In our family there are many opportunities to have people in our home, and many of those occasions involve food. We have been hosting small crowds of one sort or another for the last 14 years, and here are some tips I have picked up along the way.
1. Plates, etc
Have enough plates, cups and cutlery. Over the years I have built up a supply of plates which I would prefer to use with the dishwasher instead of regularly using disposable plates. Disposable plates, cups and cutlery are useful as a backup if you end up with more people than plates.
2. Small guests
Allow for your small guests and put out some smaller plastic cups, plates and bowls. Sometimes a picnic blanket on the floor can work for the kids as well.
3. A set up that serves
We use a set up that seems to work for serving a lot of people in a short space of time – once you have one, keep using it. Set the plates in a pile, the cutlery on a tray, serviettes available in a holder and a variety of serving utensils ready to go. We turn the table with the short end against the wall so that people can access both sides, and the power points are close enough for rice cookers etc.
4. Managing the flow of people
It seems that every time we have people over, they tend to congregate together and get sucked into a vortex in the kitchen. That’s fine, but to manage the flow of people and prevent a complete bottle neck, set up a self-serve drinks and snacks area well away from the kitchen.
Think about chairs. We never seem to have enough but it doesn’t seem to matter too much. Having a pile of spare chairs is something to think about, or ask people to bring extras if you really need them.
6. Space in the refrigerator
If you can, allow for some space in your freezer and/or fridge if guests are bringing food or drink that needs to be stored cold. Otherwise, it can be a little awkward when someone turns up with a large container of ice cream and your freezer couldn’t possibly squeeze in another thing
7. Sustainable meals
As a host I want to be generous and welcoming. I also want to be sustainable with my own resources so I’m not left thinking “I’m never doing this again!” Finding dishes that are inexpensive and easy to prepare is the next challenge. Useful tips on this front include using less meat or at least inexpensive cuts, providing plenty of fillers such as rice or other grains, making the most of fresh vegetables that are in season and therefore cheaper, and sticking with large pots or a slow cooker full of a dish rather than many smaller and more fiddly things.
8. Food safety
Be aware of food safety issues, preparing everything hygienically and serving food at correct temperatures.
9. Plan for dessert
Dessert for crowds isn’t really my strong point, so I usually let other people bring something, and/or plan to have an easy option such as ice cream, fruit and yoghurt, or a fruit crumble which is a good crowd pleaser and easy to make in bulk.
10. Food allergies
These days you can safely assume that a certain percentage of your guests will have a food allergy / intolerance / dietary preference. Try not to let this take you by surprise, and instead plan to have at least one vegetarian and/or gluten/nut/dairy/egg free dish, either that you have prepared or have arranged for someone else to bring. If you are aware in advance that there will be guests with specific dietary needs, make plans to have food that is safe for them in an obvious area. Depending on the seriousness of the allergy, avoid allowing people to swap utensils around between dishes and thereby contaminating the safe food – perhaps by using the same colour or style of utensil for that food. Consider having labels for the dishes, or otherwise make it clear what each dish contains.
11. Get help
Let people help you! Especially if the event is a bigger group thing rather than a cosy dinner party, people will often offer to bring something. Always say yes. It helps if you pick a food theme which can then give people ideas of what they could bring, for example, Indian food, a BBQ with meat and salads, soup and bread, etc. If you have a list in your head you can give some suggested options when people ask what to bring, such as a curry, or some pappadums or a drink, etc. Have a range of items on that list in your head, some bigger ticket items for those who like to cook, and some small things which are easy for people to buy at the shops on the way.
12. Leave little jobs for people
Some people will arrive saying “what can I do?” Deliberately leave a few small jobs to be done just before serving, which helps those guests who feel they want to do something and it helps you. They could open containers, put out serving utensils, chop some last minute salad or side dish ingredients, or slice some bread. Make it easy for them by having all the equipment ready to go.
13. Sit down
Another thing to be deliberate about is sitting down. Sometime during the event, rather than being constantly absorbed by endless little tasks, stop and spend time with your guests. Leave the cleaning up for later, or let someone else have a turn. Choosing to spend time with people is always worthwhile.
Prepare for leftovers. I have a stash of disposable takeaway containers so that if there is food left over, it is easier to give a few people a container full of a variety of leftovers rather than sending one person home with a large amount of one thing, or keeping it all yourself.
15. Don’t worry about what people think
Don’t worry about trying to impress people. There’s a wise old saying: worrying too much about what other people think of you will get you tied up in knots*. And remember, this is about showing hospitality rather than entertaining.
16. Don’t worry about things
On a similar note, don’t worry about things getting messy/broken/in the wrong place – it will happen, and people are more important than things. Perhaps this is not the time for your heirloom china. Put it away along with the kids’ precious Lego creations and relax and enjoy the mild chaos.
17. Have your house ready
Keeping your house mostly in order means it is less of a last minute stress to make room for guests. As a priority, have enough clear space on the kitchen bench and in the sink to prepare and serve food, and maybe give the bathroom a quick once over. But your house certainly doesn’t need to be perfect, and in fact it can make people feel more welcomed if it isn’t. I have had several comments over the years from people who have enjoyed the fact that our house was “normal”.
Our most recent event was an Indian food theme. We provided rice and had it ready in our rice cooker. I made a chickpea dish (chana masala) in the slow cooker and a smaller lentil dish. I also had some helpers prepare some cucumber and mint chopped together, banana and coconut, and a carrot salad. Everything else was brought by others. I didn’t even think about dessert and we had a full spread, including a centrepiece cake by a lovely guest who was just waiting for an occasion to bake! It was a relaxed night and a good chance for people to connect.
If you are catering for a special occasion rather than hosting an open house pot luck dinner, check out the useful tips on my friend Michele’s fineeating blog.
* see Proverbs 29:25 for the problem and its solution, and acknowledgements to CCEF for the paraphrase.
Do you have any other ideas? Please share.