Bre's Declassified Hosting Survival Guide
Life has largely been the same lately. Still working towards our goal of moving at some point this year, still churning through work, still making the most of what time we have left here! It’s nothing bad, but it’s enough to make me daydream of something new to do or look forward to.
The last week or so I’ve found myself on the side of TikTok that has hosting tips, party ideas, and people delving deep into one of my favorite reads The Art of Gathering! I’m glad it’s getting what seems to be a second life now that people are a little more comfortable gathering again. It’s definitely feeding into my need to have something to look forward to as I’m imagining what kind of spring gathering I’d like to host.
I love hosting, and I think I’m genetically predisposed to it. My mom loves planning parties and was always my class’s room-mom, planning the seasonal celebrations and spring flings with other parents and the PTO. I saw my great-grandma at our family reunion a couple of weekends ago, and she’s the original hostess queen, and based on the stories I was able to get out of my grandpa’s cousins there, I think she got it from her parents too. It’s a family thing.
Days spent at great-grandma’s house were full of laid out snacks (there was always at least Ruffles with ranch dip and a pan of her homemade Rice Krispie treats that all of my cousins, aunts and uncles would fight over) and meals, card and board games, and lots of time spent talking and catching up altogether. It’s a such a well-executed but simple formula. She became a family meme because her formula (ultimately making sure her guests were well taken care of and fed) was so apparent. “You want a Coke? I got some in the fridge. Would you like lasagna? Would you like some spaghetti? I can make you some spaghetti.”
But that’s what good hosts do! They make sure you’re taken care of. I love how The Author of The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker, calls this out with a whole chapter about NOT being a chill host. You gotta go overboard, set the expectations, and take care of your guests, you can’t let the gathering run itself.
I think growing up surrounded by natural hostesses made me not realize that not everyone has that experience and hosting can be really stressful for them. I see it a lot when we have people over, who unintentionally project their own discomfort with hosting and cooking. A big example I see is when we visit my in-laws and David and I offer to grocery shop, cook meals and clean up ourselves so we don’t have to deal with crowded restaurants in their tourist-filled town, and my MIL tries to insist on us not having to cook (I think because she feels very stressed trying to cook for others and thinks we must feel the same way), but it’s something we both really enjoy doing and the nights spent at home around the table and a good meal end up being so much better than dining out at an OK, busy restaurant! I get so much joy out of entertaining others, and if it’s the one thing I can contribute to my community, I will gladly take that role so others don’t have to stress about it and instead contribute their own unique gifts!
At this point in my life, I’ve planned and hosted music festivals, a retreat for my internet friends, professional development workshops/webinars, annual family Christmas parties, group vacations, family brunches, my wedding, engagement parties, beer club meetings, happy hours, virtual socials, many many dinner parties, and what feels like an infinite amount of meetings at work, and I’ve taken away from all of these that it really just comes down to the basics of being a thoughtful and intentional host. I thought I’d share a few tips (mainly dinner party-related) in the newsletter this week as I dream up a spring gathering, and hopefully at least one reader will walk away from this and confidently plan their own special event!
The Art of the Dinner Party
I like to start planning by thinking of the guests I want to invite and the vibe/theme at the same time. What everyone brings to the table should determine the vibe for the event. I wouldn’t invite people who don’t like being around alcohol to a beer/wine tasting event, for instance. For a dinner party, think of what energy you want, the meal you want to prepare, and who would best support that ideal state. Understand who your guests are and their preferences and personalities. It’s okay to ask if you’re not sure!
A dinner party also doesn’t have to be a big event with a huge, complex meal and intricate details and activities. A dinner party can be 2 people if you want it to be! Think quality over quantity, when it comes to everything for the dinner party, but especially your guests. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the success of a party isn’t how many people show up, it’s instead how you walk away feeling afterwards.
Once you decide what you want to do for your gathering, just break it down into its basic components. When I host a dinner party, no matter how many guests, it’s always going to include:
For each of those, I have go-tos that I feel confident preparing and having ready to go. But because I do love hosting and cooking, I often like to challenge myself to make new recipes or do new activities and use a party as an excuse! At the end of the day, for a dinner party in this case, you don’t even have to make any of those components yourself! It’s totally up to you and what you feel comfortable doing.
I usually like doing a cheese board because there’s something for everyone on it, I like feeling creative arranging it, and I usually have most of the ingredients on hand so it’s super handy for impromptu gatherings. Depending on what time you’re gathering and the expectations you’ve set, sometimes you can call it a day once you have the snack department done and not even worry about a full meal. Or make a spread of snacks the full meal and graze!
