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A Mother’s Heartfelt Guide to Entertaining

Last year my daughter gave me Story Worth for Christmas. It was such a fun and meaningful gift. Every week I receive a question in my inbox. I write a story based on the question; and at the end of the year, all my stories will be made into a book. Some of the questions are designed to take you back in time: “What is your earliest childhood memory?” And some to evaluate your inner life: “What brings you peace of mind?” If you are looking for a unique gift, check out www.storyworth.com.

I spent a good deal of time answering one question: “Do you have any tips on hosting a great party or dinner?” What follows is a mother’s heartfelt guide to entertaining. Since we are entering the holiday season where we do more entertaining than other times of the year, I thought I would share my answers with you. For those of you who are experienced hosts, it may be too much. If you are looking for recipe ideas, I have also included a recipe for Butternut Squash Bisque that I served at a luncheon a few years ago. I had dinner last week with a good friend, Cathy VerStraeten, who attended the luncheon and reminded me how delicious this soup is.

A Mother’s Heartfelt Guide to Entertaining follows:

I love entertaining and inviting friends and family for dinner. Nothing warms my heart more than the gentle buzz of those I love gathered around a table sharing food and drinks and each other’s company. When I prepare for a gathering, the single most important thing I do is focus positive energy into each step of the preparation, whether it is getting my house ready, preparing the food I will serve, or setting the table. Right before my guests arrive, I want my home to vibrate with the positive energy I have put into making every detail of the event special. After years of entertaining and learning by trial and error, following are my tips for hosting a great party or dinner.

One Month Before: Pick a Date: The first step in planning any party or dinner is identifying the date. When you have hosted several parties, it is possible to plan a party in a week or two. However, if you are new to entertaining, start making plans for you party at least one month in advance. Advanced planning helps you organize all the details that make an event truly spectacular.

If you are hosting a small number of guests, you might want to check their schedules before finalizing a date. For larger numbers, your schedule should dictate the timing. When selecting a date, avoid scheduling any other events or appointments that day or even the day before. You want to focus your time and energy on your party.

Decide on a Theme: If you are hosting a holiday party, this isn’t an issue—the holiday is the theme. If your party isn’t centered around a holiday, having a theme helps you create a menu and décor that ties the event together. For example, in the fall the theme could be Octoberfest or autumn foods—brats and beer for a more casual theme or butternut squash bisque for a luncheon. Taco Tuesday is a fun theme for a casual get together. The menu is easy—a taco bar and margaritas.

Plan the Flow of Your Party: Give some thought ahead of time on how you want your party to flow. Will you offer your guests an appetizer and before dinner drinks? Will you serve dessert? Will you play any games or have any activities? Decide on a Guest List: The most fun events are those where the guests know each other. However, if you are inviting people that aren’t acquainted, give some thought to your invitation list and invite guests who have something in common and will get along well together. If your guests are not acquainted with each other, consider having an ice breaker planned; perhaps an activity or game or a question that everyone answer. “Name the top item on your bucket list.”

Send out Invitations: You may not want to create a formal invitation, but if you have a theme, it is easy to create something fun. Email invitations are an environmentally friendly way to send out invites. You may want to telephone your guests. Whichever is more comfortable for you, be sure you are clear on: Who, When, Where, Why, and What. If you send your invitations via snail mail, allow for at least a week for the Post Office to deliver them.

Be sure to ask for an RSVP so you know how many people to expect. If you don’t know if your guests have any special dietary restrictions, like gluten-free or Vegan, or food allergies, be sure to clarify this when they reply. You will want to take this into consideration before finalizing your menu.

Budget. Before you decide on your menu and what drinks you will serve, determine your budget; and plan your party accordingly.

Plan your Menu. I don’t like to plan my menu until I know who my guests will be. I recently invited one of my husband’s coworkers and his wife to dinner. I asked if either of them had any food allergies or dietary restrictions. His wife, who has several food allergies, was grateful I had asked this question, saying that of all the dinner invitations they have accepted, this was the first time this crucial question was asked.

