24 Nov 2022

How to avoid a festive faux-pas

As the Christmas season approaches we look at a number of potential pitfalls for hosts. We all know that laying on a lunch or dinner party can be a daunting prospect, but it is likely to go much more smoothly if you plan ahead, cook within the limits of your abilities and do as much preparation as possible before your guests arrive.

Here is a faux-pas checklist to guide you through the festive season:

• Watch out for allergies

It’s always a good idea to check out if your guests are allergic to any particular foods when you invite them. Also check if they’re prone to food intolerances. This might mean you’re left with an unwieldy list of sanctioned foods, violent dislikes or dietary no-nos, but at least you’ll be forewarned and can plan evasive action beforehand.

• Tidy up beforehand

Make sure you allow enough time to de-clutter your house, remove any domestic debris (scattered shoes, discarded toys, drying laundry), and clear a space for guests’ coats – you don’t want to keep people standing around in the hall in their coats for longer than necessary. Giving a lunch or dinner party is a bit of performance and you need to ensure that the stage is set.

• Lay the table

It is reassuring for guests to arrive at a house which is neat and tidy, with the table laid and ready and delicious cooking smells wafting in from the kitchen. If they arrive to find an empty table and a distracted host, they may well be filled with the grim realisation that they in for a long, and chaotic, evening.

• Wash the dishes

Check your cutlery carefully when you’re laying the table ­– we’ve all seen how dishwashers can occasionally bake food fragments on to utensils rather than washing them off.

• Don’t run out

Make sure you have more than enough food and wine to last the evening ­ ­­– nothing is worse than having a panicked host announcing that they’ve just got to ‘nip down to the shops’. 

• Control yourself

Giving a dinner party can be a stressful affair and it’s very tempting to lay into the wine before the guests even arrive. If you’re drunk, it will certainly impair your abilities to serve a complex meal and get the timings right ­ – you may end up burning the main course or forgetting the cheese altogether.

• Avoid a kitchen lockdown

If you don’t plan a sensible menu and do as much preparation as possible beforehand you may find yourself chained to the cooker for much of the evening. This is very boring for you, but it is also uncomfortable for the guests, who will be worried about their host’s absence and may be forced to fend for themselves.

• Don’t poison your guests

Oysters and mussels are a delicious treat, but if a few bad ones sneak in the gastric consequences will be horrible, so it might be safest to avoid them. If you’re cooking meat, remember that only single cuts of lamb or beef should be cooked rare. In all other cases (especially burgers) ensure that the meat is well cooked.

• Frame the food

If you’re serving a magnificent joint of beef or a whole fish, you want it to be admired in all its glory. Plating it up on a highly decorated serving platter will obliterate its impact and make it look like a mess. Plain white dishes will set off your culinary creations.

• Watch the tannins!

Red wines are rich in tannins, which will taste horrible if the wine is too cold. Make sure you bring the wine up to room temperature, or a degree or two above.

• Offer both red and white

You may be serving red meat and savouring the prospect of a robust Bordeaux. But some people can’t bear red wine, and just because you can’t contemplate a white wine in these circumstances doesn’t mean you should refuse to serve it. Give your guests a choice.

• Cater for non-drinkers

It’s easy to overlook the people who won’t be drinking when you’re planning a convivial evening. So make sure that you’ve got something to offer them – elderflower cordial or sparkling mineral water are a reliable stand-by – and put large jugs of tap water on the table (wine-drinkers will appreciate this too.)

• Keep it Flowing

It’s tempting, once the main course has been served, to sit back and relax and let events take their course. But if you’re hosting, you’re on duty for the duration, and that means ensuring that the courses follow on in a stately progression – with a reasonable pause in-between – and the drinks keep flowing, including after-dinner offers of tea and coffee. Stay alert for empty glasses and don’t let long hiatuses develop.

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