So far in this blog, I’ve shared a lot of favorite family recipes. But truth be told, there’s a lot more to hospitality than just being a good cook. Truthfully, you could be a skilled chef and still not be hospitable in the truest sense of the word. And the opposite is also true—you could only be a so-so cook and still be an outstanding host.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what are the essential aspects of being a good host. I’ve come up with 20 points, which I’ve listed below. Please let me know what you think. Do any of you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this topic? If so, please post your comments. I’d love to hear from you!
1. When coming up with your guest list, keep personalities and interests of your potential guests in mind. Invite people who will mix well, but don’t clash. Don’t invite all extroverts or all introverts. Try to come up with a nice mix of both. And remember: just because someone talks a lot doesn’t mean he/she is an extrovert. Someone could be totally absorbed in himself—name-dropping, boasting about his accomplishments, focused on his own conversation topics, talking only about what he wants to talk about—and not be outgoing. A true extrovert is someone who tries to engage others in conversation and draw them out—without being pushy or too forward. If you’ve got a lot of shy or quiet people on your guest list, try to invite some truly outgoing people as well.
2. Don’t invite more guests than you can comfortably accommodate. If you live in a 1,500 square foot home, a 50-person guest list is probably pushing it.
3. When you invite people over, ask them if they have any good allergies, dietary restrictions (lactose intolerant, diabetic, gluten-free, etc.) or strong preferences (no garlic, doesn’t like salmon, prefers foods that are not heavily processed, etc.), so that you can design a menu for the evening with them in mind. Now, if you’re having a large group, it may be unrealistic to make every food item on the menu in-line with everyone’s dietary wishes. However, you should try to make sure there are a least some entrees and side dishes everyone will be able to eat.
4. Be as specific as possible when telling guests how to dress (formal, informal, etc.). Don’t assume your guests know what “dressy casual” means; that may mean something totally different to your guests than it does to you.
5. Plan ahead, and have a “to list” for what needs to be done and when during the days and weeks before your event. Do as much work as you can ahead of time, so that you don’t have to be rushing around the kitchen when company arrives. You want to be able to enjoy your company and relax during your party. If you’re relaxed and happy, your guests will pick up on that and will be much more likely to have a good time themselves. Remember, your goal is to extend hospitality and friendship to your guests—not to impress them with your superior culinary skills.
6. Make sure your guests have the correct date and time. Usually I’ll send out email reminders to everyone on my guest list, 5 to 7 days before an event.
7. Figure out where your guests should sit at the dinner table, before they arrive. (The only exception would be a totally casual cookout or buffet where there are more than enough seating options.) Place card holders are ideal for formal or even large informal dinners.
8. Introduce your guests to each other as they arrive. When you do, tell them a little something about each other as an introduction. As the host, you are the central person all people know. It’s up to you to help your guests meet someone interesting and get a conversation started.
9. Don’t serve more than one entrée or side dish that requires split-second or last-minute timing. Use crock pots and chafing dishes to keep entrees warm while you are trying to get the rest of the meal ready.
10. Turn off the television when guests arrive (unless, of course, they’re coming over to watch a movie or sporting event).
11. Check the bathroom and make sure there is enough toilet paper and hand soap for your guests.
12. Have plenty of ice on hand; most gatherings generally go through a lot of it—especially during the summer months. Either make up some extra ice cubes ahead of time, or buy a bag of crushed ice to stick in your freezer.
13. If you don’t know how much food to make for your party, lean on the “more than enough” side rather than “not quite enough.” If you have leftovers, you can always eat them later or freeze what didn’t get eaten. On the other hand, if you didn’t prepare enough food, that can be an awkward situation for you and your guests.
14. Regulate the room temperature to a comfortable level. If you’ve got a large crowd coming over, you may want to turn the thermostat down a few degrees less than normal.
15. Monitor the lighting; all your lights on kills the ambiance, but you don’t want it so dim that guests can’t see either.
16. If you have background music playing, don’t make it so loud that people can’t hear each other talk. Select music that most everyone will like, and fits in with your theme for the evening, if you have one (e.g., Greek music for a Mediterranean feast).
17. As the host, try to chat with each individual guest at your party for at least a few minutes. Don’t only let a few people dominate your attention the whole night.
18. If families with young children are coming over, have some toys available to keep the kids occupied, so their parents can enjoy the adult company. I have a closet-full of children’s puzzles/games/Legos/stuffed animals that our young guests are always welcome to play with. These are toys that used to belong to my sons (who are now teenagers). If you don’t have any hand-me-down toys, you might invest in a few sturdy children’s games—just to have on hand.
19. Closely monitor your event as the evening progresses. Refresh appetizer trays, refill empty bowls of snacks, clear away empty plates and glasses, etc.
20. Finally….as the host it’s important that you keep the conversation among guests going in a positive direction. If you notice someone’s “hot buttons” being pushed, steer the conversation topic onto something more innocuous. If one of your guests is dominating the conversation, do your best to intervene and try to others talking. If any of your guests seem left-out or ignored, try to engage that person in conversation. Better yet, introduce that person to another guest--someone who’s really friendly. I have been at small dinner parties where the majority of guests worked in a particular field and “talked shop” the whole time, leaving the one or two other guests out of the conversation the whole evening. I have also sat at tables where two guests talked back and forth the entire dinner, each trying to smooze and impress the other, while ignoring the person at the table sitting between or adjacent to them. As the host, it’s your job to always be scanning your guests, looking for anyone who might be stuck in a difficult conversation and doing whatever you can to make sure it is a positive time for everyone present.