Entertaining company used to stress me out. I’d start that morning, cleaning surfaces and the toilet, and shuffling the clutter to a place where guests couldn’t see. I’d start the cooking mid-afternoon, trying some new-yet-impressive-sounding recipe, simultaneously messing up the kitchen and myself. At about an hour before company was due to arrive, I’d run through the shower, pick up any newly-made messes, set the table, throw out some CDs for background music, and yell at the kids and my husband along the way.
I wouldn’t say I have entertaining down to an art form yet, but I’ve since decided to take a few steps to make it WAY easier. Most of us have people over that are friends or family, with occasional work-related company. More than likely, these people are coming to enjoy food and fellowship — not to be impressed.
Here are my essentials to help me focus on the company, instead of on being impressive:
1. Accept my stage of life, and cook something easy. Maybe when I’m an empty nester I’ll serve up duck confit with broccoli rabe. But since I have small children, I make something tried-and-true, that I know my kids will eat, and that will most likely be enjoyed by our guests’ children. This doesn’t mean I have to serve chicken nuggets, but a simple roasted chicken, seasoned mixed veggies, rice, and brownies for dessert makes everyone much happier. And just cave in to the four-foot-and-under crowd, and bring out the ketchup.
2. Likewise, cook something you’ve already tried. I love experimenting with new recipes, but it’s better to test them on your own kids and husband, not someone else’s. Don’t stress yourself out with the unknown of your culinary results — go with a menu you’ve tried at least twice.
3. Go with a dessert you can make ahead of time. I love individual molten chocolate lava cakes as much as the next person, but it means hovering over the oven until they’re done, instead of spending time with your guests. Make a simple dessert you can bake the day before, and then you won’t even have to think about it that entire day. Chocolate is a no-fail ingredient that almost everyone loves. But don’t try to impress with a complicated torte smothered in chocolate ganache — who doesn’t love a killer chocolate chip cookie or brownie?
4. Provide water, a well-loved beverage like iced tea, and possibly an alcoholic beverage. Most people like iced tea, and you can spiff it up with strawberries or mint. But even if they don’t, chilled water is a no-brainer.
5. Set the table before you start cooking. Even if that means setting the table at 2 p.m., knowing that the table is set with silverware and dishes will mean one less thing you need to think about. Plus, there’s something psychologically motivating knowing the table already looks good. It gets me excited to visually see that company is coming.
6. Prepare yourself ahead of time. I’m a mom of littles, so believe me, I understand the lack of free time you may have throughout the day. But sneak in your shower during nap time, or if you have to wait, do it as soon as your husband returns from work. Freshen up with a little perfume, keep your makeup, hair, and jewelry simple, and wear a fallback outfit. There’s no need to get all gussied up to stay in your own home — depending on the season, I almost always go for a simple t-shirt and a-line skirt. I recommend doing a little more than throwing on your yoga pants and sprinkling baby powder in your hair — you’ll feel a lot better throughout the evening, and you’ll send a subtle message that these visiting friends are important to you.
7. When you clean your home, focus mostly on your eating area, the post-eating area, and the front entrance. Clear your dining room of clutter, and open the binds or curtains for natural light. Straighten up the living room, and make the sitting area inviting. If your company has babies or toddlers, provide a basket of age-appropriate toys nearby (if you have them). Make sure there’s a place to rest a coffee cup or dessert plate. And since the entry way is the first thing guests see, keep it neat and uncluttered. Make sure there’s a place for their belongings.
8. Candles create instant, inviting, cost-efficient ambience. Keep them out of reach of small children, and use only unscented unless they’re far from the food. A subtle scent could work well at the front entrance, or possibly in the living area if it’s not near the dining room, but don’t compete with the smell of your food. I love candles, and use them often — even when it’s just the four of us at the table. There’s something sweetly welcoming about well-placed candles, lit and flickering.
9. Pre-plan your background music. I love background music during a meal; we usually have it on for our nightly dinners. Keep it simple and tasteful, and have it ready to go in advance. I have a “Company’s Coming” playlist on my iPod, and I get that going pretty much anytime we have guests. It’s a mix of Tony Bennett, Jack Johnson, Miles Davis, Sarah Maclachlan, and a few movie scores like The Mission and When Harry Met Sally. In other words, it’s happy, easy-going music that almost anyone can tolerate.
10. Let the guests help. I’ve since learned that these friends of ours usually want to roll up their sleeves and play a small part in the evening. Let them cut the bread, or serve the coffee with dessert, or help clear the table. Don’t ask them to scrub the kitchen or anything, but giving them little tasks tells them they’re welcome in your home as a friend, and that you didn’t invite them over to be impressive.
Remember that entertaining is about people, not about things. Do what you can to focus on those filling the seats around your table, and break bread together with a goal of fellowship and rekindled friendship. You want your friends to drive home saying, “That was fun. I really like our friends’ company.”
What is your fall-back menu for company with kids?
What kind of background music do you enjoy?