9 Tips for Simple Entertaining

A simple table setting for two with a bottle of wineMy friend lived in a community where the women outdid themselves in making elaborate meals for company. But everyone preferred to the hostess who served a simple meatloaf and nothing else. She had something special as a hostess. It wasn’t the food, but it made people want to come back.

At the end of the day, a warm atmosphere counts for more than elaborate food and decorative presentation. You can spend your time making each roll into the shape of a turkey and layering your glasses with different colors of sorbet, but if you’re busy in the kitchen when the guests come, and the food is served lukewarm, what is the point? If you’re too exhausted to talk with people, and nervous in case everything doesn’t go as planned, your guests will feel uncomfortable.

Experience counts for a lot. If this is your first party, keep it small and informal. You may have great ideas, but it may not be wise to implement them all at once.

Always be aware of your guests, and sensitive to their needs. They will go away with a good feeling. As a side benefit, they’ll overlook anything that’s less than perfect.

My priorities for entertaining are listed below, in rough order:

  1. Food safety. You don’t want people to remember your party because they got sick. Cook food thoroughly, use fresh ingredients, and serve straight from the heat source or the refrigerator. Keep delicate foods covered. Contrary to conventional wisdom animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products spoil faster than mayonnaise, which contains preservatives (when store-bought). Hold extra food back and serve as needed.
  2. Welcome guests with a smile. Give them a personal word, an introduction to another guest, and a place to sit. You may want place settings or a seating chart for large dinner parties, a great activity for children or even guests. It’s unpleasant sitting next to a group of strangers who all want to talk about the old days. Hosts need to make sure this doesn’t happen, even if it means entertaining “outsiders” yourself.
    Good hosting includes a quick recovery when something goes wrong. If one of the courses spills or burns, don’t run to the store to replace it. Do without or quickly make up some tuna salad.
  3. Plenty of food and drinks. You don’t need a hundred different items, but there should be enough for surprise guests or if one of the items isn’t so good. Consult cookbooks or experienced cooks regarding quantities and remember that overdoing it causes another set of problems.
  4. Comfort. The room should be the right temperature, with enough chairs and room to maneuver. Group chairs for conversation. Food should be easily accessible or passed around.
  5. Smooth execution. Think about what you are serving and in what utensils. Keep an eye  for serving platters that need refilling—ask someone to help as you can’t be everywhere at once. Make sure food gets passed around and if you’re around a table, that everyone has access.  At a dinner party pass food around once more near the end.
  6. Appearance. If this is important to you make sure you allow time in your schedule for clothes, hair, and makeup.
  7. The additional items below are important, but only if you have planned the basics.  Keep lists and get an early start.

  8. Presentation. This includes unusual table settings, centerpieces, table arrangements, and fancy-looking food like carrot sticks tied together with green onion. People will ooh and aah, but it may not be worth the time investment.
  9. Cleaning. Focus on getting clutter out of the way, and the bathrooms. Do what you can but your guests probably won’t care if you vacuumed that day or the day before, or even last week.
  10. Entertainment. A speech or a game can turn a fun get-together into a memorable occasion. Ask guests to prepare, and have a (flexible) time limit.

What are your priorities in entertaining?

You may also enjoy:

Bar Mitzvah Menu Planning

Do You Admit to Guests that the Food Isn’t Great?

Food Processor Basics

Photo credit: jere-me


  1. It can be fun for guests to have lots of different dishes to choose from, but it isn’t absolutely necessary. It’s often better to have a little less variety but more of each item. Also, it gets complicated making too much of a variety.

    Some people like “social games” and other people avoid them. A host who is into these games should keep in mind that they will *detract* from the experience for some guests. They might prefer a more standard format of conversation.

    • Thanks, Ilana, for your response. I agree that often it’s best not to have too many different items.

      And good point about the games–you have to know your audience.

  2. Food safety is such a biggie. Fetching my kids from a friend’s house on Shabbat once, I saw saw a potato kugel steaming away on top of a big tin hot water kettle. The moist, warm conditions were perfect for creating mold, and in fact the kugel was entirely green. I wonder how long it had been heating up on top of the hot water. The lady of the house didn’t think anything was wrong with it.

    I didn’t allow my kids to eat there again. Yich!

    Another time my husband and I got violently sick after eating Shabbat lunch with people who didn’t hold with using soap on Shabbat. The dishes came to the table having been simply rinsed with cold water – greasy from the Friday night dinner. The whole family had gastroenteritis, and of course we came down with it too. Double yich! I never ate there again, which was too bad because the host was my husband’s boss and his wife was a nice woman (just clueless).

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