As the most sociable weeks of the year approach, you will undoubtedly be contemplating hosting at least one dinner or lunch over the festive period. Many people will be apprehensive about this prospect, but if you follow our recommendations below you will soon find that being a perfect host is all about pragmatic expectations, forward planning and a keen sense of observation.
The first thing you must do is divest yourself of unrealistic aspirations. We’re all bombarded with images of perfection in the run-up to Christmas and may find it difficult to accept that we will inevitably fall short of the fantasy. The emphasis must be on doing the best we can – making our houses warm and welcoming, serving plentiful food and drink, gathering together a compatible and convivial group of people. The most memorable dinners will stand out because of the company and conversation, not the table decorations or hors d’oeuvres.
The recommendations below are for hosting a dinner party, but can easily be adapted for a less formal supper party:
• Start by thinking carefully about who you invite and don’t be too ambitious when it comes to numbers; really think about your capacity as a host, as well as the size of your dining table, and don’t overdo it.
• Before you even start planning what to cook, check out allergies and food intolerances. You really don’t want to be blindsided by a vegan on a night when you’re proudly serving your signature beef wellington.
• Do indicate the comparative formality of the event to guests. If you say “can you pop round for supper on Friday evening” your guests will quite reasonably turn up in casual attire. If you want proceedings to be much more formal, you will need to give your guests some verbal clues – either send them an invitation (or email version) or use phrases like “I’m having a dinner party on Friday”. You can even say “we’re all going to dress up!”.
• Choose to serve a dish that you have cooked before, which you can produce without too much agonising and fuss. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing an over-intricate and elaborate dish that is beyond your culinary prowess – it’s far better to serve something simple like a well-cooked roast chicken than to spend hours sweating over a complex recipe and overwhelming list of ingredients.
• Do as much preparation as humanly possible beforehand – peel and chop vegetables and stand them in water, make sauces that can be re-heated, concoct cold desserts like sherry trifle or compote, or prepare baked puddings so they are ready to pop into the oven once the main course has been cooked. Preparing in advance will also give you an opportunity to wash up your utensils and clean kitchen surfaces. If a well-intentioned guest wanders into the kitchen with a pile of dirty dishes they won’t be assaulted by an embarrassing scene of devastation. You might be serving the meal in the kitchen; in which case it is all the more important that you eradicate any signs of cooking panic.
• Take the time to tidy up beforehand and create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Put out glasses for aperitifs or wine, have bowls of nibbles ready. Decide what you’re going to do when the guests first arrive – you don’t want a pile-up of guests milling around in the hall, uncertain where to put their coats – and maybe make your partner or one of your children responsible for taking coats and ushering guests into the sitting or dining room.
• Lay the table well before the guests arrive – candles, table ornaments, flower arrangements (though not too high or they’ll obstruct eye contact) will all denote that this is a special occasion. Ensure that you have generous supplies of both red and white wine (and soft drinks). Always supply water – a jug of iced tap water is perfectly acceptable.
• If you’re determined that your guests should sit in a certain arrangement – perhaps there are people you really want to introduce to each other or keep apart – hand-write name cards and place them in the middle of each place setting. If you don’t want this level of formality, accept that you will have to direct your guests to their seats when it’s time to go to the table. Remember, it’s your job to ensure that conversation flows, so arrange your guests to optimise this possibility – the shy introvert next to the exuberant conversationalist, the two people with an interest in common adjacent and so on.
• If you have prepared thoroughly beforehand, you should be able to spend time with your guests when they first arrive, but don’t get too carried away. Ensure that guests start eating within a reasonable time of arriving – an hour to an hour-and-a-half is enough time for everyone to settle in and have one or two aperitifs. Serve some canapés to ensure that guests aren’t drinking on an empty stomach.
• Ensure the food is ready when you call everyone in for dinner. Starters should be on the table (or about to be) and the main course on hold, ready to be served up shortly (without getting spoilt).
Clear starter plates promptly, but always make sure that everyone has finished. Allow people to linger over their empty main course plates for a little longer, especially if there are serving dishes on the table with seconds to be had.
• Once everyone is seated around the table and the food has been served you will need to employ your powers of observation. A good host will refill a wine glass as soon as it is emptied or pass a serving dish if required. But don’t be over-insistent; guests will inevitably refuse a re-fill or pass over certain dishes, and you must never try to persuade them to change their minds.
• You will need to ensure that everyone is involved in the conversation – if they’re not actually talking, check that they’re listening with interest, rather than looking bored or left out. If there are signs of ennui or estrangement, intervene; ask a question, solicit an opinion, bring another person or point of view into the conversation.
• If you see your guests reaching for their winter woollens, you’ll know that you’ve been too stingy with the heating; conversely, red faces and divested clothing means you’ve probably overdone it. If in doubt, just ask and make sure everybody is comfortable.
• Don’t rush people, and don’t completely clear the table while they are still sitting there. Remove dirty dishes, but don’t act like you’re trying to load the dishwasher around them. You need to come across as relaxed and laid back, unphased by the mounting washing up; you don’t want to look like an obsessive housekeeper. Take the lead and ask people to leave the table for coffee and aperitifs. Guests will normally appreciate a change of scene and a more comfortable chair at the end of the evening.
• Ideally you will stay up until your last guest leaves. If it’s all going on too long, employ subtle hints: cups of coffee, offers of taxi cab numbers or spare beds, gentle clearing up. If it’s horribly late and you’re dead on your feet, your last resort is to say, “I’m sorry, I’m absolutely exhausted, I’m afraid I’ll have to go to bed now.” Even the most boorish guests should take the hint and make an exit.
Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.