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Effortless entertaining: Experienced hosts suggest beginners start small and simple

November 17, 2011|By LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN |

When Kay Boward's granddaughter requested a prom night meal for a group of friends, she received a delicious four-course dinner at The Moonlight House.

It was a trip to Grandma and Grandpa's that created a beautiful memory.

The simple question, "Grammy, would you be able to fix dinner for us before the prom?" caused Boward's creative wheels to turn. The retired nurse who lives in Greencastle, Pa., wanted to make this happen for her granddaughter, Rachel Kline.

Initially, Rachel was a little hesitant to ask because her prom was scheduled the day of her grandmother's 69th birthday.

Boward told her that when a person has had that many birthdays, individual celebrations don't really matter.

"Rachel, I think that might be fun," Boward said of the prom dinner. "My table holds 10. Would that be enough?"

Boward, with some help from the parents of her teenage guests, transformed her house on Moonlight Drive into a restaurant, complete with a maitre d' (Grandpa Don Boward), menus and home-cooked food.

The menus Boward created allowed her guests to select their choice of hors d'oeuvre, salad, entree, beverage and dessert.

"I think Rachel was surprised when we handed them the menus," Kay Boward said.

Boward employs ingenuity when entertaining in the home, and it is evident that she has years of experience.

Beginning hosts should start small and keep things simple, Boward suggested.

In today's busy society, most people are encouraged simply to receive an invitation to someone's home.

"When people have the opportunity and get invited to someone's home, they jump on the chance," said Sandra Kline, a Clear Spring resident who frequently entertains in her home.

Because of email, social networking sites and texting, face-to-face time has dwindled. Much has changed in how we as a society entertain.

"We've lost the ability to interact," said Christopher Lowell, author of "The Hassle-Free Host: Super-Simple Tablescapes and Recipes for Stunning Parties."

Plus, let's face it, entertaining requires some effort.

"People are intimidated. They don't think they have the ability to cook, or it's too expensive, too hard to clean up," said Alyssa Faden, senior account executive with Nike Communications Inc., a lifestyle public relations firm that is not associated with the Nike athletic corporation.

With a little bit of planning, a touch of creativity and a welcoming spirit, any party can be a success.

"There are lots of ways to give parties," said Lowell, an interior decorator and television show host. "The formal sit-down, food on the table has kind of gone away. People want to gather in a comfortable, chatty sort of way. It's not a competition anymore."

In other words, your guests won't be judging you.

"They just want to have a good time. They want you to have a good time, too," Lowell said.

Before the get-together

The week before a party, allow about one hour a night for planning and preparation, Lowell suggested.

"If you haven't planned ahead, that's a real party killer," he said.

To Sharon Runkles of Boonsboro, having a plan is key to hosting a party.

"I'm an organizer, so when I know I'm going to have a party, the list comes out," said Runkles, intake coordinator for Behavioral Health Partners in Frederick, Md.

Runkles allows her children, Madeline, 12, and Evan, 9, to select theme parties for their birthdays.

Then she transforms her house to fit the theme. A little bit of creativity goes a long way.

"I plan the food around the party," Runkles said.

When Evan wanted a military party, his mom transformed her kitchen into a canteen. Everyone wore dog tags, and the entree was creamed chipped beef, which seemed appropriate for a military mess hall.

"Food is my way of making people happy," said Runkles, 40. "The more people in my home, the better it is. For me, entertaining is a way of relaxing."

It can be satisfying to entertain.

"I get great joy out of serving people," said Kline, noting that it is important to think things through before deciding to host an event. "Experience is your greatest asset."

The only way to gain experience, though, is to begin somewhere.

Choose fast, approachable, easy foods to make your get-together a casual, fun experience for everyone involved, Faden said.

Do all the preparatory work, chopping and marinating ahead of time so you can be part of your party, Faden recommended.

"For serving, you can make everything from scratch, but if it's stressing you out, don't make everything from scratch," said Jodi Colombo, an event planner whose business, Beyond Ordinary, is based in Hagerstown. "When you invite people to your home, they come to see you. It's not as much about what you're serving."

What about the clutter?

Afraid of what people will think of the clutter in your home? Assign a bedroom that is not going to be used and turn that room into a storage area.

Look at your home through the eyes of your guests. If they will be standing around and mingling, are there enough surface areas on which they can put their food?

During part of the nightly planning time, spend time making sure your home is streamlined.

"What you are really going for is tidy," Lowell said. "You don't really need to clean behind your refrigerator."

While years ago, homes underwent a major cleaning twice a year, that's just not practical anymore.

"Today women are so busy," Kline said. "I think a lot of people don't have the strength."

Kline likes to divide the work into 15- to 30-minute segments. If she only has a little bit of time, she washes one window and the curtains that hang at that window. Or, she'll vacuum the couch.

If a host keeps up with the housework, it's easier to have people over.

