I feel that I am a good authority to write on this topic, because although I love having guests, it completely stresses me out. Something happens to me when we have guests over; I feel this urge to have the table perfect, the food innovative, delicious and abundant and my children buffed and shiny. When things don’t turn out well, it’s not exactly pretty. As my husband says, I don’t mind if we have guests, just don’t take it out on me. I can’t say I’ve always been successful at that. I tend to become singlemindly focused on my specific goals: having a meticulously clean, perfectly presented showcase of my home, while sorta, kinda forgetting what the whole point is. A low point was at a tehillim gathering last year before Rosh Hashana. I broke down in tears when asked what I was making for the meals because the stuffed artichokes heart I had made looked nothing like the picture in the cookbook.
This year, I resolved not to make the same mistakes. Firstly, when I host guests, I resist the urge to pile on the invites. In the past, once I was inviting one family over, I rationalized that I might as well invite a couple of more. After all, what are four more people when you’re already having six? I’ll tell you, it’s a lot more. I’ve noticed that for each additional person at the table, I tend to make at least three more portions of food. That’s a lot of stress on the cook! Also, it causes the meal to resemble a party, with either everyone talking at once, or worse, only some people talking and others being ignored. When there are only a few select guests, I can give each individual the attention warranted, which is the reason the invitation was offered in the first place.
The second thing I decided to limit was experimenting with new recipes on my guests. My husband and little children are notoriously picky. I’m a much more adventuress eater, but it’s quite difficult to eat an entire pumpkin peanut butter soup by myself (http://www.levanacooks.com/quick-pumpkin-peanut-butter-soup-recipe/). In the past, I would use the opportunity to leaf through my collection of cookbooks to find interesting recipes and create a menu from them. All too often, the food would flop, causing tremendous anxiety on my part feeling that there would be nothing edible to eat. So now, I prepare one unique dish and keep the rest of the meal to old favorites.
Then there’s the issue of too much food. Between the four types of kugels, two chickens, a meat option, and the strings beans I feel I must make or my guests will think there’s no food, there is often not enough room to even put the dishes down. I’m not sure why, but for some reason, it’s very easy to over-estimate the quantity of food people consume.
Here’s what I’ve decided: it’s far better to serve superior quality and limit the quantity. This saves time and money. For each menu, I choose one protein, one carbohydrate and one vegetable. I tend to serve either fish or soup, not both, because it fills everyone up, leaving no room for the main. Fish, with small roasted potatoes and veggies works beautifully as a main as well. In terms of quantity, I allocated one portion per person. Although there is always the fear that someone would want seconds and there won’t be enough, that has actually never happened. It’s rare for people to eat the full portion of anything when there are other choices. Regardless, even if one is circumspect with the quantity, leftovers always remain. Because it’s hard for my family to eat leftovers continuously, I divide the recipes into smaller tins and then freeze if I see they won’t be needed. This limits how much the food is being reheated. For dessert, I stock up on chocolate and nuts when they are on sale and serve it along with fresh fruit. A homemade cake is always nice, and for Yom Tov, my favorite dessert is to serve fresh hot cake that was baked during the main course along with some pareve ice cream.
In terms of the house, I’ve slowly learned to let go a little, though honestly, it’s always been a struggle. I just try to remember that when I’m in other people’s homes, I’m not judging them when I see dishes still in the sink, and I just hope they aren’t judging me. In terms of decoration, there is nothing like a bouquet of fresh flowers to make a table beautiful, but if that can’t be arranged, I do without and nobody dies. Although I enjoy using my good Shabbos dishes, when I have more then eight people at the table, I use disposable. Even with a dishwasher, the dishes can pile up fast, and I hate being busy at the sink rinsing when I should be hosting.