I love Martha Stewart. I love her magazine and its lavish photo spreads of meticulously planned dinner parties. I tried such parties before we had kids. My family still teases me about the timeline I made my second Thanksgiving as a married woman. They didn’t knock the timeline itself, but the fact that I made it. It almost worked, though. Everything hit my beautifully laid table of silver, china, and crystal within minutes of each other. But the turkey kept us waiting another 45 minutes.
If I found Martha Stewart-style planning difficult before kids, I found it impossible afterward. This caused me some stress for a few years, as my husband and I like to throw a party. I tried to keep them meticulous, but eventually I gave into reality. I streamlined our party planning and quickly found that, while I might enjoy looking at the pages of Martha Stewart Living, I’d rather have a simple gathering than let futile attempts at perfection discourage me from ever sending invitations. This resolve is even more important in the face of Pinterest Pressure—where the iconic Martha Stewart Living has 154 boards comprising almost 27,000 pictures. We want—we need—communal gathering, but it has suffered from these visions of perfection.
I might seem a bit dense to complain of party pressure, then post a party hosting how-to on December 30—when most people don’t even want to think about hosting anything. For one, I’m an Advent purist (or as Rachel Lu would have it, a Scrooge) so I am now hitting full party mode here in Texas. For another, I hope that impulse and the let-down middle days of Christmas leftovers might inspire a little last-minute, simple entertaining. Following the tips below, you can still send out an email to invite a few friends over for sparklers and bubbly on New Year’s Eve. There’s also time to plan a Twelfth Night gathering at a local pub. (See the third section of that link, “The Holiday That Time Forgot”.) That one is easy. Choose a place, send out the invites, and have a happy gathering. Mostly, however, I offer a few practical tips to inspire some New Year resolutions for future hosting.
We want our villages back. Why not start with a party?
Use An Open-House Format
The simplest party technique is to simply open your doors for a designated time. It is flexible. It works for parties of 10 or of 100. It allows guests arrive and leave on their schedule, and lends itself to anything from just drinks and nuts to a full buffet. Work up to casual dinner parties after you’ve gotten the hang of just having a houseful guests.
Don’t Fuss Over Invitations
I know the proper party has hand-stamped, hand delivered, or otherwise prep-intensive invites, but modern life doesn’t always have the time for that. I love the old ways, but on the spectrum of societal problems, lack of communal time ranks higher than erosion of invitation etiquette. Send an email invite and have a party. When your children get older—and if you get lucky enough to have one with artistic talent—then you can go back to the old ways and have your child participate by embossing the invitations. (Actually, we had her emboss the wine-tasting ballots. My kids are older and my parties can get complicated again.)
Tidy your house. (For Americans this means tidying the whole house, of course, as we tend to nose around our host’s home. For the English and those of us lucky enough to spend some years there, it is simpler—only the reception room, dining room, powder room, and front hall need the party treatment.) Have welcoming lighting at the front door and the front hall. Use dimmed lighting in the entertaining rooms. (The lower lights not only set a mood but also hide many house imperfections that make some hesitate to host.)
Then, according to your budget, use flowers, candles, and if you are ambitious, balloons. I like to scatter balloons of appropriate color all over the floor, unless the party will host a bunch of mouthy crawlers. Also, if toddlers will attend, I swap out real candles for LED ones and Christmas lights.
All of the other fill-ups on Pinterest look festive, and if you have the time and talent, go for it, but they are not necessary.
Have Guests Participate
Having guests bring items simply makes sense. They will bring items, so go with it.
You could do a full potluck. Make sure you have a proportionate distribution of mains, sides, and dessert, then you supply the drink, and the party happens with little fuss. Alternatively, you could have your guests bring their drinks of choice for your menu. Or—this is one of my brother and sister-in-law’s go to party plans—bring your own items to grill. The hosts supply the salad, drinks, and a hot grill. The guests supply the items for the grill.
We entertain so often that my regular guests no longer have to ask what to bring for our large parties. I don’t make dessert. I clear out the dining room buffet and put out assorted platters. The dessert buffet builds as our guest arrive.
Adults do need adult time and some entertaining should not include children, but as I am describing simple party tips to get a little village vibe going, accommodating children means that more people can come because parents don’t have to get babysitters.
The accommodations vary by age, obviously. If I have a bunch of infants to toddlers coming, I make sure one of the kid’s rooms or an area of the living room is a play space for littles. I do light baby proofing and put up toys of many hazardous parts or that are otherwise complicated to clean up. I have a few spaces where moms can feed a hungry infant without distraction.
