In January, Mike and I were snowshoeing through the breath-taking landscape of Interlaken, Switzerland. Our first night in town, we went sledding down a pitch black mountain in the middle of the night. We were wearing all the layers we had, it was so cold! But the beauty above us made the adventure worth the chill. The stars sparkled like confetti.
We slowly made our way down, spotting sharp curves and steep cliffs as we went. After an hour, we arrived at the base of the mountain and wandered into a tiny bar.
They served us piping hot cheese fondue and local beer by the pitcher. We dined at a table with 8 strangers who didn't speak the same language, but that didn't matter. We all laughed and drank together well into the night.
Now whenever someone serves me a beer, I think about that tiny shack in the middle of the mountains. It's light that glowed for miles amidst the dark, snowy mountainscape. And the warmth and happiness we felt as we dined there.
Those feelings are exactly what I try to create for my guests when I entertain. Hosting, for us, is about gathering together and enjoying each other's company.
Now, entertaining means different things to different people. But whatever it means for you, the best way to achieve it is to create your own Entertaining Playbook. Consider it your secret weapon for achieving your entertaining goals.
Everything I do when I entertain is intentional. I have a playbook in my head of how to achieve my wins and I follow it religiously. It contains the following golden nuggets:
1) A Pre-Arrival Cleaning Check List
This can vary a little depending on guests and party type, but a few rules always ring true:
- Having a clean home is actually more important than having a perfectly decorated one. If you have dirty floors or dusty furniture, people won't feel very relaxed.
- The bathroom must always be spotless. It's the one place your guests are alone, so make sure it is in ship shape! Read more about how to always keep your house clean here.
- If you are having babies or young children over, pay extra attention to floors. Also, look for anything that needs to be child-proofed for safety.
- Avoid clutter at all costs. It makes people feel crowded. Think clean, clear counter tops and make sure everything has a proper place to live.
2) A System for Greeting Guests.
Mike does most of the heavy lifting as guests arrive. I'm usually wrapping things up in the kitchen when they start pouring in the front door, so Mike answers it. He collects coats and gets everyone situated with drinks. He's awesome at it and this takes a lot of pressure off me. The key things to remember for when your guests first arrive:
- Greet them with a smile and a kind word
- Take their coats and show them where they can set their purses and other belongings down
- Give them something to drink. Immediately!
This stuff is really simple but it makes a big difference. It's important that one person has these duties and does them well because it sets the tone for the rest of the event.
I am always amazed at how often I arrive at someone's home and 20 minutes later I'm still standing there in my coat. Or wondering if it would be rude to ask for a glass of water because they never offered me a drink.
Anyway, to make drinks easy, try having a bottle of wine or signature drink out and ready for pouring.
3) Guidelines for Creating the Ultimate Ambiance
I could go on about ambiance for days, but I'll try to keep it brief here. When it comes to designing your party environment, consider:
What does winning at entertaining look like for you?
To me, winning is when my guests are so happy and relaxed that they feel at home.
For example, recently I invited some close friends over for dinner and a movie. We noshed on appetizers and had a simple dinner with tasty wine. Then I shooed them down to the family room to pick a movie while I finished up dishes. At the moment I turned the corner to join them in the family room, I saw that everyone was horizontal.
They're all lounging comfortably on the couches, snuggled under hand-knit blankets. As I watched them sipping wine and laughing among themselves, my heart swelled a little. I did it! I made them feel at home.
To achieve my ideal environment, I focus on warmth and comfort. There are candles lit in every single room a guest might wander into. (Seriously, so many candles! I'm pretty sure my in-laws think I'm a giant fire hazard.)
There's always a tabletop fireplace burning in the living room. It doesn't give off much heat so it creates the warmth visual all year long. If it's winter, I also light the big fireplace downstairs so guests can enjoy its cozy crackle.
I also have countless blankets and pillows available. My favorite blankets are the ones I knit because they have a lovely weight to them. When you snuggle under one, they feel like a hug.
I have sort of a weird approach to music. I don't like to pick a generic dinner party playlist. I choose music based on guests and occasion.
If we're having a birthday party for someone, I like to play a mix of their favorite artists all day. It makes them feel super comfortable and they, of course, will immediately love it. You get extra points if you catch them humming a favorite when they think no one is paying attention.
You can never go wrong with themed music for themed events. Bachata for a Cinco de Mayo party. Horror movie soundtracks for a Halloween Movie Night. You get the idea.
Soundtracks are actually an amazing source for party music. They naturally strike feelings and emotions in the listener. Because they were written and composed for that exact purpose.
