I’m not going to claim that I am any good at entertaining, but we do a fair amount of it. Here are my tips on how we do it and mostly stay sane. Keep in mind that we both work full time, I write part time, we are not wealthy enough for paid kitchen help or caterers, and we have two dogs and two busy boys. So, in other words, no party we throw is going to end up in a magazine, except for maybe The American Journal of Psychiatry (fingers crossed!).
1. The music. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on a playlist, but if that’s your thing, go on with your bad self. (In fact, if that’s your thing, make some CDs for your friends as party favors!) We use pandora, and this time of year, the Sufjan Stevens Holiday channel is my jam. Sure, there are a few ads, but they fill in as awkward conversation kindling when things get quiet.
2. Setting the table. Give yourself a little grace here. We have beautiful dishes, but if we are expecting more than 8-10 guests, I get the “nice” disposable dishes and flatware from Costco. I still end up doing dishes for 24-36 hours after the party from drinkware, cookware, and serveware. If you’re feeling fancy, use cloth napkins, because what’s another load of laundry? Speaking of napkins, I like to leave dinner-size paper napkins in the bathroom for hand drying, because bathroom hand towels are gross. I get nice paper ones at TJ Maxx or Homegoods because I am super fancy.
3. The Help. If you have a partner/roommate/co-host, give him or her specific tasks. I do all of the grocery shopping, cooking, and arranging. Neil is in charge of the coffee percolator. I don’t know how it works, and I’m not about to figure it out and take that away from him. Along those lines, if you can afford help, delegate what you can. Cleaning and babysitting can be farmed out, or bartered with a friend.
4. Decorating. This is why holiday entertaining is fun, because the house is generally kind of gussied up already. Otherwise, our version of decorating consists of throwing all of the mail, loose school papers, dog leashes, and court summons into a laundry basket. Voila! House beautiful!
5. The Food. I think this is where a lot of people get tripped up, and I can understand why. Food is so personal, and there can be a lot of allergies and aversions to navigate. If at all possible, I like to ask guests if there’s anything they can’t eat. I sometimes share some of my own silly aversions, so they won’t feel badly about telling me theirs. Once I get that squared away, I can sometimes narrow down the menu based on what people like. If I am making something new, I try to have a backup plan in case it doesn’t work out, and I almost always have an old standby for at least one of the courses. There are times when I go all-out fancy, but I can tell you that nobody complains when I heat up a bunch of stuff from Costco, either. If I can’t pull it off without turning into Miss Hannigan from Annie, then it’s probably not worth it.
6. The guests. You should keep a mental tally of how each of your guests behave, to determine if they’ll be invited back. Conventional wisdom says that people shouldn’t overindulge on alcohol and talk about sensitive subjects at dinner parties, but I will take a loud lush over a boring wallflower any day. I’m kidding. I do like to let guests know the dress code, as it were (exceedingly casual, usually), and that we have dogs, in case the guests
don’t have a soul aren’t comfortable around dogs. I’m not usually organized enough for a parting gift, but I do like to give homemade dog biscuits to fellow dog-lovers (they can be made in advance and don’t need to be pretty!), and Ina’s spiced pecans in little jars would be fun, too. But honestly, people should just be glad you fed them. And if they aren’t, they can go fly a kite.