A few years ago, when I was frantically trying to put the finishing touches on dinner before my guests arrived, my friend (there to help, bless her brave heart), gave me some excellent advice. "The key to being a great host is acting — no, being — relaxed," she said. That made sense, but it's also easier said than done.
I love to entertain, but I also loathe it. Something always seems to go awry, from the nearest booze source closing unexpectedly early to a frozen pipe bursting right outside the house just as I was starting to roll pie dough. That happened last Thanksgiving morning. And no, I was not relaxed as I hoisted buckets of icy water over my head in my pajamas. Especially when the firemen showed up.
Last year's Christmas dinner was the worst ever. I offered to prepare an elaborate meal for 14 people — in my mom's kitchen. She doesn't cook much. I didn't have any of my usual tools and was so stressed and beat that I could barely eat when it was all finally on the table. My dad decided that we'd just order food from a caterer next time they hosted the holidays. I wholeheartedly agreed.
I haven't given up on entertaining, though. This year, my family is gathering for a post-Thanksgiving weekend in Seattle. Because I want to have fun — something I always miss out on while I'm trying to make everything perfect — I'm truly going to abide by my friend's advice this time.
Here's the strategy:
• Don't try to be Martha Stewart. That woman's got staff up the wazoo, so of course she can pull off an exquisite eight-course dinner for two dozen guests while simultaneously sewing a table runner from pilgrim-era quilt scraps. Or whatever. Anyway, if people only remember your fab handmade name cards, you didn't host a very exciting evening.
• Plan, plan, plan. Use checklists and other sensible things. If you are not terribly organized by nature, as I am not, this is the moment to step up. A couple of hours spent creating a thorough shopping list and a detailed schedule (for cooking, putting things out, etc.) is well worth it.
• Keep is simple. Parties are not the time to attempt fancy new recipes. The most popular hors d'oeuvre I ever served was a platter of Ikea meatballs, and I'm a pretty solid cook. If you're not an expert mixologist, don't offer to bartend, either. A good selection of beer and wine will please most guests.
• Enlist help. You don't have to do everything yourself. Repeat that whenever you feel guilty about asking for assistance, from a little sous chef action to valet parking grandma's car.
• Drink a glass of wine, stat.
• Shrug it off if you screw something up. Laugh. Just laugh. I nearly shed tears over a batch of overdone dinner rolls last year. Nobody remembers the dinner rolls. Crazy girl who needed a Xanax? Yup.
• Leave the dishes in the sink until later. Don't pass up the after-dinner conversation. Everyone's stuffed and possibly tipsy and definitely in good spirits because pie is on the way.
• Relax, relax, relax. Playing host should be a pleasure, not a punishment. The best thing you can do for your guests is enjoy yourself. If you're at ease, they will be too.
Do you have any tips for being a great host?