Having people over doesn't have to be an ordeal. Niki Bezzant has tips on how to entertain with ease.
How to organise your time and not get stressed
Having people over can be pretty stressful, but it doesn't have to be. Here are my tips to make sure you stay cool, calm and collected.
Keep it simple
Don't think you have to make fancy food just because you've invited people for dinner. Think of the things you really like to eat and go from there. Definitely don't try a new dish for the first time when you're entertaining. Choose things you're familiar with and know how to do, even if it's just a simple bowl of pasta.
Choose dishes where you can do the majority of the work ahead
Slow-cooked stews are great because you can make them the night or day before and just cook some vegetables when your guests arrive. Roasts and bakes work well because you can prepare them ahead and the oven does the work while you relax with your guests. Things which can just be assembled at the last minute – such as quick salads, simple bakes and couscous dishes are useful.
Make a master list to work from on a large piece of paper
Draw up three columns. On the left, list the dishes you're cooking. On the right, list the things you need to buy for those dishes in logical order. In the middle, write down the things you need to do ahead to get the dishes ready. For example, you could peel and chop vegetables ahead of time, make the dessert, prepare the meat or fish, and portion out and assemble your ingredients ready to cook.
Think 'less is more'
You don't need three courses, nor six dishes as part of your main course. A couple of items – like a well-made shepherd's pie and a crisp salad – presented well and served in generous quantities are more impressive than lots of small dishes.
Get guests to help
When they ask what they can bring, give them specifics: a salad, some fruit, a bottle of mineral water. This makes them feel they are contributing and takes a bit of pressure off you.
You're (probably) not a chef and your house isn't a restaurant. Your friends know this, too, and they have come to see you, not experience your gourmet cuisine.
Easy and cheap ideas for table decoration
You don't need lots of flash gear to make a table look welcoming and special. Here are some quick and easy ideas:
- Placemats and cloth napkins are worth having to make the table look properly set. Look out for specials at homeware stores, and raid op shops for old linen napkins.
- Another idea for a casual table covering is a roll of butcher's paper or brown paper (both found in stationery shops). Lay it along the middle of the table with a bit hanging over the end, and set the table on top of it.
- Candles are a great way to make your table look fancy. Check out $2 shops for inexpensive candles, and try op shops for holders (they don't have to match). Tealight candles can often be found in bags of 20 or more, and lots of these on small saucers down the middle of the table can look effective.
- Flowers also add lots of ambiance. You don't need to spend lots of money at the florist. Single blooms floating in small glass bowls look stunning. Or take a look in your garden – foliage like manuka, olive leaves, small flax and magnolia leaves are as beautiful as flowers in vases.
- A twist on flowers is to raid the vege garden and use vegetables and herbs in vases on the table. Small cabbages, broccoli and herbs like parsley can look gorgeous.
- Look out for interesting plates, cutlery and serving spoons in charity shops. Things don't have to match to look great – different-shaped plates in a similar colour can be really striking.
Entertaining etiquette – guidelines for guests and hosts
Being a host is a responsibility, and so is being a guest. Here are some guidelines to keep things flowing smoothly.
- Be calm. Being a good host is really about making people feel as comfortable and welcome as possible. It feels awkward for them if you're flapping around in the kitchen in a panic when they arrive! You can avoid this by planning ahead and following the tips in Easy entertaining: Minimise the stress.
- Know your guests – or find out a bit about them. Try and avoid inviting people with absolutely nothing in common at the same time. It doesn't make for a relaxing evening. It's a good idea to check with people you don't know well for dietary issues such as allergies or intolerances.
- If guests bring wine, there's no rule that says you have to drink it with the meal if you've chosen the wine specially. On the other hand, if they say they would like to drink it, go with the flow and be flexible.
- Be on time, and if you can't be, phone ahead to let your hosts know. Everyone's time is precious.
- Make a contribution. You don't have to bring expensive wine or flowers, but a small thing like some home-picked fruit, a chunk of cheese, or a jar of chutney is a nice gesture to acknowledge the effort involved.
- Make sure you let your host know ahead if you've got a dietary issue, like an allergy or intolerance, or if you're vegetarian or vegan.
- Be appropriate. If everyone else is teetotal, don't go overboard on the wine. When it comes to conversation the old rules are good ones: steer away from religion or politics unless your host goes there first, and keep the dodgy jokes to yourself unless you know your fellow guests really well!
- Say thank you. A phone call or at the least a text message the next day is a small gesture that's just polite. A note or card in the mail is extra special and will probably make their day.
How to cater for special diets
We all know people who can't eat a particular food. If you've got someone with a dietary issue coming, and you're not sure what's okay, the best thing is to ask the person. In the case of allergies, this is very important, because getting it wrong could have life-threatening consequences. I think it's wise if you can serve the same dish to everyone, rather than giving one person a 'special' meal. Here are some ideas for dishes which work and will be enjoyed by everyone.
