I get it - hosting friends and family in your home can be stressful. Pouring drinks, cooking food, serving it, making sure everyone is having a great time - it can feel overwhelming. Whether it's a small, relaxed affair or something on a bigger scale it truly doesn't need to fill you with anxiety or worry or dread. I ran a catering business for years and there are many, many lessons and tips that I learned along the way that we can all apply to take the stress and drama out of entertaining at home. But before we get into the detail, let's start with a reminder; a reminder of the big picture. What is it that we are doing when we entertain at home?
Here's the way that I see it -
- you've chosen a bunch of people who you like (hopefully)
- you want to spend some time with them
- you are demonstrating how much they mean to you by inviting them into your home for food and drinks
- you want them to have a great time and you want to be able to enjoy each other's company
In the run up to Christmas this year, I was feeling stressed about getting everything ready and my young daughter (with wisdom beyond her years) reminded me that Christmas is 'supposed to be fun'. Those words have really stayed with me and I invite you to remind yourself when you are thinking about entertaining at home about what is truly important. It is absolutely 'supposed to be fun' AND you are not a professional chef (probably) AND this is not a performance. This is about sharing food and drinks and time and stories and laughter with your friends and family - nothing more, nothing less. Does that make it feel a bit lighter? I hope so.
This is about sharing food and drinks and time and stories and laughter with your friends and family - nothing more, nothing less.
So, now that we've covered the bigger picture of entertaining at home, let's start on the detail...
Planning and preparation
- Decide what to cook -
- Know your audience - choose dishes that they will enjoy.
- Cook something that you know well - it sounds obvious, but you'll be more relaxed with familiarity.
- Don't be scared of being predictable - there's nothing wrong with having a signature dish that you always bring out for these occasions. It creates a lovely anticipation ('Ooh, I hope she makes that gorgeous cheesecake...') and will hopefully make you feel like a bit of a kitchen legend.
- Do as much (or as little) as you are comfortable with - there is absolutely nothing wrong with serving a collection of dishes that you've bought from the supermarket, or serving a takeaway (my favourite ever experience as a guest was fish and chips from the chip shop served with Prosecco). And please, don't apologise for whatever you choose - own it, love it, enjoy it and everyone else will too.
- Decide how much to make -
- People always eat less than you think (except when it's a pavlova, piled high with whipped cream and summer fruits).
- People eat much more if they are sitting at a table.
- At all female gatherings (especially those where it's a help-yourself set up) guests eat a LOT less than you'd imagine.
- If you go too big, too early (or lay on an enormous array of tempting snacks and nibbles on arrival) your guests won't make it to dessert.
- 'Portioning' is a great way to be a bit scientific about quantity - so if, say, you are making chips, cut the potatoes, and divide them roughly into portions to work out if you've prepared enough.
- Individual portions are a great way of being sure that you have enough - I think it works especially well for desserts.
- Make a written plan or a list - so that you remember what you need to do on the day. Crossing things off the list will be highly satisfying too.
- Decide whether your guests will serve themselves - there are pros (much easier for you) and cons (less control for you, see point 5 below).
- Size does matter - if your guests are serving themselves they will take less if their plates are smaller and will serve larger portions if the serving spoons are bigger. You can use this to your advantage if, say, you have less of a particular dish and want to make it stretch further by serving it with a small spoon.
- Eating from a bowl is easier than a plate if you're standing up.
- Set the table early on in the day - if you decide that everyone will sit around the table, you will feel much more in control, once the table is set.
- Teamwork - you are not in this alone. Your guests want to be helpful and they will bring to the party (literally), a whole set of different and useful skills. Ask people for help and be clear what you want from them. Here are some ideas -
- someone to arrive early to calm your nerves and pour you a drink
- someone to serve drinks when your guests arrive and to make sure they know where the 'bar' is to help themselves afterwards
- someone to help clear away dishes
- someone to keep an eye on music
- someone to 'keep an eye on' on the guest who's a bit worse for wear
- Work out which dishes you will use beforehand - if you do a little walk through in your head of what you'll need, you are less likely to have to swap and change (which will involve annoying washing up) later on.
