Two sets of indignant blue eyes snagged me in their glare.
“Why are you always such a freak when you have people over?”
They say children keep you young. They also keep you honest.
It felt as though I had only just finished cleaning up and was trying, really really trying, to get the house ready for a dinner party, not to make another snack and more crumbs on the counter. But they were right, I was ruining a perfectly good afternoon, and I knew that tomorrow I would feel stupid about wasting a Saturday by spending it sharing quality time with my vacuum, instead of these hungry, mouthy, delightful creatures.
It was just a dinner with friends. Why was I being so uptight about tidying, about the barricade of shoes in the front hall, and the homework and crafts sprinkled like park rubbish around the dining room? Because sometimes it is OKAY to want to be a grown up. To eat a meal that does not involve noodles. To make the trip from kitchen counter to dining room table with a glass of wine in hand and no danger of stray Leggo gouging your instep.
That being said, spending time with other adults shouldn’t necessitate becoming a “freak,” so here are a few ways to have fun at your own party without spoiling all the fun:
Bribe The Children
Make the pre-party tidy, the help during, or the just-leaving-you-alone-while-you-eat something worthwhile to the kids. Offer them rewards, like a movie night the next evening just for them, or bribe them shamelessly with compensation - monetary or otherwise (little ones love being treated as if they are big enough to stay up a little later, teenagers value privileges more than they sometimes let on) - in exchange for the Big Tidy, some kitchen help, or a willing clean up crew.
Create A Crime Scene
Set the table in the morning, including all the plates, cutlery, glasses, side and serving dishes that you will need for dinner. And then? Rope off the area like a crime scene. Turn the chairs outward and close the door - whatever will make it clearly off limits for the day. Impose heavy penalties in the form of floor washing or toilet scrubbing if the perimeter is in any way breached. Come evening, when the doorbell rings, you will be able to greet your guests calmly and without dripping wet knives clutched in your frantic hands.
Make Friends With A Contessa
Ina Garten has created collections of ideas to make dinner parties easy, to make friends feel welcome, and food scrumptious, without having to fuss all day. In almost every one of her Barefoot Contessa cookbooks, she has meal plans and dinner party suggestions that are doable and delicious. Ina will make you feel like you are capable of hosting an elegant evening even with breast pads stuffed down your leaking front. (Bonus: many of her cookbooks are available at your local library.)
Hide The Sticky Mess
Throw a tablecloth over the kids’ table in the kitchen or do a little magic with a pretty tray on the high chair, and you can create easy serving stations for drinks, appetizers and side dishes. White sheets, candles in jam jars, and a sense of humour work magic. No one will notice the little jammy hand prints if there is wine, crusty warm baguettes, and cheese laid out on a cloth. By setting up the wine and fizzy water with glasses and easy appetizers, you make the atmosphere much more casual and enjoyable for your guests, while giving yourself more time to do all the inevitable last-minute food preparations, instead of serving drinks and proffering pastries.
Give Yourself A Head Start
While you feed the kids lunch, you can wash the salad greens, which will be crisp—provided you remember to put them in the fridge, ahem—and ready by dinner. When you make the afternoon snack, do the salad dressing at the same time. Baby carrots and cut-up broccoli work well as a snack with buttermilk dressing, as do grown-up greens with shredded radicchio. Desserts are easily made the day before. And in case you slip for a moment into freaky mode, if there are brownies or baby cakes set aside on party eve, all will be forgiven.
Most important: have fun with the smalls and the grown-ups alike. Life needn’t be, and rarely is, like a page pulled out of a magazine. Use the good stuff anyway. Take the pressure off yourself and your family. Your guests just want to enjoy your company. So do your kids.
Photo courtesy of jasonpier / Flickr Creative Commons