Friday, April 9, 2010

How to Host a Family Dinner Party Without Driving Yourself Crazy

Family dinner parties are great, and important, but they can end up driving you crazy.  And when I say “you”, I mean “me”.  If you’re the person who’s always in charge of family meals at your house, then you know what I mean.  It’s wonderful to see friends and family gathered around the table enjoying a meal together, but often the host or hostess has no fun at all.  My grandmother was this person, my mom is this person, and I see that this is the person I have become.  So I’m going to try to buck tradition and find a way to make family meals less taxing and dare I say, enjoyable for all concerned. 

During my bachelorette days, my friends were my only “family” within 3,000 miles and I had a close circle of friends who helped me celebrate all the important occasions in my life, including birthdays and holidays.  Even a good tv show was enough for me to invite friends over for a weekly dinner party that ran as long as the new episodes held out.  I also hosted an annual Christmas party, which was always a crowd-pleaser, if I do say so myself.  I tried to cultivate an air of festive elegance at these events, laced with 1950’s cocktail party insanity. Hanky-panky, anyone?  Yes, I did say this to each of my guests when I was single, passing around a platter of hot, spicy appetizers named, you guessed it, “hanky pankies” (recipe courtesy of my mother’s 1970’s era recipe file.)  I loved hosting these parties and my friends still tell me they think about my annual Christmas party longingly when the holiday season rolls around.  I had one last party after I got married, but after I started having babies, the Christmas party was too much to handle.  Just thinking about the days of food preparation made my head spin.  (When should I slice my dad’s country ham?  Are one hundred homemade rolls enough?  Should I turn the crock-pot of sweet and sour meatballs on at 4 pm or 5 pm?  These thoughts still make me sweat a little bit.) 

Back in my single days, I saw very little difference between the idea of a “meal” and a “party”. Whenever there was someone else in the apartment besides me and my cat, I was ready to whip out the fancy china.  (Intimate meal for two?  Where did I put the soufflé dishes with fluted edges?  Dinner for a crowd?  Excuse me for a moment, but I need to dig out the crock-pot out from under the sink.)  After I got married and had kids, the drudgery of daily meal planning started to wear me down, and for a number of years, the idea of hosting any kind of party other than a child’s birthday party has seemed unimaginable. But now that my youngest daughter has turned one year old, I’ve decided to take a deep breath and start thinking about hosting family dinner parties again.  My parents and Aunt Alice are currently visiting from Virginia in honor of my youngest’s first birthday, so I’ve been hosting extended family dinners every night for the past week.  These meals haven’t seemed like official “Family Dinner Parties”, probably because my mother and aunt are bearing the brunt of meal preparation.  Even my father is helping out by barbequing every couple of days.  We’ve gotten yummy treats from various farmer’s markets, and ordered take-out a couple of times. But why don’t I think about them in the same grand tradition as “Sunday Dinner”?  That’s a little more complicated.

My experience with Sunday dinner is only through hear-say.  Both my parents and grandparents ate Sunday dinner when they were growing up, and we’ve discussed these meals at great length.  Not having experienced it myself, it seems to me that the main difference between a special meal like Sunday dinner and a “work-a-day meal”, as my Grandma Willie would call it, boils down to two key issues—preparing delicious home-made food and setting aside time to enjoy it with friends and family.  During the work-week, my goal is to cook a dinner that everyone will eat.  If it’s vaguely healthy and the preparation time doesn’t cause my children to scream for more than 15 minutes, that’s a bonus.  On the weekends, my husband and I have tried to set aside time to make a special meal for our family with varying degrees of success.  Usually the kids won’t like the food if I try to cook something “different” and I end up cranky because my husband has had a fun time playing with the kids while I’ve slaved away over a hot stove.  (Or alternately, my husband ends up cranky because he’s been wrestling with hungry kids in the living room while I’ve happily puttered around my kitchen, thinking how nice it is not to have children clinging to my legs as I open the oven door.)

My husband and I agree that family meals are important, and he’s always up for trying something new, so here we go.  I’m going to issue in a new era of family dinner parties at our house and these are the rules.  Sometimes I will be in charge of the campaign and hopefully, my husband will take his turn as well. 

Five Rules for Hosting A Family Dinner Party (aka: The New Sunday Dinner):

  1. Announce your intention to eat Sunday dinner as a family early in the week.  This gets everyone mentally prepared for the event and gives people time to cancel any secret plans they may have been harboring or convert you to their way of thinking.  If there’s a good reason to skip it this week, go for it!  If you’re rigid about the weekly nature of the event, everyone will end up bitter.  (Comic-Con only rolls around once a year, after all…)
  2. The host or hostess does not have to end up exhausted for the party to be a success. Rule Number 1 is both the easiest and the hardest to follow.  It’s the easiest because it’s really just a mental adjustment and requires no heavy-lifting.  But if you’re a little OCD like I am, this can be a challenge. 
  3. Everyone helps.  This includes food preparation and clean-up.  Even my 3 year old can help set the table and knows the difference between what goes in the recycling container and what’s just trash.
  4. Cook something simple.  Family dinner fare should be something that appeals to the majority of family members.  It should not require too many ingredients, take too long to prepare, or create too many dirty dishes.  If all else fails, order take-out.
  5. Remember that a “party” is all in the attitude.  The traditional Sunday dinner fell by the wayside because it wasn’t fun anymore.  This meal should be enjoyable for all concerned, including the cook!  If everyone has a good time, you’re more likely to continue the tradition.
I’ll let you know how the Sunday Dinner Campaign goes in my house.  If you have ideas for great family meals, I’d love to hear them.  We need all the help we can get!

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