Entertaining Survival Guide

With the holiday season upon us, it’s important to think about your role as both host/hostess and as guest.  In my never-to-be-humble opinion, entertaining – whether at the holidays or any time of year – should be less about the person doing the entertaining and more about the people being entertained.  That is not to say that as the entertainer you shouldn’t enjoy the process – I wholeheartedly believe you should and I certainly do.  It is to say that you should put your guests’ needs and desires above your own.

The following are a few things to consider when entertaining:

  1. Do the best YOU can with what you have or can afford.
    When entertaining, you don’t have to spend a lot of money or make complicated, overly fancy or fussy recipes.  I believe you should do the BEST YOU CAN (don’t compare yourself with how other people entertain) with what you have, what you can afford, and what your skill level allows.   Maybe you don’t have the skills yet or can’t afford to prepare a five-course meal for 20; but that doesn’t mean you can’t entertain.  Consider an appetizers only or desserts only buffet.
  2. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to entertain beautifully.
    Make recipes that fit into your budget – for example, pasta is a relatively inexpensive way to feed a crowd and you can select a protein to add in a small amount to fit your budget – chicken, shrimp, beef, etc.   You also don’t have to spend a lot of money on table decorations.  If you don’t have enough of one kind of china for the number of people you’ve invited, mix and match in an artful way and your guests will think you planned it like that.  And if you have flowers or greens or herbs growing in your yard, you can have a fresh centerpiece without spending a lot of money.  Also, consider using food as centerpieces….if you are serving pasta, you can fan spaghetti in a low vase for a funky, low-cost table accent or you can put pretty bowls of citrus on the table for pops of color that can be eaten at a later date.
  3. Know your audience.
    Depending on the number of people you’ve invited it is nearly impossible to please everyone with every dish, but you should be mindful of food allergies and other dietary restrictions.  If you’re not sure whether guests have special dietary needs, ask them! Oh, and as a sub-tip, don’t be too sensitive if someone doesn’t eat something you make.  Not every recipe is for everybody!
  4. Keep centerpieces low.
    If you are having a sit down dinner, keep your centerpieces low enough that people can converse across the table.  Although tall centerpieces can make a striking statement, they can also hinder conversation – so I say use them on a buffet table, not on a dinner table!
  5. Pay attention to details.
    Put yourself in the guests’ shoes and ask if all your senses are being stimulated in a positive way.  What are they seeing – is your food visually appealing?  Is your table setting attractive?  Is there four inches of dust on the table?  Are the cloth napkins so wrinkled they look like you’ve stored them rolled up in a ball?  You don’t have to use cloth napkins, but if you do then make sure they look nice.What can your guests hear?  Play music appropriate to the occasion, but not too loudly.  If you’re putting finishing touches on things in the kitchen, don’t bang pots and pans.Use different textures when setting your table so that IF your guests were to reach out and touch things (which as good guests they probably shouldn’t) the experience would offer diversity of texture – some smooth, some soft, some rough – this also makes things more visually appealing as well.  Smell – perhaps the most important when entertaining with food.  Smell can create a feeling of hominess and is what will tempt people to try the food!  And of course, taste is important.  Plan a menu with diverse flavors, but flavors that complement one another well.  And please, please taste as you are cooking to ensure well-seasoned (not overly seasoned or bland) foods. As far as cleaning goes, I do not subscribe to the school of thought that your house has to be in pristine condition when you are entertaining; but spruce up the bathrooms, dust and vacuum, put away major messes and please don’t do what one host did at a Christmas party I attended several years ago – when looking over the foods on the buffet, I noticed a box of rat poison on the counter near the food.  I opted not to eat anything and to make an early exit!!!
  6. Set expectations with the invitation.
    Let people know what they can expect from the evening.  Is your event adults-only?  If so, say it on the invitation.  Are you serving a full meal or light refreshments or dessert only?  Make it clear on the invitation so people eat accordingly throughout the day.  When inviting people for an event, we typically remember to tell them what time to arrive, but if you have time constraints on the end of the event, be sure to include an end time on the invitation as well…..of course, keep in mind that you may have a few people who overstay their welcome so plan accordingly.
  7. Don’t entertain out of obligation.
    If you don’t enjoy entertaining in your home and are inviting people ONLY because they’ve invited you in the past – DON’T.  Find a different way to reciprocate – perhaps treating them to dinner out or buying them a small gift of thanks.  People can spot an insincere host a mile away! Also, please, please don’t tell people how hard it was to prepare to entertain them.  I cringe every time I’m invited to the home of a particular acquaintance because every time she entertains she complains to her guests that it took so much time and effort to entertain them – perhaps she does not mean to sound like she’s complaining, but it comes across that way and makes people uncomfortable.
  8. Allow time for mixing and mingling.
    Plan the evening/event so that people have time to socialize and stretch their legs.  Perhaps you can serve a light appetizer and cocktails in the living room prior to dinner or serve dessert in the den after dinner so that people aren’t stuck sitting at the table next to only one or two people!
  9. Include everyone in the conversation.
    As the host/hostess, it is your responsibility to make good introductions – offering people who have just met things they may have in common.  Also keep your ear to the ground when side conversations are going on – you may have to subtly steer people away from offending topics.
  10. Spend time with your guests.
    Select the menu so that you won’t spend all your time in the kitchen right before the meal and don’t worry too much about clean up while your guests are still there.  If you make sure you have an empty dishwasher when guests arrive, you can clear dishes right to the dishwasher, which keeps your countertops clean and clear but doesn’t tie you to the sink washing dishes while people are wondering where you are.  I hope you’ll invite people you want to spend time with and who want to spend time with you.  You can clean up after people leave!  Also, don’t take phone calls during your event.  If the phone rings, answer if you must; but get off the phone quickly unless it’s an emergency.
  11. Be gracious, warm and welcoming. 
    In order to be relaxed and not frazzled when your guests arrive, it is best to create a plan or schedule for preparation.  Do as much as you can in the days before the event – including selecting and ironing the clothes you will wear.  Also, take some time for yourself the day of the event – whether it’s a few minutes to primp and pamper, time with a favorite book or some favorite tunes, or time to get some exercise.  These things will refresh you and make you more welcoming.  Also, please don’t be too rigid with your rules – you may prefer that people take their shoes off in your home, but some people are uncomfortable in bare feet.  Be flexible!
  12. Tips for hosting overnight guests.
    Make them comfortable.  Have snacks and beverages – glasses and a pitcher of water or bottles of water – in the guest room.  Keep extra towels, toiletries, toilet paper, etc. in a place guests can easily access them and invite guests to feel free to do so.  Have a place for them to charge their electronics.  Know what their plans are and offer maps, directions, coupons, etc.  Spend time with your guests, but also offer them some down time and a little privacy.And last, but certainly not least….
  13. Say thank you!
    Let your guests know you sincerely appreciate the opportunity to spend time with them.  A written thank you is a terrific touch.  I know, social mores have become very relaxed; but a written thank you is always in good taste – especially if your guest has brought you a gift.  I’m sure I’ve missed this step with some guests; so let me offer a sincere apology for my oversight!!!

