Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hospitality Tips for Those who are not "Natural Entertainers"

I absolutely love to have people over, and host get-togethers of all kinds! It could be a formal dinner party with the Royal Doulton china, the “real” silverware and the Waterford crystal goblets, or it could be a potluck with a long buffet line set up in my kitchen. I’ve also enjoyed hosting other types of get-togethers like card parties with lots of fattening snacks, Bunco parties for teens, burger cookouts, pizza making parties, cookie decorating parties for the children, pool parties galore this past summer, formal afternoon teas for the ladies, wine and cheese/appetizer parties, and dessert-tasting parties.
There are few weekends when I don’t have some kind of event planned at our house. (Actually, my husband and two teenage sons often have a hard time keeping track of what all is going on, but they know there’s always something fun planned at our house for the upcoming weekend.) The weekends give us something to look forward to!
I know our guests appreciate it too. After all, who doesn’t enjoy being invited over for a home-cooked dinner or a lively party?!! But being the one bestowing the hospitality—well, oftentimes that’s easier said than done. I know not everyone sees entertaining as a “fun thing.”
            Preparing a nice meal and getting your home “company ready” can take a lot of time—something that is a scarce commodity these days. Maybe you think your house is too small or not nice enough to have guests over. You may be looking at your household budget and thinking you barely can afford to feed your immediate family, little lone host a dinner party. Or it could just be that the thought a hosting a get-together in your home completely stresses you out. 
            In this blog, I plan on sharing lots of creative ideas for hospitality. These will be ideas for those who are “natural entertainers,” as well as for people who may not be quite so inclined. But I will always stress how doable it is with planning, organization and creativity. I’ll tell you about the parties I’m planning too, so hopefully my enthusiasm will spread.
            Before I get started with specific ideas for parties, I thought I would offer some general tips for those of you who are not natural entertainers. While it may not be something you do every weekend like me, hospitality is something that can be done at least occasionally, if you really want to. Consider the following:

* Take advantage of low-cost and time-saving entertaining options
Don’t let a tight household budget or a lack of time or culinary expertise deter you from having people over. To save on time and costs, consider hosting a potluck-style meal in your home. Have each of your guests bring either a main dish or a dessert and a beverage. You could plan a potluck around a theme, such as everyone brings an Italian or Mexican dish. Taco salad parties are also fun. Each of your guests could bring an ingredient, such as grated cheese, salsa or guacamole. Or, do a cookout where you supply the hamburgers and hot dogs, and you guests all bring side dishes (potato salads, fruit salads, chips and dip, coleslaw, potato salad, desserts, etc.). Assemble all the food and paper plates buffet style on your kitchen countertop, and let your guests sit where they like.
Convenience foods can also make entertaining easier. Pre-washed salad mixes, ready-to-grill marinated kabobs, ready-to-serve vegetable and dip trays, cooked rotisserie chickens, pasta salads from the deli, and brown ‘n serve dinner rolls are all great time savers. You could also pick up from freshly-baked rolls, pies or cakes from your local bakery. Your guests won’t mind that you didn’t do all the food preparation yourself. What matters most is that you make them feel welcome, not that you’ve invited them over for a gourmet dining experience.

* Become an advance planner
            While not all the get-togethers you host will be big, formal sit-down meals, probably some will. And those too are really quite doable—if you plan ahead. It helps to create a preparation schedule (for what you need to do and when) for the weeks and days before and the day of a big event. This helps you organize your time and cuts down on stress.
            A lot of tasks can be done in advance. Oftentimes I’ll make place cards and candle centerpieces, fold cloth napkins, polish silverware, etc., several weeks before a formal dinner. Many appetizers and entrees can be prepared ahead of time and frozen. For instance, you can make mini quiches, egg rolls, meatballs, spaghetti sauce, scones, cupcakes, muffins, etc., several weeks in advance of serving them. Just bake or cook them, freeze them, and then reheat them right before serving and they’ll taste like they’re freshly-made. You can also make up menu items like cheesecakes, pies, casseroles and pasta salads 2-3 days in advance and keep them in the refrigerator until serving. Do whatever food prep you can ahead of time, and save the last-minute cooking for the things that can only be done last minute.

* Develop reliable menus
            Much of the stress of entertaining is wondering if the food is going to turn out or go over well. Once you’ve discovered some entrées that are easy to prepare and your guests really like them, stick with them. Don’t think you have to find new recipes every time you have guests over. It’s okay to serve the same menus again and again (especially if you are having different groups of people over, or if many months have passed since you served a particular entrée to a certain guests). Your guests won’t mind repeat menus, especially if the food is tasty.

* Don’t try to do it all yourself.
            Make entertaining a family activity. Women will oftentimes try to handle all the entertaining details themselves, but they shouldn’t. Hospitality is something both women and men should be involved with.
I know husbands who host regular sushi parties and they know how to make some incredible dishes. Certainly there are a lot of men who masters at grilling too. This works great for the wives, who can get side dishes ready while their husbands prepare the main entrée. But even if your husband isn’t “in” to cooking, he can still be involved in other aspects of being a good host—planning guest lists, inviting people over, greeting guests when they arrive, serving beverages and appetizers to guests before the meal, etc.
You should also involve your children. Children as young as 5 or 6 can sweep floors, wash vegetables for a salad, make place cards, set the table, or do other tasks to get ready for company. Not only does this help you out, but you are teaching your kids that hospitality is a “normal” part of home life. The more they do it, the more hospitality becomes “second nature” to them. Many years ago I started asking my son, who is now 17, to help me get ready for our dinner parties. By now he’s done it so much, that he’s a really confident chef and host—to the point that he’s the one suggesting we invite people over after church.
            One other idea is to ask a friend or other couple to co-host a dinner with you. That way, you’re not the only one doing the cooking and some of your stress may dissipate. I have routinely hosted ladies’ teas with another friend; we share all the baking, preparation and cleanup duties—choosing one of our homes as the venue to host the party. We each invite half the guests—which serves as a way for me to get to know new people (and vice versa), because my co-host might invite people I don’t know well.

*Don’t obsess about your home or your cooking abilities 
            Obviously you should try to tidy up your home before company arrives, but don’t think it has to be “show home” condition before you have people over. If you do, you may never feel ready to have people over. Your guests won’t care if your furniture isn’t dusted, kids’ toys are scattered in the family room, or that you still haven’t gotten those spots off the carpet or painted the kitchen walls. Just try to get your home as neat and clean as time allows. If it’s far from perfect when guests arrive, don’t go on and on apologizing to your guests. If you do, you’ll only make them feel uncomfortable.
            If something you prepare flops—maybe the casserole didn't turn out like the recipe photo or the cheesecake you baked was a little undercooked in the center—realize it happens to the best cooks. Don’t let it dampen your good intentions. Remember, true hospitality isn’t about being a gourmet chef. What matters most is that you’re giving of yourself to others, showing a genuine interest in them, and making them feel special. That’s what hospitality is all about. We’ll get into some creative ideas for practicing this kind of entertaining in upcoming blogs. Talk to you soon!

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