Plan what you will serve. If you want to serve a recipe you have never prepared, it’s a good idea to make it beforehand just to be sure you like the results and have worked out any kinks. You might want to adjust the ingredients a bit.

Bar. Decide on what cocktails or wine or beer you will serve. Keep your theme in mind when planning cocktails. Be sure to plan to provide non-alcoholic beverages for your guests who don’t partake. If you are hosting a large group, it’s a good idea to have a self-service bar. Decide where you will set up your drink area.

Two Weeks Before

Music. Select any music you want to play to set the mood. Again, keep your theme in mind when thinking about music. Decorations. Decide on your decorations. For example, Thanksgiving is coming up. Will you have an assortment of gourds on your table? Shop for or collect any items you want to use. At Christmas time, pinecones from your yard add a festive flair. Are you going to make place cards or napkin rings? One Thanksgiving, I used leaves I found at the craft store to make place cards. There are lots of ideas on Pinterest. If you want to get crafty, do it ahead of time. Coordinate your decorations with your theme. Don’t forget candles. The soft glow of candlelight on a table always adds a warm ambiance. Tableware and tablecloths. Make sure you have enough table settings for the number of guests you are hosting. If you don’t have enough that match, I love the look of an eclectic mixture of dishes and glasses. What about tablecloths and napkins? When I entertain, one of my secrets to creating different color schemes is renting tablecloths and napkins. And, bonus, you put the dirty linens in a return bag, and you don’t have to wash them. If you are going to rent anything for your party, do so two weeks in advance.

Chairs and tables. Do you have enough chairs and tables? If you don’t, consider renting them. One Thanksgiving I hosted 35 people and didn’t have enough tables or chairs to seat that number. I called the party supply rental company and rented five large round tables and 35 chairs. I loved the look of all the chairs matching.

Special Orders. If you are going to order any specialty bakery items, like breads or pastries, or any gourmet food items, like a prime rib roast, turkey, or seafood, do it ten days to two weeks before your party.

One Week Before

Shopping List. Make your shopping list. Double check all the ingredients needed for a recipe and make sure you are not missing anything. It is unnerving to be making a curry recipe and discover you are out of curry—especially when you are expecting company in a few hours.

Shopping: Purchase any non-perishable items like coffee, tea, canned goods, mixers, and alcohol before your final shopping trip. Clean your House. Don’t wait until the last minute. Do whatever cleaning or tidying up you like to do when you are having company three to seven days before your event. If you procrastinate and leave too many chores until the day before or day of your event, you might be too tired to enjoy the evening.

Prepping and Cooking Schedule. Make a written plan on what you can prepare and prep in advance. I have been doing this for so long, it is second nature for me, but when you first begin entertaining, writing down your plans will help you be more organized. Using Thanksgiving as an example, there is so much to do for this meal, I always chop the onions and celery for my stuffing the day before.

Give some thought to what recipes or ingredients should be prepped first. One of the hardest parts of preparing a meal is timing—you want everything to be ready at the same time. Try to estimate the time it will take you to prepare each dish, and then allow yourself a little more time. If there are any items on your menu that can be prepared a day or two before, note that on your plan.

Clean out your Fridge. It’s a good idea to make space in your refrigerator before hand so that you will have plenty of room for your purchases.

Three Days Before

Set your Intentions. Remember to focus positive energy into each step of your preparation.

Furniture. If you need to move any furniture to accommodate tables or your guests, do it three days before. The year I hosted 35 people for Thanksgiving dinner I had to totally rearrange my basement to have enough room for five large round tables. This can be a bit of work. Give yourself plenty of time.

Coat Room. If you are hosting an event during the winter, have a place where your guests can leave their coats.

Shopping. Do the majority of your grocery shopping three days before. There may be some perishable items that need to be picked up the day of your event, but most of the produce and other perishables you purchase will keep nicely in the fridge for a few days.

The Day Before

Set the Table. When I made my first Thanksgiving dinner, my mother suggested I set the table the night before. This is a must in my book. I like decorating my table the day before as well. I always put positive energy into this part of the process. It helps me focus my intentions for an enjoyable party.