- Decide what you are going to wear - if it takes you a while to decide, make the decision beforehand and be sure that your clothes are ready to go. If you need to wash your hair and it takes ages to dry/style (raising my hand here), think about doing it earlier in the day or the day before. I speak from experience that running out of time and then having to scrape my hair into a grim ponytail is not good on any level.
- Make some space in the fridge and freezer - and here's some tips on how to make it easy. It is amazing how stressful it can be trying to balance dishes and rearrange the contents on the go.
- Be sure the bathroom is clean enough - and has plenty of toilet roll, soap and a hand towel.
- Vow NEVER to be that person - there will always be someone who arrives ABSOLUTELY on time (or even a bit early). Please, if you only take one thing away from reading this, vow NEVER to be that person. The only exception to this rule (and let's make no mistake, it IS a rule) is if you are there early to be a support team member (see point 8 above). Being 10 mins 'late' is much better for your host's stress levels.
Ambience for entertaining at home
- How you lay the table sets the mood - a jug filled with cutlery and a pile of napkins in the centre of the table says something very different to place settings and the correct positioning of knives and forks. Choose your setting to suit your mood.
- Lighting is everything - low lamps and candles create magic and atmosphere that is not achievable under the glare of an overhead light. It also takes the pressure off having a meticulously clean house.
- Give guests the chance to arrive and relax before serving food - feeling rushed is not a happy place.
- Music is an easy shortcut to creating a vibe - relaxed, mellow, melancholic, wild, nostalgic, fun, loud. You choose. Spotify playlists have made this so much more accessible, so use them as part of your toolkit.
- Creating a sense of abundance makes your gathering feel more generous and welcoming - piling a small table up with lots of food and drinks is much more effective than having a few things spread out over a big table. It's a visual trick but it works.
- Choosing great serving dishes goes a long way to create a mood - spaghetti bolognese piled high on a large, flat white platter and brought to the centre of the table; an elaborate glass cake stand stacked with cupcakes - both create drama and yet it's probably more about the dishes and the presentation than the food itself. And the dishes don't need to be fancy - think charity shops or supermarket own brands.
- Garnish is your secret weapon - a sprinkling of herbs, a drizzle of oil, a touch of grated cheese. This is a guaranteed way to lift the ordinary to the extraordinary.
- If there's a disaster, swear a bit and then laugh about it - things will go wrong; disasters will happen. You will overcook the pasta; you will drop the dessert, but having a meltdown makes it worse for everyone and instead try to be part of an evening that everyone remembers fondly for years to come as that time when you scraped banoffee pie off the kitchen floor and ate salt and vinegar crisps and a bag of mini Mars bars for dinner.
Practicalities of entertaining at home
- Make sure you will not run out of -
- toilet roll
- bin bags
- drinks (everyone remembers that gathering where the drinks ran out)
- If you don't have much fridge space - use a plastic box (or any large, sturdy container) filled with ice (and some cold water - this bit is important) to chill your drinks. Drinks take longer to chill than you'd imagine so start this earlier in the day. Sometimes the labels come off the bottles when they have been standing in water for a long time - I'm not sure that would ever be a disaster, but I thought I'd warn you anyway.
- Choose wine with a screw lid - rather than a cork. It's just easier and the world has moved on.
- Make a bar area - with plenty of glasses, bottle openers and all the drinks and be sure that all your guests know where it is. That way it takes the pressure off you and everyone can look after themselves and feel at home.
- Have a place for recyclables.
- Empty the bin and the dishwasher before people arrive - I like to have an empty sink and a clear kitchen too, but that's not for everyone.
- Have a plan for smokers - including ashtrays and clarity on where they can smoke.
- Do as much clearing up as suits you at the end of the night - I like to get it out of the way so that it isn't there for me in the morning but if that isn't your thing, try as a minimum to load the dishwasher and collect all the other things that will need washing into one part of the kitchen so that the morning task carries less overwhelm.
- Notice what worked - unless you plan for this to be your first and last adventure in entertaining at home, it really is useful to notice what worked and what was less successful. Looking at leftovers is a good place to start, both in terms of how much to cook and what was popular.
- Pat yourself (and your team members) on the back - and look forward to the next time that you'll be entertaining at home
- And now sit back and enjoy those leftovers ...
So there you have it, 32 ideas to make entertaining at home less stressful so that you can focus on sharing food and drinks and time and stories and laughter with your friends and family - nothing more, nothing less.