How often are your thoughts of "we should have them over for a meal" followed by an inward sigh at the effort this would involve? When we are busy or tired, the prospect of choosing a menu, shopping for ingredients, preparing the food, cleaning the house and looking after guests can seem daunting. It is all too easy for weeks or months to slip by without catching up with our favourite people. So here are a few ideas to make it seem more manageable:
Food and drinks
Be realistic with your menu
If you have loads of free time and enjoy nothing more than creating culinary masterpieces, then by all means bowl your guests over with the flashiest dishes you can conjure up. However, if you don't have the time, energy or inclination to spend hours slaving over intricate dishes, aim to keep it simple.
I am a loyal member of the 'life's too short to stuff a mushroom' club. I have absolutely no problem with short cuts, cheating or fudging, as long as the end result tastes delicious. The most obvious place to cheat is with nibbles and desserts. These days is it easy to find fabulous cheeses, dips and antipasto to serve when guests arrive, and you would be hard-pressed to beat some of the delicious desserts that are available. Even if you want to make your own, it is much quicker to whip up a couple of dips than to construct fiddly canapés. Serving ice cream or mini-pavlovas with choose-your-own-toppings is a simple but fun dessert option.
Cultivate menu plans
If you are putting the time into planning a meal, you may as well do it in a way that you can use it again in future. Over time, build up a collection of low effort/high impact menus that you can churn out quickly and easily. Aim for a variety of menus to suit your entertaining, eg. vegetarian, hot weather, prepare-ahead, and so on.
I use an old fashioned card system to collect my menu ideas: one card lists the menu (starters, mains and desserts), and on the back I record the guests I served it too (I don't want my friends thinking "Oh Lord, not this AGAIN!"). Paper-clipped to this is another card with the shopping list for the menu, and on still another card, I record the schedule for the preparation (eg. day before: marinate chicken, one hour before: chicken in oven, 15 minutes before: prepare salad). All this might seem pedantic, but the only difference is writing the information on cards instead of scraps of paper that are thrown out.
Don't experiment on your guests
Don't leave your guests starving while a dish takes much longer to cook than expected, or struggling to keep a straight face when it tastes revolting. Test-drive the recipes beforehand, or stick to your tried-and-true favourites.
Check dietary requirements
When inviting people for the first time, always ask 'are their any dietary issues I need to know about?' If you don't trust your memory, keep a list of your friends' dietary requirements for future reference.
When your guests arrive, wouldn't you rather be relaxing with a drink than racing around in a hot, flustered mess? Focus on dishes that lend themselves to pre-preparation, whether it is dishes served cold or at room temperature, or something that can happily simmer in a pot until it is required. (NB: this is particularly important if you entertain people who are habitually late. It is heart-breaking to watch your beautiful creations wilt/dry out/overcook while waiting for latecomers.)
My experience is that things always take longer than I expect, so I have learned the hard way that I'm much more relaxed if I have the house-tidying and table setting done well ahead of time. Don't forget to allow time to get yourself tidied up as well.
Say 'yes thanks!'
Unless I'm hosting a big family 'do', I won't generally ask guests to bring anything along. But if good friends offer to bring a dish, and I'm a bit pushed for time, I might say "yes thank you, that would be lovely!"
Serving food on large communal platters is much quicker than plating up individual meals, and adds a relaxed and convivial atmosphere to the proceedings. It also allows people to choose according to their tastes and appetite; this is particularly useful when entertaining large numbers and children.
Have a few 'safe fillers'
When hosting new guests or children, I always serve bread, rice, potatoes or pasta on the side, as well as a simple garden salad, so that they can fill up on these if the other dishes aren't to their tastes.
Have a range of drinks...but not too many
Ensure a few non-alcoholic beverages are available. One juice, one soft drink (lemon squash seems to have the widest appeal) and a non-sweet option (soda or mineral water with a slice of lemon or lime), plus cold water, should be ample.
It's hard to look relaxed and elegant while juggling a drink in one hand and a collapsing canapé in the other. And it is awkward trying to discreetly offload a chicken bone, toothpick, teensy bowl, etc. If you are going to serve finger food, make sure it is something that can be polished off in one bite and doesn't leave the guests with anything to hold on to .
Choose a simple meal option
The entertaining space
Don't panic about cleaning the house
I have a theory that cleaning your house before guests arrive is like telling a great big lie about how you live your life; like pretending you work in international espionage when you really work in a bank. By all means, clear some clutter, wipe down the bathroom sink and hide the washing piles in the bedroom. But don't knock yourself out trying to make the place spotless. True friends won't judge you for having dusty shelves.
Think about how you want people to mingle
If you want people to mix and mingle, spread the food and drinks around the room/rooms. Place chairs in small groups around the edges of the room, rather than around tables (at which people tend to 'settle in'). For a sit-down meal, think about whether you prefer one large table, or a number of smaller tables that allow more comfortable conversation.
Choose your table setting to suit the occasion
A small gathering may be the perfect chance to pull out your fancy tableware, but for larger gatherings or meals with children it makes sense to use the tablecloth most likely to camouflage spills and the dishes that can be thrown into the dishwasher.
Don't stress over decoration
You can have great fun selecting the right tableware and creating decorations to create a beautiful or themed table, if this is what you enjoy. But if you are low on energy, time or inspiration, simple white plates on a bright tablecloth can also look fabulous. Dimmer lighting, whether with lamps or candles, is another quick and easy way to create atmosphere (and hide the dust, etc).
Choose music wisely
Personally, I hate going to parties where the music is blaring, forcing shouted conversation. Unless you actually want people to be up and dancing, the music should be just loud enough to lend a bit of atmosphere and fill silences. I find that music with English lyrics always acts as distraction - our brains are intrinsically drawn to language and find it hard to tune out. Music without words (classical, jazz, ambient) or in a different language (like the fabulous Putamayo range) blend beautifully into the background. Consider compiling some playlists with different styles of music for different moods.
Always put your glasses away clean
I have separate glassware for guests, and always make sure it is sparkling clean before it is put away, to avoid those awkward "oh wait, I'll just get you one without smudges..." moments.
Make it easy for guests to help themselves to drinks by keeping them easily available in coolers or ice-filled buckets. Provide plenty of water and non-alcoholic drinks.
Looking after your guests
Introduce your guests
Introduce people with information to get the conversation started: "Sarah, this is Dan, he is a fabulous musician. Dan, Sarah just got back from a big camping trip..."
If you are hosting a party at which a lot of people will be strangers to each other, consider placing some conversation topics around the room: on cards near the food, on labels attached to glasses, on a whiteboard or chalkboard. Another option is to hand people a 'mission' as they arrive, eg. find someone who has travelled to Vietnam, find the music teacher, find the Ella Fitzgerald fan.
Activities for the socially awkward
If you know (or quickly discover) that you are hosting somebody shy, give them something to do. You might ask them to take photos, hand around canapés or top up drinks. They will probably leap at the chance to do something other than stand awkwardly in the corner.
You might also set up some activities that give people a chance to join in without the excruciating pressure to make conversation; for example, setting up a jigsaw on a central table (people can never resist having a go at these), or putting out games like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit. At our outdoor parties we always set up our croquet and bocce set, and channel our shyer guests into these games.
But the one most important thing is...