Set Up Your Self-Service Bar. If you are having a cocktail party, you will want a more elaborate set up. For a dinner party, I try to keep it simple. I like to have a party bucket filled with ice for beer, wine, and other beverages I want to serve cold, like soft drinks or bottled water. I set out the appropriate glasses—beer, wine, or any specialty-themed glasses, like margarita glasses. Your drink area should be stocked with cocktail napkins, a corkscrew, bottle opener, tongs, and a bucket of ice for drinks. Begin your Prep. Chop or dice whatever ingredients you can. There are some items like lettuce that will wilt if prepped too early. Only prep what will stay fresh. If you are marinating any items, do so the day before. Also, desserts that aren’t served warm can be made a day ahead of time as well. Some cookbook authors will give you tips on what can be made ahead. Follow their suggestions.

Cleaning. You may have some last-minute chores you want done before your guests arrive. Try to get them done the day before.

Party Day

Flowers. If you are having a fresh floral arrangement, purchase it the day of your event. If you are ordering it from a florist, consider having it delivered to save time.

Last-Minute Shopping. Pick up any specialty bakery items you may have ordered that have a short shelf life or any fresh fish or seafood items that need to be purchased the same day they are eaten. Get ice.

Chill Drinks. White wine should be chilled at least three hours before serving. Chill any non-alcoholic beverages you will serve.

Cooking. Finish preparing what you will serve your guests. Load the dishwasher as you cook and run it before your guests arrive. It is always nice, although sometimes difficult, to have your dishwasher empty when the evening starts. Ice. About an hour before your event starts, fill your party bucket and ice bucket with ice. Place previously chilled drinks on ice. Fill water glasses with ice and water.

Last-Minute Details. Light the candles. Turn on the music.

Butternut Squash Bisque with Leeks and Fresh Thyme Serves 4

Serve with a green salad and a hearty loaf of bread.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 2 cups leeks, washed and thinly sliced 3 teaspoons minced garlic 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth 1 cup Chardonnay or other white wine 3 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into chunks Salt to taste Freshly ground black pepper to taste 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme ½ cup milk

In a large, heavy kettle, heat butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add leeks and garlic and cook for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until leeks are barely tender. Add chicken or vegetable broth, wine, and butternut squash and simmer about 20 minutes, or until butternut squash is tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add fresh thyme and simmer another 2 minutes. Purée small amounts of squash, including any remaining liquid, in a food processor or blender. Return bisque to the kettle, add milk, and continue cooking until heated through.

For the garnish:

4 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded (optional) Crème fraiche (optional) Crisp fried pancetta, diced (optional) 1/8 teaspoon balsamic vinegar or to taste (optional) Fresh thyme leaves to taste (optional)

To serve:

Ladle bisque into soup bowls, sprinkle with cheese, top with a dollop of crème fraiche and a sprinkling of pancetta, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. Using a spoon, swirl crème fraiche, pancetta, and balsamic vinegar into bisque, making a circular ribbon pattern. Garnish with thyme leaves. Serve immediately.

Cooking Tip: Leeks can be sandy. Place cut pieces of leek into a large bowl filled with warm water. Using your fingers, whirl the pieces vigorously to remove any grit. The sand should sink to the bottom of the bowl. Scoop out the leeks and transfer them to a colander. Rinse and drain thoroughly.

Shopping for Butternut Squash: Look for butternut squash with small bottoms and a long neck. Do not buy winter squash with soft spots or bruises. Buy rock-hard squash. When you press hard on winter squash, it should not give to pressure. Its skin should be matte, not shiny. Select squash with firm, full, cork-like stems. Avoid specimens that have skinny or green stems.

Storing winter squash: Store squash in a cool, dry place. Thick-skinned winter squash can last for months. Squash with soft, moist flesh surrounding the seedpod deteriorates more quickly.


Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Insider Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.

Copyright 2021 All Rights Reserved Carol Ann Kates

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