The phone caller went right to the point: “Hi, can you help me? We’ve got five college students arriving to help in our ministry for a week. They’ll be here in two days, and the family that was going to host them had an emergency and had to leave town. Do you have room? And we were going to have a dinner and games night for them—can you host that too?”
Actually, having the guys stay here would be no trouble at all. We have a guest room plenty of floor space. College students can sleep on the floor, right? The dinner and games night would be a bit more work, but I figured that feeding five extra mouths was doable.
Five students, two of us. No problem.
“Oh, my husband and I, and our [three young] boys are coming that evening as well, and did I mention that [another person we know, who also works with their ministry] would like to come too?”
Let’s see—we’re up to ten adults and three kids. Okay. I’ll make chili.
I was only somewhat flustered when the night came, and they brought yet another friend. Good thing I’d made lots of chili.
By the end of the evening, all the food was eaten and the young boys were rubbing their eyes. As the family headed out the door, the mom turned to me and thanked me for being so flexible. Then she said something that made me think: “How could you be so relaxed while feeding dinner to fourteen people? It seems that I’m always rushing around the kitchen!”
My first thought was that I’d managed to hide my stress well! But then, I thought—how could I be relaxed? I realized I’ve learned a few things over the years.
When having friends over for a meal, I don’t want to be stuck cooking while everyone else relaxes. I want to be able to chat, to catch up with their doings, and to share what’s happening with us. I can’t do that if I’m desperately rushing to get everything ready. So I’ve learned that the real key to enjoying our guests is to choose a menu that can be ready before anyone arrives—say, lasagna in the oven, salad in the refrigerator, dessert arranged on a plate and hidden in the pantry. I don’t make Chinese food (stir-fried dishes gets soggy if they sit very long), or a big, fancy dinner requiring lots of last minute preparations. (Although I love turkey with all the fixin’s, I’d never make that for guests on any day but Thanksgiving. It’s just requires too much attention!)
It helps that there are two of us. Pete plays host for me, taking care of drinks, setting out appetizers, and filling in any gaps while my attention is on the meal. Sometimes I put him in charge of the grill. I can rest easy knowing that the variety of salads I made earlier only require a dousing of dressing to be table ready.
I have a short list of meals I make for guests, and all can be done (or prepared, ready to heat) ahead of time, with minimal fussing at the last minute. Additionally, most are health- and budget-conscious. Here are my suggestions—perhaps you have some more to add.
- BBQ anything that doesn’t require the cook’s attention afterward—burgers, brats, chicken pieces, ribs, fish, etc. Use marinades, and let the meat soak up the flavors overnight. Add a few salads—tossed green, coleslaw, fruit, broccoli, potato, macaroni, etc.—to cover all the food groups. Make cookies or bars (brownies, lemon bars) for dessert. If you have a crowd, consider paper plates to further simplify things.
- Main dish salads, rolls or other bread, and a decadent dessert to make up for all that healthy eating.
- Slow-cooker entrees such as curries, meatballs, soups, stews, or chili. Add appropriate toppings—grated cheese, crackers—and a bready side such as corn muffins or garlic bread. If more veggies are needed, try raw vegetables and dip as the appetizer. End with a pre-made dessert or fresh fruit.
- Oven meals such as lasagna, a casserole, or meatloaf. Add roasted veggies if the temperatures are compatible (but they usually aren’t), or set up ready-to-cook veggies in a microwave-safe serving dish, and just push the button when dinner is nearly ready. Rice is easier to do ahead than mashed potatoes, and it can safely sit for a long time once it’s done (pasta tends to get sticky).
- A serve-yourself buffet such as a taco bar, salad bar, or make-your-own-personal-pizza spread. Have everything cut up and arranged in bowls you can pull out when ready. You’ll have to reheat the taco meat and beans, or keep them warm in a slow oven (covered so they don’t dry out). Note that pizza takes up a lot of oven room, so don’t try this with too big a crowd.
Of course, the easiest meal of all is a potluck. While I like to pamper my guests, sometimes a potluck is the only way we can make time to get together. Yes, I’m a task-oriented person, but I’ve learned that the true value of having friends for dinner isn’t the dinner, it’s the friends.