Choices, choices, choices

Part of the planning process is deciding what to prepare and how to present it.

Will you have a sit-down dinner? Offer a buffet? Arrange grazing stations at several locations so your guests can munch and mingle?

Boward said hosts should serve easy-to-prepare, easy-to-eat, tried-and-true recipes.

Parties are not the time to experiment, Lowell agreed. Use recipes that you've made before. He said a simple chicken Parmesan recipe is a good choice for a beginning cook.

For inexperienced cooks, it is better to make large portions of a few dishes than several different items.

If you choose a sit-down dinner, keep in mind that it can be stressful to get all the food on the table at the right temperature, Lowell said. If you haven't experimented before and your guests are not formal, you might want to consider another option.

"Nobody wants to go to a home gathering and immediately feel buttoned up," Faden said.

Opt for a buffet so everything can be set up in advance around the kitchen island and the hot dishes can be added as the guests arrive.

Buffets help break the ice and encourage interaction, Faden said. As guests are going through the line, they chat and get to know each other. Chairs can be arranged around small tables or guests can stand while talking.

Or, try what Lowell called a "sit-down buffet," where the table is set beforehand and everyone goes through a buffet. A chilled soup or salad could be at the table.

Consider a flavor bar, Faden suggested. Select one or two main proteins and vegetables. Sauté or grill the meat and vegetables plain or with little seasoning. Offer three to four dipping sauces to add zest to the entree.

For an even less formal gathering, set up small grazing stations throughout your house. Choose food that can be eaten with a fork, so guests only have to use one utensil if they want to stand and talk while eating.

When your guests arrive, make sure you have placed out some of the grazing food, Faden said.

As much as possible, let people serve themselves. Offer a self-serve beverage bar with water, ice, fruit juice, other beverages and cut-up fruit.

Offer healthful options plus ones that allow your guests to indulge.

"People don't come to your home to stay on their diet. They come to your home to break their diet," Lowell said.

No time to cook (or no inclination)

So, what if you just really can't cook, don't have the time to cook or don't really want to cook?

You still can entertain in your home.

Select prepared foods from restaurants or wholesale grocery stores and display them in attractive serving dishes, Colombo suggested.

You can admit it, or if no one asks, you can just smile while watching your guests enjoy their food.

Relax with your guests

Some people are hesitant to entertain because they are opening themselves up to scrutiny.

"People will know far more about you if you get together in your home," Lowell said, noting that this is not necessarily a negative thing.

If someone you don't know well is coming to your home, try to find out something in advance about that person — likes, dislikes, where they went to college, etc.

"If you can strike a common chord, they will take the ball and run with it," Kline said.

A relaxed, prepared host can create a relaxing evening.

"People just want a place where they can mingle face to face," Lowell said." If you're having a good time, everybody else will, too.

"Anybody who opens his home up is the hero because you have the nerve to do it."

Tips for home entertaining

  Think like an interior designer:

  •  Don't have enough of one pattern of plates? Mix and match the ones you have. Mix them up so it looks intentional.
  •  Need an inexpensive centerpiece? Take two tall, clear cylinders and fill them with an ingredient used in a recipe, such as dry pasta, heirloom tomatoes, coffee beans, lemons and limes, small pumpkins and squashes, or cranberries.
  •  Want to add dimension to your display? Take a few stockpots of varying sizes, turn them upside down and throw fabric over them. Large dishes can be placed on the stockpots, with condiments and other ingredients nestled around.

Need a theme for your get-together? Try one of these ideas:

  •  Host a pizza party. Have personal-size crusts available and ask your guests to select their own toppings.
  •  Bring in Chinese carryout. Open the containers and allow your guests to try several dishes.
  •  Plan a breakfast night. Serve make-your-own waffles, french toast, a breakfast casserole and assorted dishes.
  •  Keep grilling. Don't allow autumn's approach to make you hesitant to grill. It's hard to beat those charred, toasty, smoky flavors that are cooked into pork chops, steaks, vegetables and other foods. All you need is a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and you're set.
  •  Consider soup as a main course. Make chili and one or two types of soup, or ask your friends to bring a pot of their favorite soup.
  •  Bring a picnic indoors. You don't have to wait until next summer to put out the checkered tablecloths.
  •  Try a winter luau. Serve meatballs in a sweet and sour sauce and prepare a pineapple punch.
  •  Tailgate indoors. Bring the coolers inside and provide munchies before, during and after the game.
  •  What's the next holiday? There's your theme for the next party.

Ideas provided by Christopher Lowell, author of "The Hassle-Free Host: Super-Simple Tablescapes and Recipes for Stunning Parties"; Alyssa Faden, senior account executive with Nike Communications Inc., a lifestyle public relations firm that is not associated with the Nike athletic corporation; Sharon Runkles, a Boonsboro resident, and Sandra Kline, a Clear Spring resident, both of whom frequently entertain at home.

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