While I’m not usually one for New Year’s resolutions, I do think that attempting to be a better hostess and friend is a worthwhile endeavor. (I also hope it’s a more likely success than joining a gym and actually going.)
Here are 14 resolutions for 2014 and some experts’ advice on how to make them happen.
1. Mingle more. I enjoy socializing but always end each party with regrets about the guests I neglected. Mark Addison, a designer and entertaining expert who has been featured on the “Today Show” and “Access Hollywood,” said a good host or hostess should always make a point to greet everybody. “You can get them on the front end when they come in or the back end when they leave.” He also suggests a great way to mingle by introducing people to one another: “Connect guests who may have similar interests and work the room that way.”
2. Stop cleaning at the party. “The mess can wait,” said Addison, addressing my inclination to begin scrubbing dishes immediately after a meal is finished. Home entertaining and lifestyle expert Jenny Steffens Hobick, who covers a range of how-to’s on her blog at www.jennysteffens.com, suggests moving the party as far away from the kitchen as possible, making the mess out of sight and out of mind – for both me and my guests.
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3. Try new menus. I have grand visions of serving ornate cheese trays and garnished drinks made with fresh ingredients. But when it actually comes to party time, I end up serving frozen pizza and garlic bread. Addison suggested starting small and taking baby steps. “Don’t jump off a ledge with something difficult that’s going to cause you a lot of stress,” he said. “Just try a new spin on something familiar. If you always serve tacos, try a gourmet taco bar instead – elevate it to make it authentically Mexican.”
4. Don’t put guests to work. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve asked my guests to help stir the sauce while I finish slicing some miscellaneous item. Steffens Hobick has a simple suggestion: Make everything ahead of time. “When I was in the catering business, I designed menus around being able to make everything ahead of time. I do the same thing when I entertain my house.” She said that guests don’t care how many different dishes you have or what you make from scratch. They just want to have a good time ... and not be put to work. (It is a party, after all.)
5. Streamline. It’s a concept more often heard in business than party planning, but it’s transferable nonetheless. “Embrace anything that allows you to pare down the steps you have to take,” said Addison, who loves the “set and forget it” nature of a slow-cooker and the ease of an immersion blender, which allows you to hand blend within a cooking pot.
6. Collaborate. My guests always ask if there’s anything they can bring. Steffens Hobick suggested taking them up on their offer if they’re close friends. To avoid a mishmash of food varieties or seven desserts with only one appetizer, center the menu around a favorite cookbook and assign each willing guest a recipe. “It makes the party more fun and communal, and allows you to try stuff you’ve never tried before,” she explained.
7. Avoid last-minute chaos. I want guests to enter a relaxed environment and see me enjoying myself. Instead, they usually catch me running around with wet hair and kicking lingering dust bunnies under the couch. Planning and preparation, of course, are the key here. “My goal is to hang out at my own party 30 minutes before guests get there,” Steffens Hobick said. It’s also about not sweating the small stuff. “People go crazy with cleaning, but no one is looking at the dust on your lampshade.” Her quick solution? Turn the lights down and just make sure the bathroom is clean.
8. Don’t bicker with your significant other. With the last-minute chaos comes the inevitable spat with my loving spouse. (This happens to every couple, right?) I’m definitely taking Steffens Hobick’s advice and spending those 30 minutes pre-party to relax with – and enjoy – my husband. He’ll appreciate that over the alternative.
9. Set up an interesting spread (without spending a lot). I’m guilty of creating what Addison deems the “big field of food,” a flat surface that’s covered with dishes – offering plenty to eat but offering little visual interest. He suggests setting a few different layers by adding a plate on top of a clear empty vase or even putting a tablecloth over something like a coffee can. By elevating some items, said Addison, “You’re able to call things out things that are special to you.”
10. Actually have parties. I want to entertain. Really, I do. I just tend to have parties that become too big, with too much work involved, which leads me to the inevitable burnout. Steffens Hobick sees this often. “People make a big deal out of a party, invite 100 people and then don’t entertain again for years,” she said. She thinks parties are actually at their best with “an effortless, easy style” and encourages people to host small gatherings throughout the year rather than one extravagant (and overwhelming) affair.
11. Send invites early. Planning parties can be a little tricky, but advance notice is always a good thing.” Give guests plenty of time, preferably a month,” recommended Steffens Hobick, who always checks with her core group of friends first to make sure the date works for them.
12. Get into the spirit (and stock my bar right). Beer, beer and beer is no longer a sufficient selection for my guests. Steffens Hobick notes that the selection largely depends on the crowd. To get my bar up to par, though, I need to start with some staples. She recommends vodka, a high-end bourbon or scotch, a cognac and a gin.
13. Remember what entertaining is all about. “People are often too busy trying to impress people and not focusing on actually entertaining them,” Steffens Hobick said. All of the tips in the world won’t help me if I can’t remember what the point of the party is: to spend time with those I care about and let them know how special they are.
14. Send more snail mail. Continuing the thread of the last resolution, I want to be better about note writing. It’s easy, inexpensive and a great way to stay connected with those I love. “It always brightens someone’s day, especially older people who don’t email or text,” said Bonnie Marcus, designer of the Bonnie Marcus Collection, a stationery company that’s featured everywhere from Target to Tiny Prints. As she explains, it’s all about maintaining meaningful relationships with people. And really, that’s the whole point of entertaining in the first place.