Guidelines For Easy Entertaining
1) When planning your menu, try to find at least three sides dishes to go with your main course. You'd be amazed how nice it is to have a variety of dishes on the table. It makes the meal more special than the average one meat (or main), one vegetable, one starch format. A menu I chose recently was a maple grilled salmon, bright arugula salad with fruit and nuts, marinated and grilled asparagus and roasted lemon fingerling potatoes. Whatever your menu is, something extra like homemade rolls or a spinach gratin takes it to another level which is nice. Keep in mind that it doesn't have to be fancy. Even a big pot of chili can be served with an array of toppings (cheese, sour cream, cilantro, jalapenos, corn chips) with homemade corn bread and a salad.
2) Think like a caterer when choosing a menu. You don't want to be slaving away in the kitchen stirring sauce until it thickens while your friends are mingling and enjoying themselves. Choose low maintenance food. Things that bake itself, or sides that can be cold or room temperature and made ahead of time. Dishes that can be kept warm without turning tough, etc. The last thing you want to be doing is frying batch after batch of chicken for a crowd since a dish like this is best served hot and crispy and can't stand out for too long without losing its appeal. A big lasagna which serves a lot of people without any last minute work would be a much better option.
Then, take it a step further and figure out which kitchen appliances you will have to be using. Don't plan on roasting potatoes if you have to roast a chicken at the same time and you only have one oven. I try and spread out the method in which my foods are cooked or prepared. A cold salad can be prepped way ahead of time and left to sit in the fridge. I bake something in the oven and saute something else on the stove top, then maybe utilize my grill for something else as well!
3) Always serve dessert. Usually I make mine from scratch but If you have a good bakery near you, by all means use it; especially if dinner is going to take up a lot of your time that day. I do not have a great bakery so if I am planning a labor intensive meal, I will usually pick a dessert that can be made a day ahead, like creme brulee, or a frosted cake that can be made in advance and waiting for me whenever I am ready.
4) Try to always have an appetizer out (even if it's just something to snack on like good olives and spiced mixed nuts) and drinks ready to be passed around the second your guests come through the door. Nothing says, welcome, come in and relax, let me take care of you like a smile and a cocktail ready and handy (or even fresh squeezed lemonade or sun tea for that matter).
5) Ambiance. Do not underestimate this because it's often the most critical item when entertaining. When I have people over I really like them to feel that I was ready for them. Nothing is worse than showing up to someones house at the appointed time just to walk in to a stark quiet room, and the host is still running around trying to catch up and put appetizers out. Nothing is wrong with that, especially if you are close friends, but it doesn't immediately put the guest at ease. I put appetizers and drinks out, light candles, set out flower arrangements, turn on my entry lights and lamps in the living room, open the front door (if it's nice out), light a candle in my bathroom, and play music about 30 minutes before anyone is set to arrive. Guests will walk up to a well lit house, and will hear music upon stepping out of their car. Everyone is ready for a good time.
6) You. I make sure that I am dressed and ready when my guests arrive. I will usually go upstairs about an hour before anyone is expected and get myself put together. It takes all of 5-10 minutes and then you can relax. I think a lot of people are so busy cooking that they forget to go and get ready themselves. Then you are stuck in your workout gear while your friends show up in dresses and shiny earrings. Fail!
7) Have a plan. Once I have my menu in order I create a timeline of the day. I will write down what time I have to put, say, the lasagna in the oven to have it out on time for dinner, with cooling time factored in. Then that tells me when I need to have the lasagna made and ready to be put in the oven, which means I need to be assembling it before that, and so I figure out how long everything is going to take so I can organize my day without rushing anything. If dessert is something I want to bake and serve hot, like an apple crisp, I will have it all prepped and ready for the oven so all I have to do is pop it in there as we sit for dinner. By the time it comes out it's dessert time. Whatever your situation, whatever the event or menu, having a plan and timeline for the day is key for less stress.
8) When cooking for company, only make what you have made before and what you know works. Now is not the time to try out that new method of braising you have never given a go.
9) In general, choose casual food. I know, I know, sometimes it's fun to get elaborate, and sometimes it's appropriate. On a regular basis though, if you are just having some friends over or the boss is coming to dinner, I find that familiar and casual food sets the best mood. A great recipe for a big plate of family style spaghetti and meatballs or an indoor clambake is a lot less pretentious and a lot more fun than duck confeit. It puts everyone at ease and says were having a good time. It's not a lot of fun to wonder which fork to use in a more formal setting while nibbling on something en croute. There is a time. There is a place. Just have intention and plan around your guests and what type of feel you want to set.
These are just guidelines I tend to use over and over throughout my years of entertaining. Listen, I don't abide by these religiously but they are things I keep I mind. You have to practice to make perfect and learn from your mistakes. Sometimes things happen that you have no control of. I once had a huge prime rib dinner for my sons 1st birthday and baby dedication. We invited something like 20 people to the party. I had poured over my day and tried my best to implement a good plan. The problem came when people started showing up and I clearly was not ready. I had put 5:30pm on their invitations and was thinking it started at 6:15pm. Oops. Luckily, everyone was family and close friends and we had fun and a few laughs setting the tables up together.
I don't view entertaining the same as everyone. I put a lot of emphasis on my guests having a relaxed and good time. When I invite someone over I want to take care of them, spend time with them, love on them by making them a meal. If someone offers to bring something, I most always decline. I am not saying it's wrong. I just like for people not to have to worry about bringing or preparing anything, because after all, isn't that the point of having someone over to your house for dinner?
The intention for having someone over for dinner makes the most sense to me when I am making all of the food. However, I know it doesn't always fit that box. Sometimes I'll be on the phone with a friend and we will decide to get together at either one of our houses that night. Usually one of us will say "I have salad stuff" and the other will say "I have dough for pizza" and a fun night will develop out of that. That's not what I am talking about here. I am talking about when I purposely call someone up and invite them to my house on a Friday night.
The people closest to me know I operate this way and sometimes it's cause for them to pause and consider weather or not they really want to have me over to dinner at their house since they do not go about things or view entertaining the same as I do. Honestly, it makes no difference to me. I am not watching and judging people on their entertaining skills when I am at their houses, despite what they think. Everyone has a different style. And you know what? I sometimes actually love to go into your kitchens, silently take over, and stir the pot while you chop the vegetables. I like to help put pizza toppings on and watch the crust to make sure it's not burning while you tend to other things. I'll even go and turn your music on myself if it's not already playing, without asking, cause I am a snot like that. It's no big deal to me. I just don't want you doing that at my house. Got it?
Um, you might have to set my table for me though, because that's one area where I totally drop the ball. Like, every time. It's like I have this mental block that allows me to forget right up until I yell "dinner" and we go to sit at the empty table. Making a mental note now...
And as always, everything I have learned, came in large part from Ina Garten.
*All photos courtesy of Southern Living