I’ve consolidated what I’ve sent out for a shopping list when I’ve hosted virtual cheese board happy hours into a doc if you’d like some ideas for what to buy for a board. I also recommend That Cheese Plate on Instagram for step-by-step instructions and inspiration.
I like meals that are easy to prepare (based on my skills) and can feed a crowd with diverse tastes or dietary restrictions, so pizza, pasta, roast, salads, soups, or things you can assemble like tacos, gyros, sandwiches, etc. For colder months, roasts are deceptively simple to make but are high impact, so if you do feel pretty confident in your cooking skills and it works for the crowd you have planned, I highly recommend it! Last winter we learned a really easy pork loin recipe that only took about 20 minutes to cook but was delicious and looked really impressive.
This might be really obvious, but pay attention to the number of ingredients listed and steps on recipes because if it’s low on both counts it usually means it will be fairly simple if you know your way around a kitchen. Overall, I would not recommend making a new recipe for the first time at the dinner party itself. Test it out a while beforehand to get the hang out it and to make sure it’s actually a good recipe!
If cooking stresses you out, but you still want to host a meal, don’t make yourself cook something and order in instead! We recently had a handful of friends over and ordered pizza for a dinner party. Or if budget is an issue, host a potluck with a specific theme and invite people to bring different dishes to help out so all you have to do is make sure you have at least one thing prepared and ready to go. One time I hosted a bread party and invited everyone to bring a type of bread they baked, and I provided spreads, butters, and munchies (including a cheese board, of course) to go along with it all while we overloaded on carbs together. Super simple and fun!
I think drinks are the easiest part to prepare because in my experience most people end up bringing their own (especially if you say BYOB in the invite). We have a bar in our basement and sometimes David will play bartender, but we often pick a specific mixed drink or punch (we usually go for something that can be non alcoholic if the liquor is omitted for anyone who doesn’t want to drink) for the gathering, or pick up some wines and beers so we can spend more time hanging out with people and not crafting cocktails. Mules (Moscow, Kentucky, or Mexican) or a pitcher of Sangria are easy crowd-pleasing options. But overall, as long as you have ice and cups, you’re ready to rock and roll!
The Actual Hosting Part
I reviewed snacks, meals and drinks first because these usually take the most logistics to execute and stress people out the most. Once you figure out a formula that works, you don’t really have to think about it much anymore and you can spend time thinking about entertainment and hosting. We try to prepare as much as we can in advance of a gathering so all we have to do day-of is heat up, assemble, and serve. We do the same formula every year when we host Christmas for 30-40 people, and 5 years in, it’s a breeze and we get to have fun! It takes the pressure off ourselves so we can be present with others because that’s the most important part.
Nothing’s worse than being invited to someone’s gathering and they spend the whole time in the kitchen away from the guests and not really facilitating anything. The last thing you want is for people to feel hangry, awkward, and bored!
Flow is really important to me, it’s all about getting the vibe right so the event feels like it’s moving from one thing to another in a natural way. About 30 minutes to an hour before people are set to arrive, I make sure there are no overhead lights on for comfort, candles are lit, there’s music that matches the vibe at a low volume you can easily talk over without shouting, and there’s a designated space to take jackets and purses. Before this point I also make sure there are multiple conversational seating areas set up if we’re having more than just a few people over. This will help people organically congregate out of the way of the kitchen or high traffic areas. If I’m having a lot of people over and we’re all hanging out in the same room, I make sure to bump the temperature down a couple of degrees as well so no one is getting overheated.
For dinner parties and other non open house events, I usually try to have only 20 minutes left at most of cooking or prepping when people are due to start arriving with snacks and drinks already set to go. With the 20 minute rule, if people are fashionably late, nothing is left out getting cold and it doesn’t feel like a surprise ambush right into a meal when they enter the door. Instead, early arrivers can hang out in the kitchen with a drink, feel like they’re part of the action, and we can get the conversation going in a natural way. If you’re having a lot of guests, have a partner or friend who can help receive people while you finish up (or vice versa) so everyone can ease into the event.