It really works. Next time you're planning a romantic dinner, try sourcing music from movie scores. The more romantic the scene of the movie, the better.
Consider alternatives to the basic playlist too. My husband has a massive record collection, so sometimes we'll fire up his turntable. We take turns pulling albums from a display and playing tracks while we eat.
Norah Jones actually has a piano in her kitchen so she can play whenever the mood strikes her. It's my dream to have a piano for my guests and myself to play during a party. So far, my hubs isn't convinced the piano will fit in the house... (#lifegoals)
It's become more about ambiance and less about the show, for me. My approach at this point is playing with what you have and don't over think it. I try to arrange candles in different ways or dig things I haven't used in a while out of storage. As long as your keeping up with your seasonal decorating, there's really no need to go crazy with party decor.
Setting the Table.
I always have a set table with polished silverware, and tall glasses filled with water.
Polishing the silverware. Ok, so that might sound snobby, but it's not. Silverware falls under the category of "stuff guests physically interact with". It's part of their tactile experience, as are the wine glasses they drink from and the napkins on their laps.
When you're buying items for your table, always spend more on things in that category. Silverware should have a nice weight to it. Glasses should have beautiful curves and cuts. Mix colors and textures to add interest. Buy a couple sets of quality cloth napkins. You can cut costs on plates, and plain white dinnerware is the best way to showcase your food.
The water thing comes from my bartending days, when I learned that people can never have too much water. Like ever. Make sure you're getting up a couple times during the meal to refresh drinks and refill waters too.
4) Good To Know Tips for Food & Drinks
I do try to pair food and wine as best I can. I think it elevates the guest experience when flavors come together well. The easiest way to find a great pairing is to:
- Serve the wine you're cooking with.
- Serve "like with like." For example, if you're cooking a recipe that comes from the Burgundy region of France, like Coq Au Vin. The wines from that area will be natural partners to the dish.
- Serve wine you love to drink.
Wine always tastes better with air. It's not unusual for me to decant a bottle or two a couple hours in advance of the party so the wines have time to relax. You want your guests to enjoy the full potentiality of the wine, so don't be shy about opening early.
If you're serving a new signature cocktail, it's always best to do a dry run a couple days before. Practice makes perfect! Also, it's easier to serve cocktails to crowds if you have the liquors and mixers already in a pitcher. Then all you have to do is shake or pour over ice as the drink requests roll in.
Never underestimate the power of a drink garnish. Even if it's a little wedge of citrus on a water glass or a sliced strawberry on the side of a flute of champagne. Small stuff like that packs a punch for your guests. It reflects care and attention to detail.
What if you're serving craft beers and high-end wines, but you have one friend who likes a cheap domestic brew?
Buy them the cheap beer. The point is to make your guests comfortable and to make sure they have a good time. Don't try to force your advanced beer knowledge on them. Some people like what they like. Just go with it.
Along with that, let's talk food.
When it comes to food, KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. A fancy dinner is not going to impress a table full of picky eaters. (Ask me how I know!)
Sometimes, as a foodie, I can get a little overzealous about the menu. It's just so much fun to try new recipes! But if no one will eat your fabulous meal, you've missed the mark.
We all want to impress a little when we entertain, I get it. But forcing people out of their comfort zones is not going to score you any points. In fact, it could cause them to reject future invitations.
Which brings us to the most important food rule: your guests should NEVER go home hungry. Ever. You want to make sure there is more than enough for everyone to eat. Leftovers aren't going to kill you.
Also, always set your coffee pot up ahead of time so you can start it as soon as the meal finishes.
5) Tiny personal touches.
This is my favorite! A couple weeks back, I mentioned that I keep files about my loved one's preferences and allergies. This really helps with creating little personal touches when you host parties.
I enjoy finding unique ways to make my guests feel warm, welcome and comfortable. And I try to find fun gestures to express just how happy we are that they've come to spend time with us.
For example, I placed a 6 pack of an uncle's favorite beer next to his recliner when I hosted the Super Bowl this year. It was cold and waiting for him and he thought it was the best thing ever.
Little things like that go a long way.
Another thing I like to do is cut down on the chaos around the table. I always make sure everyone has their own individual dish of butter. This prevents conversation disruption. No one has to ask for anything they need to be passed to them.
People love having their own mini anything. Individual wine decanters were another hit. Once, I even served everyone their own individual cheese plates on tiny granite slabs.
Be creative and have fun with it. Little delights make your parties memorable and they boost guest enjoyment.
So now that you've had a peek at my playbook, it's your turn to put together an Entertaining Playbook!
If you have any fun tips or tricks, make sure you share them on our Facebook page. I always love learning new ways to dazzle people!