The No. 1 response I get from people who are hesitant to host a dinner party is: “I don’t cook as well as you do.” Well…I beg to differ!
Almost everyone has a “signature dish”—a one-pot or crockpot or casserole-dish meal they absolutely ROCK. It might be lasagna. It could be chili. Maybe a simple pasta dish or soup or Sunday roast or pot pie. There’s high potential it’s a family recipe passed down through generations, so it doesn’t feel “special” enough for a dinner party. But let me assure you: It is!
Most guests are simply delighted to be invited to dinner. They don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards. They’re served in a comfortable setting, under no pressure to plow through their meal so the server can clear the table and seat the next patrons waiting in the lobby. They don’t have to scan the menu to see what they can afford. They don’t have to leave a tip.
Doesn’t that sound like a winning scenario??
The No. 2 response I get from people who are hesitant to host is: “I don’t have fancy things.” Well. Do you have a tablecloth or table mats? Do you have everyday dishes? Water glasses? Paper napkins? Do you have enough silverware for everyone? If not, could you borrow some? I’ve done that!
And guess what? Most dinner guests are absolutely delighted to contribute to the meal. When they say the magic words—“What can I bring?”—be ready with a little tidbit you know about their cooking skills. Do they make a killer dessert? Suggest that. Do they have good cheese instincts? Good enough to put together a little charcuterie board? Score! Are they bread makers? Dip makers? Deviled-egg makers? Take that opportunity to let them shine! If they’re not particularly handy in the kitchen, do they have an excellent wine collection? They’d probably love to share a bottle or two.
See what we did there? We put together a delightful evening with one phone call. It’s really that simple. So go through your worn, tattered recipes and select the one you know is a winner. Then pick up the phone and invite over a lovely person or couple or family today. You won’t regret it.
I’m not a particularly picky eater. Seriously. The food could be patio-grilled. It could be straight from the crockpot. It could be gourmet or even takeout. But if you serve it on paper plates with plastic forks and a paper towel for a napkin, you’re gonna lose me.
My husband Jimmy realized this the very first time he asked me over for dinner. We hadn’t been dating long. His place was squeaky clean, fragrant candles glowed invitingly, soft 80s music played…and then he offered me wine in a red Solo cup.
I’ll pause as you imagine my internal scream.
“Ohhhh…” I murmured in a squeaky voice. “Do you have a glass? Of any kind? Even a juice glass?” He dug around and found a heavy beer glass that may or may not have been cleaned in the previous year. I took it. The next time I was invited to dinner, actual wine glasses stood proudly on the counter. And that’s when I knew he was a keeper.
See—anyone who’s special to you deserves the real things at a meal: non-disposable plates, metal utensils, serving bowls, glassware, not-paper-towels napkins. Note that I didn’t list bone China or sterling silver or lead crystal or fine linen. If you have those—great! Use them! But if you don’t, just go with your everyday dishes…that are actual dishes. They don’t even have to match!
And don’t forget the placemats. Everybody deserves a placemat. Yes—even the kids! My brothers and I ate off laminated placemats of Michigan landmarks. There was often a battle for the Mackinac Bridge mat. So fun…and educational! Mom just wiped them clean after meals.
If you’re feeling particularly bold—or if your guest is particularly special—add some flowers and candles. Put your condiments in little bowls or cups. Get completely ridiculous and add a centerpiece. Lose your mind with wine glasses. Voila! Beauty abounds!
Your table doesn’t have to be gorgeous every time, but it’s a great habit to form, educational for kids, and a step up in social dining skills. So, explore your cabinets, assemble the elements, and try it tonight!
My husband Jimmy and I have an ongoing battle over the dining table centerpiece. Meaning: I want one, he doesn’t. I adore a dramatic bowl or vase or jar of eclectic, conversational items. He doesn’t. I like to layer a base, then a vessel, then an assortment of interesting flowers or items. He—wait for it—doesn’t.
If it were up to him, the dining table would be starkly, sadly naked.
Now, he has a point sometimes. If the table is loaded with dishes and food, and all sides are packed with laughing people, a three-foot vase of gladiolus just gets in the way. But if it’s a small gathering—three or four people—a low bowl of hydrangea blooms or pinecones adds a sophisticated touch.
If you struggle with dreaming up a table centerpiece, you are not alone. They were commonplace with our parents and grandparents (I give you: the cornucopia), and still take center stage during business luncheons and fancy parties. But a centerpiece doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated or even floral. It just needs to be interesting.
If you have a cutting board, you have a base. If you have an artsy bowl, you have a vessel. If you have a collection of anything—marbles, dried flowers, copper utensils, artificial fruit or vegetables—you have a filler. You can skip the vessel entirely and put a houseplant on the cutting board. Voila! Centerpiece.
