If you’ve spent any time in the Bay Area, you may have heard of this saying: “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” Our real summer tends to be in September/October—the skies are blue, the air is still, and the bone-chilling fog has disappeared. A few weeks ago, I met up with several mom friends for a beach picnic to take advantage of the warmer weather. It was a low-key and impromptu gathering—someone brought a bottle of wine, others brought food—and we had a great time catching up. As we started thinking about our next get-together over the winter, one friend remarked how she would love to have everyone over at her home, but didn’t feel like she could be a good host. She felt her house was too disorganized, her nice dishes were in storage, and she wasn’t comfortable cooking for groups.
When my husband and I first started hosting at our home, I remember feeling just as apprehensive. (When you see all these picture-perfect meals by Martha Stewart, or read about “The Art of the Dinner Party” on the New York Times, it’s hard not to be intimidated!) We used to spend hours thinking about the setting, researching fancy recipes, planning the entertainment… and by evening’s end, after the last guest left and we cleaned up the house, we collapsed in exhaustion. It took a couple of tries before it dawned on me that I didn’t have to cook a restaurant-quality meal with an Instagram-worthy table setting, it’s the gathering of friends that really matters. Nowadays, we regularly host groups of 2-10 people at our home, and by sticking to a few guidelines, we are able to maximize the fun while minimizing the stress… call it my “indoor beach picnic” approach 🙂
1. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Amongst our most memorable dinners are the ones where we sat on boxes (we recently moved and the furniture hadn’t yet arrived) or ordered take-out from a nearby restaurant (because food got burnt in the oven). It was mortifying at the time of course, but looking back, we had some wonderful bonding moments with friends. Don’t worry too much about potential mishaps—it happens to everyone, and you all have a funny story to share afterwards!
2. Make people feel at home.
Guests take their cues from the hosts, so it’s important for me to set the tone early on. If I’m relaxed, they will be too. Maybe guests arrive early and I haven’t finished vacuuming… that’s OK, I don’t worry about it. I offer to hang up their coats, and direct them to the living room where I have a bottle of wine, some sparkling water, and a few snacks laid out on the coffee table. My go-to combo is a trio of cheeses—a Vermont cheddar, a soft Brie or Camembert, and a stronger cheese like a Roquefort or Stilton—coupled with crackers, dried fruit and some honey. Other alternatives are veggies and hummus, or edamame and potstickers. Honestly, as long as prep time is short, and it’s easy for people to eat and chat, that works for me.
3. Cook something in your comfort zone.
When hosting, the last thing I want to do is stress out about preparing a new and/or complicated dish. I don’t know about you, but I can’t have a proper conversation when I’m trying to read a recipe, so I stick to dishes I’ve made multiple times. I also tend to go through phases to reduce the likelihood of cooking the same thing for repeat guests—I had a quiche phase (spinach with cheese, mushrooms, and every other variation you might imagine!), a grilled salmon phase, and then a lamb phase. My husband’s current go-to dishes are coffee-rubbed flank steak and Maui grilled chicken, depending on his mood.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Don’t have the inclination to make salad or bake dessert? Ran out of time to set the table beforehand? Ask your guests for help! People appreciate being invited into someone’s home for a meal, and are more than delighted to help out in small ways. It takes the pressure off me and makes them feel more comfortable at the same time.
5. Focus on the relationship.
At the end of the day, we invite guests into our homes because we want to get to know them better. When I keep this in mind, all the pressure I put on myself is put into perspective. Months (or even weeks) from now, people may not remember what you serve or how you serve it; what they take away and treasure the most are the relationships built by breaking bread together.
These “house rules” are what have worked best for us. I’d love to hear your tips on entertaining at home!