I love having people over for a meal.
Entertaining has defined our life the entire time we lived in DC. Though our old place had quite possibly the world’s worst kitchen, and no dishwasher, we routinely hosted big groups of people for meals. In our new apartment, the bigger kitchen and dishwasher have us enjoying hospitality in a whole new way, ie, without the hours of miserable late night clean up afterwards. Every week, we share a family dinner with our various siblings in the city, alternating houses and making it a priority to see each other on a regular basis. Without a doubt, this is one of the high points of my week. Starting last fall, we also host a Bible study in our home on Tuesday nights, rotating who makes dinner and enjoying the sort of community that happens best over food. And then of course, there are the Bachelor viewing parties, the impromptu Friday night feasts, the holiday parties and movie nights.
Because life around the table is life at its best.
But of course, my table can only seat six, and even that is cozy. The reality of small-space entertaining is that sometimes you can do it the way you want, with place settings and the shrugging off of people’s offers to bring things, and utter perfection in every detail. Yet if I was content to only host when we could offer those things, we wouldn’t do it as often as I crave, as often as I think our fragmented society desperately needs hospitality and community. And we love big groups, love when there are more people than chairs, love when we have to drap ourselves across every piece of furniture and balance our plates on laps, love it when people bring others at the last minute and we find ourselves with the masses in our home. While people do enjoy a nice dinner party with all the pretty trappings, no one complains when a hearty meal is served, even if they eat it on the floor. So here are some things that I have learned about big group entertaining in small spaces, on modest budgets, followed by a list of the easy big group dinners that can be rolled out with (relatively) minimal effort.
Do not fear the disposable dishes. Yes, I know that they are a waste of money and not sustainable, etc. I know that nice dishes are better, and I try to use them whenever possible. But if you don’t have a dishwasher, or you are just dealing with a really big group, don’t let the stress of clean-up hold you back. If grabbing a package of paper plates frees you to invite those extra mouths, do it.
Let people contribute. When people offer to bring things, accept. I love being able to provide everything, but it isn’t always possible. Plus, people like contributing, like feeling involved in the process. Salads, desserts, drinks- all of these are easy things to request when someone offers. They take stress off of the host and let other people extend hospitality, all while receiving it.
Make meals that can sit. I forget this sometimes, and it is miserable. Find a dish that can be prepped early and give you time to collect yourself before people arrive.
Take 10 minutes to speed clean. After the prep, take 10 minutes before people arrive to turn on lots of lights (Barefoot Contessa once wrote in her cookbook that having lots of lights on makes people feel more welcome- so true!), light a couple candles, and wipe off counters. There is not always time to make sure that the whole house is clean, and reality is not a bad thing to expose to people. But a quick 10 minute spruce up communicates that your guests are worth a clean and inviting space. I love having fresh flowers and an immaculate home… but blooms are pricey and we actually live in our house so sometimes it’s messy. But I can wipe off a counter and turn on a lamp and then throw open the doors and let people in.
Obviously, chili, lasagna variations, spaghetti, and pizza are always acceptable large group meals (and by pizza, I don’t just mean homemade… many a beautiful moment has happened around a box of delivery/frozen pizza). But here are some dishes that I love to make for a little more variety when I am planning on feeding the masses.
Soup and cheesy croutons. Grab a loaf of sourdough, chop it in rough chunks, toss with olive oil and cheese and roast till crispy. Set big bowls of that beside a pot of soup (get fancy and make this one, or just get practical and buy one of the awesome Trader Joe’s tomato or squash soups) and let people serve. Or pair those soups with this easy yet impressive bread. Ask others to bring: salad.
Chicken pot pie. Multiply this recipe a couple times to make a giant pot of the filling, but DO NOT bake it in the traditional pie format. Instead, cut puff pastry into rectangles and bake those separately, letting guests serve a bowl of filling and top it with the pastry. This avoids that horrid soggy-pastry scenario and is just all around easier. Ask others to bring: a veggie side or salad.
Carnitas. I love any sort of taco, but my absolute favorite is to make a big batch of the carnitas meat from this cookbook. You can make it in advance and freeze it, and I usually even skip the final crisping step and no one has ever complained. I then sauté up a giant skillet of onions, peppers, and squash/zucchini and set up the table with toppings in bowls. Ask others to bring: tortillas, quac, salsa, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, etc.
Veggie-packed enchiladas. I love these because they can be assembled early in the day and baked fast at the end. Ask others to bring: salsa, fruit salad.
Chicken Tortilla Soup. You know how much I love this one, and it is a staple for big groups, as well as being James’ absolute favorite meal. Ask others to bring: limes, avocados, cheese, sour cream.
Brinner. One of the best budget options is to do a breakfast-for-dinner group meal. We love doing waffles, pancakes, or crêpes, and I often will make the key item and some eggs and bacon. Ask others to bring: syrup, fruit, juice, Nutella, whipped cream.
What about you all? What are some big-group meals that you keep up your sleeves, or any tips for easy entertaining for the masses?