To say we value hospitality may be an understatement. Between Monday and Thursday last week, I welcomed 59 guests into my home during 6 different functions (27 adults and 32 children, some were repeat visitors). This volume of people passing through is pretty typical for us. We’ve made hospitality a habit. How do I host 60 people a week, offer them all something to eat and drink, and stick to my weekly grocery budget of $75 for a family of four?
Just like anything, you could spend hundreds every time you host, or you can do it the Pretend to Be Poor way. We’re happy to spend extra on hospitality since we place a high value on friendship. But we don’t want cost to prohibit our ability to welcome others frequently. Here I share my philosophy and tips for food, drink, cleaning, and the secret to making visitors feel like guests of honor.
Hospitality vs. Entertaining
Some people associate hospitality with gourmet cheese alongside fine wine. I hope they don’t come to my house. I’m liable to give guests a cup of coffee and a peanut butter sandwich.
And yet, the people keep coming. Let me assure you that it isn’t my stunning home décor, either. My living room looks like I’m about to move out. A recent guest (and good friend) described my decorating style as “sparse.” Granted, the place got quite a face-lift when Neil upgraded all our furniture for less than $400 while I was in India. And Neil also did an awesome remodeling job on our kitchen before we moved in. I like my house, but there’s nothing Good Housekeeping about it.
And then there’s the coffee. It’s not that great either. ALDI’s cheapest. Maybe the people will stop coming now that the secret’s out.
But I don’t think so.
I was inspired to write about our hospitality hacks and habits by the post “Start where you are…Entertaining on a tight budget with no skills” on Unplanned Finance. I really liked her suggestion to get started simply by purchasing two cartons of ice cream and inviting people for dessert.
This gets at the core of my beliefs about hospitality: you have to invite people over. You should offer them something. And you ought to enjoy your time with them rather than being caught up with trying to mimic Martha Stewart. I heard a distinction drawn between hospitality and entertaining: hospitality is focused on the people, while entertaining is more about impressing guests with your food, possessions, or surroundings. Most people don’t like feeling fussed over.
But you should offer something to eat. Here are my go-to recipes that seem impressive but require little time or skill.
If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of feeding people, just offer one thing. Avoid torturing everyone involved by skipping routine pleasantries such as:
Host: “Can I get you something to eat?”
Guest: “No thanks, I’m fine.”
Host: “Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
Guest: “Nothing, I’m not really hungry.”
Put food in people’s face. Not literally in their face, of course, but very nearby. Make it easy for your guests to nibble something by setting out a snack. Help them feel that it’s no trouble to feed them by doing the work of serving food before they come. For example, setting out a fruit bowl, tray of cookies, or bowl of snacks is a silent way to communicate “help yourself; make yourself at home.” And it’s lower-maintenance on the host.
Extra points for serving homemade fare. I can’t tell you how many times this super-easy bread recipe has saved my hosting heinie.
Bread? You serve bread? What are you, a prison warden?
What could be more welcoming than the smell of fresh bread? If you have the dough on hand in the fridge you can have a loaf ready in a little over an hour, between rising and baking. And the hands-on time is less than five minutes. People think bread is hard to make but modern yeast is nearly foolproof. In fact, you don’t even have to proof it.
I often keep the spread simple by serving warm bread with butter or jam. Or I may whip up crostini using homemade pesto from the freezer. Around the holidays I may jazz up the dough by rolling pepperoni and cheese in before baking. And who doesn’t love garlic bread? (Actually, I don’t.) Rub a garlic clove on leftover bread slices and toast them. Revive yesterday’s loaf by making little pizzas in the oven or toaster oven. This bread also makes great French toast and grilled cheese sandwiches. The possibilities are almost endless when you have bread dough on hand.
For parties or larger crowds, my secret weapon is popcorn. I’m not talking about some nasty generic microwave bag of chemicals that cheap people serve. Please, no. We have a stovetop popper ($15) and make “movie theater-style” with coconut oil, butter, and salt, or our legendary kettle corn. It costs next to nothing compared to store-bought bagged snacks and is highly delicious because it’s freshly made.
Learning to bake simple goodies like brownies, cookies, and quick breads will also go a long way toward thrifty hosting. Who doesn’t love a chocolate chip cookie, or a warm slice of banana bread? Again, fresh bakery fills your home with a welcoming fragrance, and costs much less than stale store-bought desserts. Forget the candles or incense; bake something yummy. I bake treats like these regularly in the winter so that I always have something on hand to offer guests (and because my son loves baking with me).