Vegetarian and vegan
- Vegetable pasta bakes (not for vegans, who don't eat cheese)
- Vegetable curries (see our budget Indian dinner party menu for four)
- Chilli made with beans and vegetables
- Lentil soups and stews
- Tofu and vegetable stir-fries
- Tofu me atballs
Gluten-free, wheat-free and dairy-free
- Roast chicken, roast vegetables and a big green salad
- Simple casseroles (make sure you use gluten-free stock) with mashed potato (use soy milk if dairy-free)
- Warm salads with meat and vegetables
- Thai curries (check your stock is gluten-free) and rice
- Paella, risotto and rice pilafs (use gluten-free stock)
All of the above will work, just make sure you avoid:
- Any and all whole nuts
- Peanut butter
- Satay sauce
- Peanut oil
- Any nut oil
- Check ingredients on any prepared dressings, sauces, vegetarian and Asian foods
Food styling tips
As any recipe writer or food stylist will tell you, good presentation can make all the difference since we do half our eating with our eyes! Here are some useful ways to give your dishes the 'wow factor'.
- Invest in some big white platters. Almost everything looks better piled on a white platter, from a green salad to a selection of breads and dips. Most of the time, platters in the middle of the table so everyone can help themselves, work really well.
- If you're doing individual plated dishes, don't overfill the plates. Most food looks better with a bit of space around it. So that people know there's more if they want seconds, put the extra in the middle of the table or off to the side.
- Colourful food always looks best, and is healthier, too. Try and choose dishes with heaps of colourful vegetables in them.
- When you have 'brown' dishes like stews and casseroles, adding a generous garnish of green, such as fresh herbs, will really lift the way the food looks.
- Individual portions of humble things – think fish pie, shepherd's pie, fruit crumbles – seem really special and look lovely.
- Side dishes can often be the little extra which lifts your dish above the ordinary. If you're having curry, add poppadoms, chutney and yoghurt. If it's a Mexican chilli, add your own homemade salsa and some chopped fresh coriander.
Wine tips: What goes with what
Wine experts usually say ‘there are no rules’ and anything goes. But for those of us who are less confident with choosing wine, here’s a general guide to what goes together best.
- Beef: Red wine usually works best. Try Cabernet Sauvignon and blends made from this.
- Lamb: Red again. Try Shiraz or Pinot Noir.
- Pork: Pork can handle red or white depending on the flavours. For roasts, try a lighter red like Merlot, or even a Rosé. For curries or stir-fries, try an aromatic white like Pinot Gris.
- Fish and seafood: Stick to white: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris.
- Curry and Asian-spiced dishes: Curries with Malaysian or Thai spices are brilliant with aromatic white wines like Gerwurtztraminer, Riesling, and sweeter Pinot Gris. Beer is also great with curry.
- Cheese: With blue cheese, a sweet wine can be amazing. Try late-harvest Riesling or other dessert wines. With sharp cheese like cheddar, try gutsy red wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
Starters and lunches
- A big white platter filled with small antipasto-style bites looks and tastes great. Use lots of fresh raw veges, a couple of interesting dips, and some quality black olives. To make this into lunch, add a big green salad and lots of crusty bread.
Simple main courses
- A big platter of spaghetti with a fresh tomato sauce, sprinkled with herbs and parmesan, served family-style in the middle of the table
- Slow-cooked beef or lamb curry, served with fluffy rice, poppadums, yoghurt, and spicy chutney
- Pasta bake with penne, cubed pumpkin and kumara, feta, olives and tomato pasta sauce. Sprinkle with parmesan and bake. Serve with a green salad.
- A jug of soda water with lots of chopped limes, lemons, or cucumber
- A jug of lime or elderflower cordial served with ice
- Light ginger beer with a splash of lime (great with curries)
Easy entertaining menus
Here are two easy, budget-friendly menus for six that you'll love to share, which also include step-by-step time plans and shopping lists for a seamless dinner party experience.
Menu 1: Fuss-free dining
We've taken the stress out of preparing this delicious, sit-down meal.
Menu 2: Cheat's cuisine
Your party guests have arrived and it's all under control with this light and tasty meal you just happen to have prepared – earlier.
"The dinner for eight was going well until I took out the apple pie from the oven using an apron as an oven glove. I shut the oven door with my elbow and headed for the table, when the pie was suddenly wiped from my hands – the apron ties had caught in the door! The pie smashed into pieces on the floor, in front of everyone. All went quiet, then my husband quipped, ‘I was really looking forward to that.’ We all laughed." – Jean Buick
"I was putting on a formal five-course dinner party. The guests were due to arrive in a few minutes and I was just doing the finishing touches, in this case puréeing the yummy tomato soup. The wand mixer, however, got into an awkward position, and suddenly there was tomato soup splattered all over the kitchen! I can’t believe it went so far… it looked like a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre!" – Adrienne Roke
"For a Christmas lunch shared with a few Chinese friends who had no family here, I had prepared a large roast chicken. My guests are quite used to Western food, but did wonder what the unusual stuffing was. It was paper towel that I had used to dry the inside with, but in my hurry, I hadn’t managed to take it all out! It was a ‘Christmas-patterned’ paper towel, too!" – Mandy Stutz
A great meal idea
“I love to do a piece of eye fillet roast (can be bought for about $20 kg) which has been rubbed with a mix of salt and pepper and olive oil, and then has garlic in slit pockets all over. Cooked medium-rare, this is fantastic. I serve it with roast vegetable salad and some steamed vegetables. It’s a very easy meal when serving a lot of people. I recently had six adults and seven children to feed, and the piece of eye fillet cost just on $20. It ended up being a cheap meal." – Julie Vidovich