Cherished readers, I know that having people over for dinner stresses you out. I know that you worry about what to serve and whether it will turn out okay and be ready on time and be bountiful enough to sate everybody. I know that you cringe at the thought of your guests eating off plain (and maybe even – gasp! – mismatched) dishes. I know that you obsess about cleaning everything from the oven to the floor under the couches, from the bathtub to the fridge, from the kids’ rooms to the back porch. I know that not having dripless candles or linen napkins or a glamorous decanter will stress you out of your ever-loving mind.
Why? Because you’re a real person and I’m a real person and I get it. It takes so much time and planning and preparation and organization that you rarely bother. So even though you keep telling yourself you’d like to have people over, and you even keep telling your friends, “Hey, let’s have dinner sometime”…it never happens.
I am about to teach you a very simple dinner-party trick that I learned while living abroad. It may sound tricky and overwhelming at first, but I promise if you try it once, you will discover that I speak truth.
Are you ready? My advice can be summed up in just two words: stop caring.
Yes, friends, that is it! Stop caring so much about whether or not everything will be perfect enough or pretty enough or delicious enough or ample enough and instead, switch your focus to caring about your guests.
Your guests are, in fact, the main point of the party. Not the perfect wine pairing, not the polished silver, not the background music, not the bathroom potpourri. Your guests.
When we lived in Ethiopia, everything was delightfully casual. Even fancy things, by necessity, had an air of flexibility about them. You never knew if you would have electricity or water on any given day. It was a normal occurrence to go to the grocery store for a couple of last-minute ingredients only to find that they didn’t have any of the things you needed. And in the missionary culture of sharing and blessing each other, there was nothing awkward about asking for, offering, or accepting offers of contributions to the meal. People would show up with a nice loaf of bread or a salad or a dessert and it didn’t have to be all strategically planned out ahead of time.
We simply focused on enjoying each other’s company, and it happened to involve sharing a meal together.
That’s still how we do dinner parties now that we’re back in Canada.
I will share with you an example from this past weekend. My husband was eager to smoke one of the turkeys in our freezer. Being as the bird was an astounding 27 pounds, we figured we should share it. So we invited a few families over. Two of the families are good friends of ours, but they had never met each other. And the third family had never been to our house before. (Does that scenario make your blood pressure jittery? Stop caring!) Two of our kids had overnight plans on Friday and I knew they wouldn’t be at their cherubic best for helping to get things ready on Saturday. (Would that turn you into a shrieking lunatic? Stop caring!) I myself had agreed to attend a birthday party with our youngest son all afternoon, so I wouldn’t be home methodically checking things off my to-do list. (Would that make you cancel your party altogether? Stop caring!)
As it turned out, I was home for less than an hour before our first guests arrived and I managed to throw together a big pan of stuffing, a pot of mashed potatoes, some delicious squash (which, admittedly, I had roasted and thrown in the crock pot earlier in the day), gravy and drinks. My husband looked after the turkey. Our guests brought veggie dishes and desserts.
I did not do any special cleaning (although we did pick up random clutter so there would be room to spread out all the food on the counters). We do not have enough matching dishes for 15 people. Nor enough matching chairs, for that matter. We used paper napkins and folding tables. We ate buffet-style. And we had so much fun.
My gravy didn’t look like it was going to turn out, so I mixed up a pot of packaged gravy – and then the first gravy magically thickened, so I just served them both. Weird, but whatever! The two husbands of the families that didn’t know each other actually grew up in the same small town a couple hours away and knew a bunch of the same people. Who knew? One of the table legs collapsed before dessert, but nothing broke or spilled and we fixed it and carried on. The children clustered around ipods and tablets after supper and entertained themselves while the adults talked and laughed.
None of it was stressful. All of it was fun. Why? Because I cared more about my friends than my perfection. And I trusted that their priorities were exactly the same: they came to be with us, not our flatware or our canapés. They had fun because they were welcome here in the midst of real life. We all felt free to snort-laugh because we weren’t hiding behind a façade of prim and proper.
Now it’s your turn. Maybe a turkey dinner for 15 is too much to start with. But perhaps you could do pasta for 8. Or burgers for 10. Don’t plan three months ahead of time. Don’t scrub the floor. Don’t rent a chocolate fountain. Don’t hire a barista. Stop caring! And I am absolutely sure that your dinner party will be completely fantastic.