Stress-free Holiday Parties?

A smiling face is half the meal” – Latvian proverb

Now that November’s here, shelter magazines are already featuring stories on holiday entertaining. Here’s a favorite essay from Writing Home – reprinted with the hope that it will set the tone for a more relaxed holiday season at your house ….   


The Secret of Stress-free Dinner Parties

My friend Pam knows the real secret of successful entertaining, and I wish I could be more like her.

Pam doesn’t spend weeks obsessing over what she’ll serve for dinner, nor does she turn her life inside-out when a carload of company arrives from Cincinnati for the weekend.  And it’s not that she doesn’t care. Pam and her husband, Steve, genuinely enjoy hosting friends and family, which partly explains how they make it look so effortless.

I like to remember the winter evening my husband and I were invited to their home for an impromptu dinner with another couple.

“Wear something comfy, and don’t expect anything fancy,” Pam warned us. “We’re just having a casual meal before the holiday rush.”  But that didn’t mean beer and pizza on paper plates. This was a real celebration of friendship.

Pam had dressed her table with a navy blue cloth and a simple homemade centerpiece of apples, tangerines, and pears. Around the fruit she lit a few votive candles. Before lifting a fork or a wine glass, Pam asked that we all join hands and give thanks for our years of friendship and the chance to slow down long enough to eat a meal together.

As promised, for dinner she served comfort food, including roast pork, a vegetable casserole, and spicy baked apples for dessert. The whole evening, in fact, was cozy and relaxed and nourishing — and Pam insisted she enjoyed it all as much as we did.

“We wouldn’t entertain as often if we felt we had to make a big deal out of it,” she told me.

I’m still trying to break the habit of making “a big deal” out of hosting company. The folks we typically entertain, after all, don’t expect a major production. But like many women I know, I was brainwashed into thinking that making dinner for company is synonymous with staging a photo shoot for a shelter magazine. I worry that my guests will scrutinize my housekeeping and discover my inner slob. And while I love to cook, I still worry that anything I serve, whether it’s meatloaf or Lobster Newberg, won’t turn out like the photos in the cookbook.

Of course, my feelings of culinary insecurity always rise like bread dough at holiday time.

Come fall, even before I’ve folded up the Halloween ghosts, I’m already fretting about Christmas decorations and turkey recipes. By mid-November, everything on my to-do list starts leaping around in my head like a chorus of nervous elves. And by the time the holidays are over, I’m thanking heaven that they are OVER.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Fussy entertaining puts everyone on edge and creates just as much pressure for guests as it does for the host. The quickest way back to sanity is to remind ourselves that most people are easily pleased with home cooking and real conversation. We don’t have to own Waterford crystal or serve meals worthy of a four-star chef. And the ones who truly enjoy our company aren’t judging us by our napkin rings.

Sharing an evening with good friends is a gift in itself when the occasion is heartfelt, the presentation simple. Pam and Steve figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why it’s always such a pleasure to gather at their table. — Cindy La Ferle

Company’s coming

One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”  ~Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, Pavarotti, My Own Story

Earlier this month, a couple of dear friends phoned to invite us over for dinner. They had a big pot of turkey chili bubbling on the stove and a loaf of cornbread cooling in the oven. “Nothing fancy, just comfort food.”

The spur-of-the-moment invitation was all the more delicious because Doug and I hadn’t planned anything for dinner that evening. And the cozy company of longtime friends was exactly what we needed in the middle of a crazy-busy week. It turned out to be a perfect evening.

That night, we also revisited an earlier conversation we’d started on the topic of entertaining.

We all admitted that, in the past, we often avoided inviting friends for dinner because we thought a meal for “company” had to be fancy or labor-intensive. Which is silly, of course, but it was an easy excuse to make when we were too busy or too lazy to break bread at home with friends.

Along the same lines, anyone who reads gourmet cooking magazines on a regular basis will admit to feeling intimidated sometimes, even by featured recipes described as easy or simple. If throwing a dinner party requires performing a culinary miracle, well, we’re not likely to host very often.

One of the great gifts of midlife is that you start getting over these things. You realize that “the good life” is what’s real — not a page out of a glossy magazine. You remember that your true friends love you just as you are, and that any dish that’s good enough to serve your family is good enough for them, whether it’s your favorite mac and cheese or turkey chili.

Not that foodies shouldn’t have some creative fun in the kitchen.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to master a few healthy recipes that work for company as easily as for the two of us.

For instance, in the March issue of Prevention, I found “All-American Family Favorites,” a feature that includes several no-fuss, kid-friendly dishes that can be prepared in no time at all. The Skillet Chicken “Parm” looked fabulous, so Doug and I put the recipe to the test after shopping for a few items at the local market. The ingredients are as basic as you can get: chicken breasts, cherry tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil.

I’m very happy to report that the meal was both easy and delicious — and perfect for casual dinner guests. Topping it off, our own red skillet looked so colorful with the basil garnish that I had to share my photo with you. (I don’t have the rights to reprint the recipe, so you’ll have to pick up the March issue of Prevention, still available on newsstands.) From now on, I’ll be on the lookout for more recipes like this.

There’s nothing cozier or more satisfying than raising a glass to old friends around a dinner table. So when the mood strikes, call your best friends and invite them over for a simple midweek supper. Don’t worry if the house isn’t clean. Dim the lights, uncork a bottle of wine, light a candle, and let the conversation flow. Cheers!   — Cindy La Ferle