Let’s give it a try: Choose a board, put it on the table, then look around your house. Bring some odds and ends over. Try different combinations. Grab a glass bowl, fill it with water, then float some candles or mature blooms from your own gardens in the center. Lovely!
And you know what? You don’t have to throw a dinner party to showcase your table creations. They can be just for you and your family. Before long, every decorative item in your home will have centerpiece potential. And then my work will be done.
I’m renowned in my social circles for having a vast—some might say, ridiculous—collection of cooking utensils. If you need it, I probably have it. So, you’ll want to borrow my bamboo toast tongs any day now, right?
If the tongs aren’t your thing, you could open some of my kitchen drawers and fish out a mango slicer, boiled egg slicer or butter slicer…since I apparently have an overwhelming desire to slice things. But I also have a garlic press, egg separator and lemon/lime squeezer amongst my spatulas, wooden spoons, and whisks. If a recipe calls for it, I’m clearly more than ready.
And, honestly, that puts me halfway to getting the job done, doesn’t it?
Same with gardening. I probably don’t really need three shovels, four rakes, two kneeling pads, five shears, and three spades. And my clay pot collection is a little, shall we say, excessive. The shocker is: I actually use all of them! #Truth
You can often find me prowling around my gardens with my green utility cart, stopping at a problem bed, selecting the right tool, attacking the weed or spent bloom or dead branch with practiced ease. I like to think these problems see me coming and shudder with dread. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, wild onion.
When you take on any home task, having the right tools on hand can be essential to even getting started. If it’s the perfect tool, and you’ve been just dying to use it—like the melon baller I picked up recently—you’ll be on the lookout for any excuse to try it out. Then watch the how-to video. Then try it again. (Sorry, pockmarked cantaloupe…I’m savvier now.)
So, open those drawers. Paw through those garage shelves. See anything interesting? Anything inspiring? Pick it up and tackle that job today. Now, excuse me as I go grate a tomato. I have a tool for that.
I’d made the daily trek out to get the mail for three years until it finally hit me: My mailbox area wasn’t pretty.
I do a lot of neighborhood drive-throughs. I’d been admiring lovely, happy mailboxes in a slew of ‘hoods that caught my eye, made me smile, and changed with the seasons. Couldn’t I put together something similar? Why, yes! Yes I could! So I did.
The goal in each of my flower beds is to create year-round interest. I mean, it should be fun to wander the yard all 365 days, am I right? The tricky part is knowing what will survive in vastly different sun/shade beds. And my mailbox gets the brutal, blistering, southern summer, late-morning-to-afternoon rays that can crisp a leaf in hours. I’d need to do some floral homework.
I started by digging up the grass—back-breaking work. What I discovered was very poor soil and chunks of cement. I had a brief moment of discouragement, then said out loud, “Challenge accepted!” Spring-blooming bulbs were probably out. I needed something shallow-rooted that could thrive in full sun.
Enter the Black-eyed Susan. Only gnawing critters can kill these plants, so I got some starts from a generous gardener and in they went. Summer beauty: check! Then I considered the yellow-and-white lantana. This is a hardy, woody bloomer and—bonus!—sometimes they’ll volunteer back for you. Perennial: check! Since it was late-summer, I needed to consider something fall-blooming. Anything in a nursery can would have roots too deep for this spot, so I planted a mum in a pot to give the area some height, and added some pumpkins around it in October. Seasonal interest: check!
The next Spring, I added Sundrops—another yellow-blooming perennial. Much to my surprise, a pumpkin vine grew from a seed that must’ve made its way into the Fall soil. This summer, I threw in some yellow Four O’Clock and red zinnia seeds to join the volunteer lantana and Susans.
It’s an ever-changing bed of annuals and perennials that never cease to amaze me. It’s rather fun to see what works and what doesn’t, what thrives in poor soil and what says, “no thank you.” And every time I run out to get the mail now, it takes a wee bit longer as I pause, reach down, touch a bloom, pinch off a leaf, and admire nature’s handiwork. Mission accomplished.
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the words al fresco.
It was 20 years ago, and I was volunteering for a Nashville event. Someone on staff asked, “Would you check the wording on this invitation? We need to get it right.” I looked it over and said, “What does dining ‘al fresco’ mean?” Pained silence. Crickets. Mind you, we were outside during this evening discussion, so there might have been actual crickets.
“It means eating outside,” the staffer finally answered…with a possible hint of an eye roll. “Ah. Good tip,” I said, mentally slapping myself. And then I had a sudden urge to giggle.
See—I spent my entire childhood dining al fresco. Except, we didn’t call it that. We called it “taking a meal to the field.” Because when the guys were farming and couldn’t stop long enough to get to the house, wash their hands, sit at a table, inhale a meal, return to the field, start up their tractors or trucks or combines and get back to it…they dined al fresco. Usually on the edge of a pickup, under full sun, thankful for whatever we brought them. Who knew there was such a fancy Italian term for it?
