(Somehow Traci knew I'd use this goofy photo someday.)
I recently hosted a small party at my home, and I was thrilled that so many expressed gratitude for a wonderfully fun and delicious evening. Unfortunately, I didn't take one photo because I was too busy drinking, talking, and laughing, as a host should. One of my dear friends, whose opinion I value tremendously, gave me the greatest compliment when she said, “Barefoot Contessa doesn’t have anything on you.” I also found that amusing because Ina is my idol, and I have taken so many pointers from her over the years. But I’ve also taken tips from my mom, stepmother, sister, and grandmothers. And they all have a few things in common. They make you feel welcome in their home, they make you glad you came, and they make you want to return again and again. When all is said and done, that’s the key to being a great host, no matter how you choose to do it.
I ran into my friend this morning after school dropoff, and I spoke to her again on the phone this evening. She was kind enough to articulate a few of the reasons she loves coming to our home. With that, I thought I’d put together a post on how to be the hostess with the mostest. Whether it’s an intimate dinner with a few friends, a party, or hosting people overnight, there are a few things that will ensure your guests enjoy themselves, leave with a smile, and want to return.
1. Begin with the mindset of what I said earlier—you want to make them feel welcome and ensure they have a pleasant visit. To accomplish this, you need to have fun because as a host, you will set the mood. So that means…
2. Do as much as you can before your guests arrive. Remember that your guests came to see you. As much as they might like your cooking, drinks, and the entertaining and wonderful things in your home, they want to spend time with you. And as a host, it’s no fun at all to hear about the wonderful time they had with your spouse and kids after the fact.
3. Have a clean and tidy home. At least the parts that they see.
4. If they are dinner or party guests, think about the presentation, but keep it simple.
· Display fresh flowers but not any that are too fragrant. You don’t want to trigger any allergies or offend or overwhelm your guests (fragrance is very personal).
· For serving dishes, white is always right because it allows the food to be the star of the show. But feel free to mix in other serveware that complements the white and/or goes with the tone or theme of the party. Home Goods is a terrific place for beautiful and inexpensive serving dishes (and many other things!)
Photo via Ina Garten Instagram
· If you can, use real dinnerware, flatware, and glasses, i.e., avoid using paper and plastic. If you have a larger party, I think paper napkins are fine…but use pretty ones. For a small dinner party, cloth napkins are always a nice touch. You want them to enjoy dining at your place as much as they enjoy all of the elements of a nice restaurant.
5. Food. There is a rule (I can’t remember who I heard it from first) that you should never make something for the first time when you are having guests. I have a slightly different version: For the main course and/or the majority of what you serve, you should offer things that are foolproof and tried and true for you. As long as you know your guests will really enjoy a few things, I think it’s okay to experiment a little and use them as your guinea pigs, especially if they know you like to cook and bake. That could actually make for a little fun. But be sure to taste it before you serve it. Don’t experiment if that makes preparation too stressful.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, find out what your guests like and don’t like and what they can and cannot eat. If someone is a vegetarian or pescatarian, don’t serve chicken or beef. If they have food allergies, don’t serve something that is or contains an allergen. You don’t want to make your guests uncomfortable when they have to politely decline your food, and you don’t want to make them feel like a problem when they have to ask for something else to avoid anaphylaxis.
Try to have a nice mix of things. For example, have something hearty, something light, and something sweet and indulgent. I always try to serve something that is special or unique--something my guests probably wouldn’t have anywhere else and/or something I know is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. And as my friend said, she loved the way all of the colors of the food and dishes complemented each other and seemed very cohesive. She enjoyed feeling that a lot of thought went into preparing for her arrival and that of the rest of my guests. If it’s a party, try to serve finger foods. Don’t make it difficult for people to juggle holding a glass, a plate, and a fork. Finally, not everything needs to be made from scratch. Head to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or your favorite local market to procure meats, cheese, crackers, and fruit for a beautiful platter that you simply assemble before your guests arrive. And if cooking just isn’t your thing, order from a catering company.
6. Alcohol and Beverages. Make it festive and have a variety. With a small group, as with food, find out what your guests like and don’t like. If they aren’t wine drinkers, get their favorite spirit and mixers so they can enjoy their favorite cocktail. For a party, keep it simple and set it up so your guests can be self-sufficient. You don’t want to play bartender all night, although it’s nice to pour them a drink when you can. For my gathering last week, I served two of my favorite Wolffer roses, a festive sangria, LaCroix lime sparkling water (with cute straws for the cans or glasses), and a beautiful pitcher of ice water with lemons.
7. If it’s a party, try to have everything where your guests will congregate most of the time, but have it organized into stations if possible. For my recent gathering, I used our étagère in our dining area to create a beverage station. It had wine and highball glasses on a shelf above all of the beverages and ice bucket. On the island that is open to the dining area, I displayed all of the food. The appetizers were in front/on the dining room side, and the desserts were on cake stands behind the appetizers/on the kitchen side. Ideally I would have brought desserts out later, but I wanted to enjoy my guests’ company, so I opted to put everything out at once and present it in the order it would likely be consumed (not that having dessert first is a crime!)
8. The party I had last week was a gathering to celebrate the launch of my blog. I invited all women. I served a few of the recipes that have been featured on my blog. But I’m also a busy mom, and all of the women I invited are busy with kids and/or full-time jobs. That means we really don’t have a lot of time to shop and indulge. So I added the option to shop Stella & Dot and transformed my dining table (in between the drinks and food) into a jewelry and accessory department. In addition to the fact that she loved the jewelry, my girlfriend expressed that she liked that there was a common activity that sparked conversation between people who entered the party as strangers. After all, women usually dress for other women (contrary to what many think), so it was fun for her to shop and share opinions in a fun and comfortable setting. So whether it’s jewelry or a game or a wine tasting, try to have some activity to get the party started, especially when people aren’t from the same crowd.
Photo via Pinterest
9. And finally, a few tips for overnight guests. Make their room a cozy retreat. Last summer, we hosted many people at our home, and the guest room was far from decorated and complete. But I tried to make it cozy by adding a nice candle and fresh flowers to the nightstand. If you have the space, try to give your guests a dedicated bathroom so they can make themselves at home without having to pack up and clean up each time they use it. Make sure they have plenty of clean towels (bath, hand, and washcloths). Have shampoo, toothpaste, and a few of the basics in the bathroom in case they forgot to pack omething. And make sure they know they are welcome to anything in your home. They can go into the pantry or refrigerator at any time and they are welcome to whatever they need (assuming it’s not your chicken marinating for tomorrow’s lunch!)
Having a beautiful home means nothing without people to share it with. So do everything you can to make your guests feel welcome and leave counting the days until their return.