Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Well-Planned Table

My husband and I have people in our home at least two or three times a week. So, I do a lot of simple entertaining. I've had to learn how to pull together dinners, dessert parties, and snacks for a church meeting quickly.

Entertaining on short notice takes one skill set. It's good for all of us to learn how to do this. Every woman, at some time, will need to whip up a quick meal or host a little party without much time to prepare.

But, there's another type of hospitality: Often, we have plenty of notice before an event. At such times, we may want to "go all-out". After all, it's fun to set an extra special table, and it's fun to do little things for our family and guests that we might not be able to do when entertaining on short notice.

Many of our ideas of what makes for beautiful hospitality developed when people of even modest means had at least one servant in the home. Today's woman isn't likely to have outside help. She must take care of the preparation, serving, and clean-up herself or enlist members of her family to assist.

When I think of this, I remember the wife of my husband's former boss. She was a wonderful hostess. One year, the boss and his wife invited everyone in the department and their spouses to a Christmas dinner. The boss told my husband that his wife had started the preparations three weeks ahead. For one thing, the number of guests required that extra tables be set out, and they placed these about according to her plan. Then, she laid out the tablecloths and placed non-perishable decorations on them.

(One of my goals for my next "all-out" occasion is to iron the napkins ahead of time and set them out on the table).

Now, this woman's children were grown, as are mine now, though her grandchildren did visit her. If you have active children in the home, you might not be able to set out extra tables and keep tablecloths neat for three weeks. But, if you put your mind to it, I'm sure you can think of things to do ahead of time that will keep until your special occasion. You could fashion decorations for the table and keep them in a large plastic tub until the date of your dinner party, for example.

The boss' wife had one table set in the corner with ice and drinks and glasses on it so that people could have a little refreshment as they mingled while all the guests arrived. I'm sure she had a few appetizers set out as well, though I don't really remember. Then, she served dinner buffet style.

After dinner, she opened a cabinet, where she had set up coffee and cups. As we all set together, she suggested a game that helped everyone find our more about each other.
When we left, she handed each one of the couples a little wrapped gift.

Because of this woman's behind the scenes planning and hard work, everything went smoothly. The hostess had organized everything in a way that allowed her to serve everyone without appearing frazzled. She was able to manage the dinner and devote attention to her guests, as well. She had a knack for making everyone feel at home.

One spring, she had many of us over for an informal lunch. I can't remember the occasion, but I think it might have been Memorial Day. Again, she had planned well and had laid out things so that the luncheon moved along smoothly. She had set long tables in her screened in porch, which had a great view of the backyard. She used green tablecloths and inexpensive summer-themed plates. She served the yummiet lunch. Afterwards, we sat outside on the patio, which had been set up so that people could enjoy a leisurely conversation.

I'm sure that this woman, like all of us, had her moments when some little disaster threatened to throw her off her plans. But, she must have learned to take them in stride. I'm sure that she was an experienced enough hostess that she was able to go to "plan b" if "plan a" went awry.

Here are some ideas to help you plan for a dinner event:

From four to two weeks ahead: Determine guest list, extend invitations, plan menu, plan seating, determine if any guest who might be coming has special dietary need, decide what table coverings you will use, and determine, what, if any decorations you will need. Borrow extra tables or serving dishes if you need to. If you will be using a serving dish or cookware that you don't store in your kitchen, bring it out of storage and clean it. For example, you might keep your large turkey roaster put away, bringing it out for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Begin to buy non-perishable food items, so that you can gradually work the expense of the party into your grocery budget. If you want to give out hostess gifts, make them or buy them. If you are on a tight budget, the Dollar store is a great place to find little presents.
Make a schedule for whatever house cleaning you want to do before the party and start doing waht you can now. (Note: Guests will not be inspecting every corner of your house.)
Decide what you will wear and, if you have little children, think through what they will wear.

Two weeks ahead: Make a schedule for your meal. For example, the ham needs to go in at this time, and the potatoes need to go in that this time. Determine if any items can be prepared ahead of time and frozen. Polish silver if you are going to use it and if it needs it. Continue to work items into your grocery budget. Wrap hostess gifts. Make place cards if you really want to get fancy! Make sure you have tea, coffee, sugar.

One week ahead: Do a weekly house cleaning. Finish buying items you need for meal. Make final guest count and adjust seating and food preparation accordingly. If you can feed your family in kitchen, and you are going to have party in dining room, set the dining room table for the party and place a cloth over it to protect the setting from dust. Fill salt and pepper shakers. Do you have cream for coffee or tea if you are serving any? Get your outfit ready.

Plan the stages of clean-up. Plan a way to remove dirty dishes from the table after each course. You may have only the meal as one course and a dessert as another course, so plan how you will serve dessert. You may want to serve the main meal at a dining room table and then retire to a living space for dessert and coffee. Plan the steps you will take to get your house back in order after the party.

Ask one of your friends who will be attending the party if she will mind helping you do little things, such as watch out to see when guests need a refill of ice, water, or tea or slicing and serving a dessert. A good friend can also help keep the conversation going at moments when you need to be in the kitchen.

If you have daughters at home, helping you with hospitality is an important step to help them become confident in doing it on their own once they have their own home. Even sons can learn to have a serving heart by helping you with the dinner or party. At the very least, they can move chairs for you, etc.

Day before or day of party: Cut or buy fresh flowers, if you will be using them. Arrange them.

Night before: Prepare any food that can be prepared. Put new stick of butter in butter dish and place in fridge until you pull it out.

The morning of: Prepare relish trays if you are using them.

Day of: Cook meal, set out food at appropriate time. Freshen water for flowers, if needed. Do whatever is needed for your personal grooming.

Forty to thirty minutes before guests arrive: Take a few minutes to pray for your guests. Change into the clothing you will be wearing for the event. Relax for a minute or two. Then, when you feel refreshed, resume whatever needs to be done before you receive your guests.

Note: Most likely, you will take your apron off before your guests arrive. However, if your event is something homey rather than formal -- say an extended-family Sunday dinner -- you could change from a work apron into a dressier white apron.



Meredith said...

What a great post! Glad to have found your blog through Emma at Charming The Birds from the Trees.

Elizabeth said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Meredith. Thanks for stopping by my corner of the web.

Julieann said...

Elizabeth, I have been known to keep my apron on the entire time (giggles). What a wonderful post, I just love entertaining:)


Elizabeth said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Julieann.

I'm sure you always look charming in your apron. I've been known to look down and realize that I have on an old apron that has served it's purpose well -- by catching the stains that might have ruined my clothing. I think that must be why women of yesteryear often kept a ruffly "Sunday" apron. But, then I'd get that stained, too!