clean up. This is especially perfect if you have a gathering of 8+ people since the conversation will have naturally broken the party up into grouplets. Ask the people who you’re talking to to follow you into the kitchen. Usually a friend offers to do the dishes. Let them. Get someone else to dry and have them either stack the dishes somewhere or show them where they get put away, which will make them feel at home in your kitchen. You can put leftovers into containers, wipe the counters, and sweep the floor. This is always a convivial half an hour, with lots of chatting and laughing so don’t feel badly if you need to initially nudge people into helping you out.
10. Have fun
This is supposed to be fun, so cook something that’s in your skill set and enjoy. If that means ordering pizza, that’s okay. You can cut up veggies and buy a dip for an appetizer, and served melted chocolate with chopped up bananas and strawberries for dessert. And, if you mess up, it doesn’t matter. It’s only food. The meal is meant to complement the company, not the contrary. Entertaining at home means that your quality time doesn’t expire when someone else needs your table, and it provides a cozy intimate setting.
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If you have any further tips or tricks that have helped you with entertaining, leave them in the comments below!