While I’m no professional, I’ve hosted crowds of all sizes for all sorts of events and in all sorts of settings – at my job, in my home, and at my kids’ schools. From a dozen to literally hundreds of guests, I’ve done it the right way… and the wrong way.
Here are the 5 Do’s and Don’ts to avoiding entertaining disasters:
DON’T: Fall into the “need to impress” trap.
Keep it simple… we all know this one, but do you do it? I host because I love to entertain, but let’s be honest, I also love the accolades. That need to impress can overwhelm your better senses, if you’re not on guard.
A dinner party or a large family movie night is not an opportunity to try out an untested, elaborate recipe or show a movie that has not been seen. This isn’t the time to go full MasterChef or cinemaphile.
I once held a dinner party for fourteen and, in my infinite wisdom, decided to make homemade ravioli for the main dish. I had never made ravioli in my life, but it looked like a snap to do. It was going to be a triumph of epic proportions. Friends would be discussing my fabulous ravioli for the rest of their lives.
The day of the event, my kitchen looked like a war zone. Flour was strewn from the ceiling to the floor. I was dropping F-bombs like it was D-Day. It was a down-to-the-minute affair, full of stress and sweat. I didn’t even have time to shower. My Triumph Pasta… was anything but triumphant. Thank goodness for copious amounts of wine. It was so bad, it was comical. My guests laughed with me, but I’m pretty sure they made a b-line to the In & Out on the way home that night. No one was impressed. And I gave up homemade pasta-making.
My family held a backyard movie night for all of our friends where we served up what we thought was a traditional John Wayne movie…The Cowboys… to kids. What a huge mistake. Our friends still joke about that one, but not for the right reasons.
DO: Go with what you know.
Do you make great salads your friends rave about? Serve one.
Have you made your family’s favorite chicken dish a billion times? Make this.
Still insist on something new? Do a trial run, for the love of all things holy.
I served a meal for 200 people on a small budget for my son’s eighth grade graduating class – a meal I had to transport to the school’s kitchen. I made marinated, grilled skinless chicken thighs, a wedge salad with homemade Ranch salad dressing, and rolls with butter. Dessert was an ice cream sundae. I’ve made these chicken thighs thousands of times. The salad dressing was made in bulk two days ahead. Wedges were washed and the ice cream was pre-scooped, staged in the school’s refrigerator/freezer a day ahead. Rolls were store bought. At the event, I had volunteers and an easy-to-follow prep line. It was a hit.
By going with what you know, you’ll eliminate the primary saboteurs of a wonderful event – bad timing and stress.
DON’T: Push your peeps.
If you’re hosting peeps who like hot dogs, don’t serve foie gras. It’s not your job to broaden their palate or their horizons. It’s your job to be a gracious host.
This goes especially for family events. Family politics, food, and places outside of comfort zones are notorious instigators for event-busting arguments. Don’t try to push a family member into going vegan or going to the rodeo. Be mindful of their preferences as much as you can… within reason. (Remember The Cowboys.)
DO: Know your audience and your setting.
You set the scene. Serve those dogs to your tailgating crowd. Serve that vegan plate to your hipsters. Hold that event in a place and in a way that will make your guests feel comfortable and welcome. Have some dishes each can partake in and on neutral ground. Have some background music. No one will like it all. And that’s okay.
DON’T: Overdo it.
Not everything should be handcrafted or homemade. Overdoing it is a waste of effort and adds an air of pressure to your event. A stressed host is not an inviting one. You have a life.
DO: Economize where you can.
Ask for help. Let others bring a cocktail or a dish to round out the meal. Remember, they want to impress, too!
And please, buy items that you can. Entertaining Goddess, Ina Garten says, “I usually say make two or three and buy the rest — or assemble the rest.”
It’s easy to be obsessive about hosting and planning. Keep it fun. When your planning begins to weigh you down, take a breath. Ask yourself: where can I cut back?
Identify one part of the party on which to focus. The main dish. The desert. The decor. The entertainment. There are no wrong answers. Make sure you make one element your top priority. That will help you make it memorable.
DON’T: Forget yourself.
If you’re in the kitchen during the whole event, you’re not a host, you’re a servant. No one should do this. Your guests want to spend time with you, too.
DO: Have fun.
That’s the goal. It’s not about the food or the decor or even the celebration or the person being celebrated. Entertaining is about togetherness. It’s for sharing and good will.
And if, despite your best efforts, you manifest a disaster, forgive yourself. Your guests will remember how you made them feel. Laugh and move on.