These “playgroup” granola bars are always a hit with, you guessed it, playgroups. But parents display a clear affinity for them, too. I also keep bags of pretzels on hand because they’re cheap and essentially kid-crack. We went through 1.5 pounds of pretzels in 2 days here this week!
Serve what’s in season. If you come over at the end of summer, you’ll be eating garden-fresh salsa. Should you pass through this time of year, it’s all about apples. We eat in season and if you come over, you will too.
We invite couples or families over for dinner often. It’s a great way to spend quality time with people without going out to dinner. Cooking dinner for others can be stressful. But you can please just about anyone on the planet with either pizza or curry. If you’re not sure what to make, these are perfect go-to dishes. For pizza crust, mix 3 cups flour, 1 cup warm water (105-110), 1 TB yeast, 1 TB sugar (optional), 1 TB salt, and 3-4 TB olive oil. Allow it to rise about 2 hours, then shape into two crusts, add toppings, and bake at 500 about 12-15 minutes.
People are always impressed with Thai curries. But take-out for 4 could easily cost $60-80. Instead take a field trip to an Asian grocery and buy a can of curry paste and a can of full-fat coconut milk. Add 1.5 pounds cut up chicken and a bag of frozen vegetables (such as stir-fry vegetables), make white rice, and you’ve got yourself a copycat recipe for less than $8. There directions on the can of curry, and the English translation is always entertaining.
It’s not hosting if you don’t give people something to spill on your carpet. Coffee, iced tea, and boxed wine are common cost-effective offerings at my house. Milk or juice for the kids. Waters for everyone. Which brings me to another topic:
How clean should your bathroom be to host other humans? Listen, I have a four-year-old boy who probably doesn’t drink enough water, and pisses all over the Greater Toilet Area, all day, every day. I am constantly wiping down the Greater Toilet Area, but that’s about the extent of me fussing over my restroom. If I can have 59 people over in four days, you can take the plunge and send out an invite.
In all honesty, the main reason I clean my house is because I’m expecting people. Sometimes I even wonder if I invite people over just to make myself clean.
My natural tendency is to make my house look like no one lives in it. I want every surface clear of all clutter. Unfortunately, I am the only person in my household who puts away anything of her own initiative. Ever. Thankfully I’m forced to drop my silly and rather weird ideal of looking like I’m about to move out, and lower my standards to something more like, “Let’s just get the power tools off the table before playgroup.” That’s more reasonable, practical, and in line with one of my chief insights from India: everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I reference the fact that my children are still alive as evidence that my house must be clean enough for visitors. Resist the urge to apologize for dirty or messy areas; those less cleanly than you could actually feel judged by this.
I base my cleaning efforts on the age of guests and type of event. For example, if I’m hosting a party of twenty, 20-somethings, I will not be cleaning my floor. I might sweep the mound of dried rice from under my kids’ seats (you can’t sweep it till it dries), but I will not be on hands and knees scrubbing just so people can track in mud and spill boxed wine. And I’ll be a much happier hostess if I’m watching you track mud and spill boxed wine on my already-dirty floor.
But if Crawlers are coming over, I will clean my floor. Because Crawlers will eat the dried rice off the floor. And the dried Play-Doh. And the Legos that are supposed to stay in the basement but always somehow make it upstairs and into the crawlers’ mouths. But I will definitely NOT wash my sliding door before a bunch of Crawlers and Cruisers and Toddlers descend upon it with their grimy little fingers.
One of my college professors shared a wonderful trick: two minutes before you’re expecting guests, pull out the vacuum and stage it in the middle of the room. When they arrive, smile and say, “Oh, I was just about to vacuum!” They’ll swear your floor is just fine, and you can procrastinate on that chore a little longer.
I have some older friends who are rock-star hostesses. I’ve tried to analyze what they do to make me walk away feeling like I was a guest of honor. They drop what they’re doing, greet me warmly at the door, seem thrilled to see me, and make conversation as if they’d thought about me before I showed up at their door. Because they did. Such thoughtfulness doesn’t cost money, but is worth more than the finest feast. Even if all you serve is bread and water, if you genuinely care about people, they’ll keep coming back for more. There is honestly no other explanation for why 59 people came to my house this week, other than that I enjoy being friends with them and having them in my home.
In summary, here’s my hosting primer:
- Invite people. If you invite them, they will come.
- Give them a drink. They need something to spill.
- Set out food. People like to feel cared for, not fussed over.
- Ask people questions about themselves and listen carefully to their answers.
Do you like hosting? What are your tips & tricks?