If I also have older children coming, I will check to see if they would be willing to do a little play area monitoring. The parents of babysitters and babysittees will be in the house, within shouting distance even. Having a few older kids on duty gives them something fun to do and can give a parent of an active toddler a moment for a bite and a little adult conversation. (Actually, this often happens without my intervention, but note that spontaneous inter-age play is inversely proportional to the number of first-time or helicopter moms in attendance.)
For a party with lots of older children, have something for them to do, outdoors if possible. Nothing fancy is required, a soccer ball and a few hula hoops will do. I’ve had much success with a bunch of glow sticks, the kind that bend into necklaces. They are cheap, double as party favors, and can be anything from lightsabers to neon spider webs. Ditto for those foam pool noodles. For this New Year’s Eve I bought bundles of Christmas Mad Libs.
As for food, parents of toddlers are either the old-school kinds who will find something suitable from what you are serving or the modern-school kinds who will bring food that their precise eater will eat. Parents of older children—even if those children are precise eaters—usually want to broaden their child’s palate and instill some manners. Therefore, as long as my dishes aren’t three alarm or some exotic experiment—neither of which I want to do because these parties are about simplicity and hospitality—the kids can find something to eat.
Front-Load Food Prep
This is a standard bit of party planning advice, but that is because it is excellent party planning advice. Serve food that you can prep ahead of time. Again, the three-course meal in the Martha Stewart Living spread looks fabulous, and when you read about each individual dish, prep seems easy. But preparing them all at the same time will get you.
I prefer to serve one-pot meals. Zitis, stews, chilis, and savory pies are typically prep intensive but low time intensive during the party. Make a ziti before the party and stick it in the oven just before the guests start arriving. The aroma helps with the welcoming atmosphere (see above) and then you have hands free to greet your guests.
If you need to accommodate vegetarians, you can either go all veg and serve, for instance, a four-cheese ziti, or do a duplicate dish without the meat. Making a pot of chili and a pot of veggie chili doesn’t add that much complication when done hours before the party. Do not fall into the trap of “easy” hot dogs or hamburgers. They are foods that sound simple for parties but aren’t really. Too many parts make them a hassle during the party, which I think is a leading discourager of future parties. What’s the point of having everyone over if you are running about for the ketchup, slicing more onion, or looking for another bag of buns? (I can do a pretty decent impression of Steve Martin and the “superfluous buns” breakdown from “Father of the Bride.” I have hot dog issues, I admit.)
Think Defensively about Cleanup
If the during-party hassle doesn’t discourage an aspiring host, then the pain of post-party clean up might. This is why I have the children put away toys of many parts. This is why I don’t like complicated food. It is also why I like to limit my dishes. Less party dishes means less cleanup.
I don’t like the disposable cheat. I hate eating on paper plates for one, and for two “reduce” is the first of the three R’s. (Reduce, reuse, then recycle.) I do use modified disposables. For example, I’ve got the wax paper-lined baskets for summer entertaining, but generally I plan for things that use less. My second-favorite tactic is the one-pot meal mentioned above. One size plate or bowl and a fork or spoon is all you need. My favorite plan, however, is to serve finger foods. They are fun, kids love them, and they only require serving trays and utensils, napkins, and glasses. These things make for relatively simple cleanup.
Budget and Culture Permitting, Hire Someone to Help
If it’s financially and socially possible, consider hiring someone to help with service and cleanup. I didn’t until I hosted a church cocktail gathering for women about 18 months ago. Gen X and Millennial women have many varied life patterns and, therefore, they don’t routinely mingle and get acquainted, hence the cocktail party. I hired one server so I could focus exclusively on socializing. It worked. But still I thought I would only use help for more formal parties—until I had our regular Fourth of July celebration a few weeks later. I thought casual equaled simple. It doesn’t. Our Fourth party is a huge, afternoon to poker, pool to sparklers affair—with hot dogs. (This party is the root of my hot dog issues.) The clean-up from that party did not go quickly. I’ve not thrown a party without Cynthia since.
If staff is not in your budget, keeping the party simple will still keep hassle and cleanup quite manageable. But between my children getting a little older and meeting Cynthia, after 10 years I’m able to finally start reaching for that Martha Stewart standard again. I enjoy it, but now know that the more important part is hosting in the first place.