I love bringing loved ones together for shared experiences that feel special. I’ve never really had a specific friend group, so I’m usually bringing people from different parts of my life together. It’s amazing to see new friendships and how everyone’s lives overlap. The important part here is facilitating those introductions, especially if there are a lot of guests. I make it a point to introduce others and mention a commonality they share and get that conversation going before I move on to other people. With a smaller group, I think it’s best to try to keep everyone in the same conversation so no one is left out. Priya Parker has a lot of really good ideas for this in her book, especially with toasts, and I highly recommend it if you need some inspiration here! Ultimately, it’s important to unite everyone together, especially with larger gatherings, even if the main activity is mingling, at some point during the event to drive home the purpose (the most important thing according to Priya Parker, and I agree!).
An example where that didn’t happen was my office’s Christmas party last year. Usually the most senior person would give a toast at the parties during dinner, and there would be a large raffle. I always have a good time! Instead, at this party, we were shuffled by word of mouth to dinner after cocktail hour, then to desserts and more cocktails. There was no speech or toast, and at 10 PM we were promptly told [actually shouted at] to get out by security. It was really awkward in the end and it felt like something was missing because we were never truly brought together to partake in the purpose (usually celebrating a year well-done and connecting with coworkers and their partners who are all pretty incredible and have become some of my closest friends).
Depending on the gathering purpose, the main activity might just be mingling and that’s completely fine. Especially if all the guests already know each other, I know I personally enjoy gatherings where I can catch up with people without a lot of structure. I’ve had parties where I intended for us to watch a movie together but we all got so caught up in the conversation that we ended up skipping that piece altogether. In the random cases where the vibe is off, I think it’s good to have specific activities to bring everyone together in a pinch. The phone apps Picolo and Heads Up are great as emergency party resuscitators.
I think the easiest, low-key, affordable ideas are movies/watch parties, party games (I like Jackbox and trivia games), and lawn games. Basically anything with an accessible, low barrier to entry and low risk so everyone can feel comfortable participating. They’re also easy to mingle during, but activity-based enough for more introverted guests who might have a harder time socializing.
If you want to step it up, then I suggest going all in. You can’t be laid back if you’re asking others to be vulnerable or put forth a lot of effort. In fact, you’re going to have to lead by example and probably put 3-5x more effort into showing up compared to your guests, not just setting up the logistics, but emotionally as well.
One of the best parties I’ve ever been invited to before was a murder mystery dinner party. The hosts were not chill at all, and that made it possible for everyone to not be chill either! Everyone fully showed up and committed to their costumes and pre-assigned roles for several hours, and we had an amazing time! I still regularly think about how much fun we all had several years later. As a host, it’s your responsibility to set the tone and expectations so people can show up fully as themselves and participate!
There’s a lot more to hosting a dinner party or other gatherings, but in a nutshell, those are my biggest tips. It’s really all about nailing down a formula you’re comfortable with and then setting yourself up for success so you can actually be present for the event and not bogged down in the logistics.
As far as a future gathering, I’m currently dreaming of something very floral-based. I recently saw a candle painting party idea that is giving me some inspiration, and I want to support it with very herbal and floral-focused cocktails and being outdoors. Or maybe flower arranging! Who knows! I need to nail down the details but I hope to execute the vision floating around in my head at some point! I would love to know what gathering ideas are kicking around in your head (
please send me an invitation! :))
What I’ve Been Up To
I got a large amount of Me Time this week which was nice. David was gone 2 days at a conference, and then the whole weekend for a small trip with his friends. It was great to have the house to myself and I used it as an excuse to do whatever I wanted. I got all my favorite snacks (see pic below), watched a beloved comfort movie that I knew David would say, “but we just watched it recently,” if he was home (Kiki’s Delivery Service), stayed up late making Pinterest Shuffles collages, and tried to bake a new cookie recipe that definitely didn’t have the right ratios but I made peace with the failure.
Other than that, I finished 2 books!
Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries (it was truly a delight!!)
Happy Place (Emily Henry always gets me in my feelings!!)
Enjoyed a couple of these internet reads:
Why Are TV Writers So Miserable? - Hoping the writer’s union gets everything they want and more! Their work is important and valuable and also I just very much love well-written TV!
Sadly, a person I was close friends with in high school (but I hadn’t spoken to in a long while) passed away last week. I have a lot of complex, sad feelings around it. I made a playlist in his memory to commemorate the time we spent with friends when we’d jam all day in my boyfriend at the time’s basement and at the local coffee house’s twice weekly open mic nights (we were all obnoxious teen menaces, but the time together there meant a lot to me). Truly an eclectic group of people and mix of music (that didn’t really reflect anyone’s, including this friend’s, personal genre preferences).
That’s it for this week. I hope you’re able to slow down and take care the rest of this Sunday!