That brings us to being a good guest, which in my opinion is as important as being a good host/hostess.  Here are a few tips:

  1. Don’t arrive too early or late.
    I know some people think it’s better to be 30 minutes early than 5 minutes late, but be mindful of your host’s/hostess’s schedule when you plan your arrival.  He or she may be putting the finishing touches on things (including hair and makeup) so be gracious!
  2. Don’t complain about foods you don’t like.
    You certainly don’t have to eat everything that is served, but you also don’t have to tell everyone why.  Either refrain from taking something you don’t like or take only a little.  A good host/hostess will not ask you why you didn’t eat something!
  3. Don’t stand in front of the oven, refrigerator, etc.
    Your host/hostess is probably doing last-minute prep, so stay clear of the areas he or she is likely to need to access. Find a spot where you can converse, but not be in the way.  If the host/hostess invites you out of the kitchen, take the hint and mingle with other guests.
  4. Don’t monopolize the conversation.
    Keep in mind that everyone at a party should have a chance to interact.  Unless you’ve been invited to speak on a particular topic at an event, you should share “air time” with other guests.
  5. Don’t bring something you expect the hostess to serve if the hostess has already declined your offer.
    If you’ve offered to bring a dish and the host/hostess declines, don’t bring a dish that you expect him or her to serve – especially one that will require oven space that may not be available.  If you must bring food (which I doubt is the case), then bring something the host/hostess can enjoy later – perhaps some cookies, bread, or wine (if they drink alcohol).
  6. Don’t bring kids or other guests who have not been invited.
    If a host/hostess does not specifically invite someone, do not ask to bring additional people.  If you cannot attend because you’ll be with someone else, tell the host/hostess and give them the opportunity to invite your “add on” or not.
  7. Don’t create a scene if there is someone in attendance with whom you do not get along.
    Be gracious to everyone at the event.  If you absolutely cannot get along with another guest, either do your best to avoid them or take the host/hostess aside, explain your situation, and make an inconspicuous departure.
  8. Offer to help, but if help is refused be respectful.
    Sometimes a host/hostess has a system that works well for him/her or a kitchen that is too small for extra hands.  It’s always good manners to offer to help; but if the help is refused, sit back, relax and enjoy being pampered!
  9. Refrain from using your cell phone or electronic devices at the party (especially at the table) unless it is ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. 
    If your phone rings ask yourself if you really have to answer it.  If you do (perhaps you are a doctor on call), then apologize, excuse yourself, and be as brief as possible.
  10. Say thank you!
    Let your host/hostess know you sincerely appreciate the effort they expended to entertain you.  A written thank you is a terrific touch.  I know, social mores have become very relaxed; but a written thank you is always in good taste.  I’m sure I’ve missed this step with some hosts/hostesses; so let me offer a sincere apology for my oversight!!!

Holiday entertaining should not be drudgery.  It should be a happy occasion to connect with people in a meaningful way.  Whether you are the entertainer or the entertainee, if you put your best foot forward and are sincere in your interactions everyone will have an enjoyable time!

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