Since then, I’ve awarded that fancy phrase with dinnerware in the fancier-than-paper-plates category. “What’s wrong with paper plates?” you might ask. Well, nothing…if you’re eating on the side of a pickup. But if you’re setting up on your patio or deck, or at a winery, or for a romantic picnic, you’ll want to invest in some melamine.
Melamine is a lightweight, durable, dishwasher-safe type of plastic plate for outdoor dining. And here’s the best part: They look like real plates! They can be plain or fancy. They can be artsy. You can find sets as low as $20 and as high as $120. Go for the $20 plates. Get the matching Melamine cups and stemware. And while you’re at it, pick up some coordinating napkins. Your table will be lovely and your cleanup will be simple. And for the love of hosting…please don’t use plastic utensils. I’m begging you.
In the mid-South, our winters are so short, we can dine al fresco nearly year-round. When the weather’s a little chilly, we just gather ‘round the fire pit. We still don’t use paper plates because they’re flimsy, they’re flammable, and they never make people feel special.
And that’s what inviting people over really should be about, right?
Christmas season 2019, I learned to forage. Raccoons, chipmunks, birds and other woodland creatures have been good at it for a millennium, but it took me longer to follow their lead.
Two things happened that decorating season:  I priced live greenery at local stores—yikes!—and,  I watched an episode of my favorite YouTube channel--Garden Answer—where the host and her mom went on a foraging jaunt in the Washington State mountains. I watched in amazement as they gathered a variety of pine boughs, seed pods, pine cones, rose hips, and holly branches, then brought everything back to make into wreaths and bouquets and mantel displays…for free. Wow.
After that, I really started looking around my friends’ yards, common areas, and my own woods with a much-sharper eye. I started noticing pine trees with tiny, frosty-blue berries on them, holly limbs with red berries, dramatic branches, dried hydrangea blooms, sweeping grasses, chunks of old wood. When we picked out our Christmas tree, I noticed a bin of discarded boughs and stumps. I snagged those, too. Before I knew it, I was decorating in the “native” style like a pro! For free.
Since then, I’ve gotten really good at shopping my own yard. When my shovel hits rock, I dig around it and often unearth a large and beautiful piece of Tennessee limestone. I talk my husband into fully freeing it, scrub it clean, and add it to the landscape. I mentally attach a price tag to it: $30. That’s what I could have paid. Fallen branches are a great addition to a woodland landscape: $25. Discarded bricks pop up in the woods all the time: $20. People throw out artistic roots—$20, old flower pots—$30, and rusted metal—$25—all the time. “What’re you gonna do with that?” I often hear. I’m not sure…something cool.
Even if your budget is wide open and you’re not jonesing for a bargain, I encourage you to look around your yard. There’s a bit of a thrill in being creative with natural things. And it’s delightful to see the surprise on guests’ faces when I say, “Oh, I dug that out of the woods.” Priceless.
Do you ever look at your most-used room in the house and think, ‘I’m so tired of this stuff’? I know I do. Most often, it’s not entirely the “stuff” I dislike…it’s the arrangement. And that’s when a redesign happens.
I’m blessed to have three college buddies who have mad interior design skills. They look at a room and just know. They know what needs to be moved. They know what colors aren’t working. They know where the furniture should be. They know what’s missing. They just know. So when I need a change, I call one of them over and cut them loose.
College roommate Deb helped me out of my doily phase. I had a shocking collection of doilies—many of them handmade by church ladies from my childhood. I thought a doily needed to be under every lamp, vase, photo frame and candleholder. Turns out, they don’t. My style was changing, so the doilies went into storage. New look!
College roommate Ann helped me with my Christmas decorations. After a few years, those stored-away ornaments, ribbons, pine cones and candleholders seemed so blah. When I cut her loose, she had new and creative ways to use those decorations that delighted me instantly! It was so much fun rediscovering those old friends within her design ideas.
College buddy Hank specializes in redesign and sarcasm. When he walks into the room, he points at things and says, “Get rid of that. [points] What is that—plastic? I never want to see it again. [points] Hideous. [points] Was that a gift? It’s not your style.” It’s hilarious. He then takes everything out of the room and puts it back in a different arrangement. I give him a small amount of cash—less than $100—for “bits and bobs” to bring the look together. He may spend it on paint or curtains or a rug or throw pillows or shelves. His choice. I’m not allowed to see the room until he’s done, and the reveal is always exciting. I may or may not actually squeal when I see his handiwork. Good times.
