I love food. I love cooking. I love entertaining. Because I love these three things I have immersed myself in the world of cooking, eating, attending dinner parties and social gatherings where there is food as well as hosting others my entire adult life.
I am also a licensed clinical social worker. Why does this matter? Well, I have spent my countless cooking, eating and entertaining life with my ears and my eyes open, listening and watching as many people, myself included, make cooking mistakes, some disasters, as well as social faux pas as guests or hosts.
I’ve decided to put my years of experience to good use for the community and help others. Think of me as a younger, curly haired Dear Abby, a Suburban Jersey-ish Rachael Ray and a less-mustachioed and less judgmental Dr. Phil all rolled into one.
With a healthy combination of what I hope will be fun and educational, perhaps, dare I say, socially life-saving tips that will result in a minimum of mortifying social situations, I offer you my services.
Here’s my first column:
Do you have any tips for timing food and house preparation in anticipation of an event like a dinner party? I would love to be an effortless hostess, but I end up overplanning, stressing out, and STILL somehow scrambling to get things done, and not succeeding, by the time my guests arrive. They’re always kind, understanding people, but I’d love to be that kind of cool, relaxed hostess who has time to put on makeup and stuff before the guests arrive.
Hostess with the most stress
Dear Hostess with the most stress,
First off, thank you for your honesty. I commend you for continuing to make the effort to host guests even though it stresses you out. In my opinion there are few ways to show that you care about your friends and family more than preparing delicious food and an intimate evening with them in the comfort of your own home. Many stressed out folks would just throw their hands up and suggest meeting up at a restaurant.
That being said, dinner parties can also be a huge stressor if we don’t keep things simple and plan ahead. When I say plan ahead, I don’t mean the morning of. I mean days and preferably weeks ahead. Here are some quick strategies to get the ball rolling:
As for the table, try to always make it family style as opposed to formal which most people prefer anyway. Place your bowls or platters on which you will be serving on a table you have set the day before and put sticky notes in each, noting which foods will go in each. Just make sure to keep the kids away from the table. Bribe them if need be.
Create a VERY simple menu for the evening that you can make the day before. One example of the entree can be a marinated chicken dish like Chicken Marbella from the Silver Palate Cookbook that simply requires putting it in the oven before the guests show up. If you’re a novice chef, you never want to start a dish right before your guests come because you won’t be able to socialize if you are stressed about cooking it. You also may run the risk of having a glitch, like forgetting ingredients, and need to run to the store.
As for your side dish, try to make a room temperature item such as a rice or quinoa salad, peanut noodles or a lentil salad. There are great recipes out there that can be life savers if you pair them properly with your entree.
My new thing is NO appetizers or very few. I’m tired of everyone filling up on my spiced nuts or all my dips and then not eating the main dishes that I prepared so lovingly for them! I will say that if your dinner party is anything like my Thanksgiving where the turkey was delayed by two hours (don’t ask-it was obviously not my fault) it’s a good idea to have something, at least nuts or clementines, at the ready so your guests don’t need to sneak a trip to the corner store to buy some beef jerky before they pass out from hunger.
If you do want to have appetizers, it’s a good idea to simply get some prepared items that are delicious classics like hummus, cheese, crackers, olives and nuts. No need to go crazy and truthfully, no one really cares if you made it yourself or not.
As for the dessert, a few flourless chocolate cakes that can be made ahead of time, frozen or kept in the fridge for a day or two, can be an elegant and sumptuous after-dinner treat, topped with some good quality ice cream.
Lastly, depending on how long it takes you to get ready, take a calming shower before your guests come and have your partner, if you have one, entertain the guests with some wine or beer if your zen-inducing primping goes a bit longer than you expected.
Please remember that dinner parties are really about coming together to socialize and not only about the food you have prepared. A happy, engaging host or hostess who provides a warm and happy experience is what your guests will remember most, not that your hummus wasn’t made in your own food processor. Enjoy it!
Need advice? Send your questions, queries or rants to Dear Alma at [email protected]. Questions will be selected and answered in future posts.