So, maybe you’re over your wild kingdom phase or orange phase or floral phase. Maybe your knickknacks have taken over too many shelves. Maybe your afghan collection isn’t working for you anymore. Maybe you’re having trouble pulling the trigger on a new paint color or rug. You probably have a friend with great design instincts who will just know what you need to do.
Pick up the phone today. Throw out an invitation for coffee, tea, brunch, lunch. Use the good dishes. Mention your design dilemma. I guarantee you, that creative friend has already done a mental redesign of your space and was just waiting for an invitation. Let the squealing begin.
There was a time, 20 or more years ago, when I thought I had to have every ingredient listed in a recipe or I couldn’t make the dish. I’d either pass that recipe by, or I’d hit three grocery stores trying to find obscure things, like tarragon or pink peppercorns or sheep curd. Those days are long gone.
If I learned anything from southern hosts, it’s this: Use what you have.
I always marvel at cooks who consider recipe ingredients a good “suggestion.” They rarely have on hand spices like tarragon, because they know dill or basil is a good substitute—and far more common in recipes. They know any bouillon cube does wonders in heating up canned vegetables when fresh aren’t available. They interchange cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves and allspice. They’re experimental on a whim, and I adore that.
I watch these same women step outside and return with a centerpiece made from whatever’s growing in their yards—daisies, herbs, a tender branch. A vintage glass ashtray becomes a wine bottle coaster. A funky glass holds a tea light.
It’s a gift to be unconcerned the fifth dinner chair came from the home office and doesn’t match. Who cares about your chair when you’re laughing and eating delicious food? Odd coffee mugs are great when you’re in a group and lost track of yours on the counter. You can’t miss the cup that reads “Ask me about my lobotomy,” now can you?
And you know what? It’s OK to use the jarred pasta sauce—whether you run out of time or just don’t have it in you to make it from scratch. No guest has ever complained about my Ragu sauce in the fanciest of recipes. Likewise, it’s just fine to serve macaroni and cheese as a side. It’s considered a vegetable in the South! Bonus points if you throw on a breadcrumb topping and bake it. Who could turn that down? Seriously.
So, if you’re hesitant to host because you think everything has to match or be fancy or look exactly like the recipe photo, I’d like to encourage you to let those thoughts go. Just invite someone over and use what you have. I can tell you firsthand, your guests will be delighted to take part in whatever you’re offering. Now, about that lobotomy…
When was the last time you were a guest in your own house? And I mean, slept in your guest bed? Showered and prepared for the day in your guest bath? I’m going to take a stab at your answer: Never.
I travel and stay in guest rooms a lot. I have a packing routine, a car-loading routine, and a move-in routine. I feel like I’m prepared for almost any daily need, but occasionally I’ll have to go on the hunt for a hair tie or contact case or nail clippers in the guest bath. And I usually come up empty. So then I have to track down my host, make my request, watch them search frantically, or even make a late-night trip to the nearest store. It’s difficult for everyone, because we both feel unprepared.
So here’s what I recommend: Be your own guest.
Start with your guest bedroom/suite. I’ve had to very gently tell a few hosts their guest bed is extremely uncomfortable. I usually make a suggestion, like, “You might look into a gel mattress topper. Walmart has some great options!” Most guest beds naturally have the oldest mattress in the house. I mean, who sleeps there? Not you! Ah…but you’re gonna.
Climb into that bed one night. Is it comfortable? Are the sheets, blankets and pillows appropriate for the season? Flannel in the summer = misery. How’s the bedside lighting? Do you have to get up to turn it off, then stumble back to bed in the dark? Tricky. Do the blinds/curtains close? Is a fan—overhead or portable—handy? How’s the noise level? Can you hear the washer/dryer running? Is the morning smoothie maker like a jackhammer in your head? Do doors slam? Dogs bark? Children shout? Do you just want to move into a hotel? Then we have some work to do.
Get ready in your guest bath one morning. How’s the lighting? Glaring? Dim? Could you shave or put on makeup quite happily? Lighting is a pretty easy thing to fix. And here’s a good tip: No one, not even a vampire, looks good in fluorescent lighting.
Use the guest shower. Does the water barely trickle out? New shower heads are pretty affordable and easy to install. Is your towel handy? Ditto for wall hooks and over-the-door hangers. Do you step out onto a slick floor? Bath mats are available everywhere. How’s your toilet paper supply? Down to the last two squares? Sooooo awkward. Restock immediately!
All of this—every bit of it—is easy and affordable to remedy. Half the battle is just being aware of what’s working/not working, handy/not handy, comfortable/cumbersome. Make a plan to fix everything within the week. You’ll be prepared the next time your college roommate pops into town, your favorite aunt comes to visit, or your best friend needs a place to crash for the night.
And you might just create such a wonderful oasis that you’ll hear yourself tell your family, “I think I’ll be my own guest tonight. See you in the morning!”