I’ve been meaning to have people over for dinner for about five years. Friends I want to see more, the husbands I want my husband to have a chance to chat with, all of these people float through my brain, and I resolve to invite them for a meal.
Then I don’t.
My reluctance is hard to explain. I have friends over regularly when my kids have play dates, and though I’m probably more introverted than extroverted these days, I crave time with adults to chat. I am just petrified to have them over for a meal because that somehow seems to officially proclaim, “This is a big deal! Expectations attached! Stress!”
I’m not alone in feeling this way. My friends cite various reasons for not hosting, including messy houses, anxiety, and food allergies. What was once considered a normal way to interact with friends and neighbors is now considered the labor of all labors, not worth the time or effort.
We can have strong social ties with all of the accompanying benefits, such as longer lives and better health, without hosting dinners, but time around the table can be a convenience for busy parents from a time perspective.
Laura Vanderkam, author of “168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think,” says that parents who need time to build stronger bonds with friends already have the time and just have to access it using alignment. Alignment means we do what we need to anyway, like eating dinner, just with our friends. There are no extra hours involved, and we aren’t missing coveted time with our families in the process.
But if alignment means we are stressing about a meal because other people will be involved, is it worth it? If we subtract the stress, yes, and removing the stress is possible. We’ve just been doing dinner parties all wrong.
Aim for crappy
The invention of the crappy dinner party could save us all. The guidelines surrounding these casual encounters aim to make the dinner-with-people experience less stressful for all involved. They include: no special house cleaning before guests arrive, no fancy menus, and no gifts for the hostess. Basically, come as you are and host as you are.
The point of the crappy dinner party is to bring back the idea of neighbors just dropping in on each other instead of the pressure to create the perfect ambiance for an evening dining encounter. When everyone knows the rules, the pressure’s off. The focus of the experience also shifts from impressing others to knowing others.
A few fun rules hold the key to opening up an entirely different adventure when we think of dinner with friends. Our focus shifts in every area, and that’s where the magic happens.
Focus on your friends, not yourself
I don’t want the state of my bathroom to scare people, so I am always going to check out the guest toilet before friends arrive. However, most of the cleaning and tidying I do before guests come over has very little to do with them and everything to do with me. I don’t want to be seen as someone who struggles with organization, though that’s exactly the kind of person I am.
Adopting the rule that I can’t clean extra for guests takes away that stress, and it ensures that whatever I do isn’t about my self-image but simply about not wanting friends to prefer a gas station bathroom to the one in my home.
Focus on comfort, not an extravagant menu
Making the menu casual, like grilled-cheese-sandwich casual, takes pressure off the chef, and that’s good news for the guests. The point of hosting is to offer comfort through company, and a person who has been dicing onions and standing over a hot stove all afternoon may not be great company.
When it comes to food allergies, always be safe and ask first. Since my daughter and husband have Celiac disease, we aren’t comfortable with very many people cooking for us. However, we still love to come over for dinner and bring our own food. Stress arises when a host or hostess tries to feed us after we’ve asked them not to and we have to reject their offering.
Fancy food is nice, but the focus of the evening should be on everyone relaxing, not stressing over a meal.
Focus on listening, not entertaining
Shauna Niequist, author of “Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table,” quotes her friend Sybil when she shares her idea of hospitality. She says it’s “when someone leaves your home feeling better about themselves, not better about you.”
Viewed through this lens, time around the table means listening, laughing, and living out life with others. There’s no room for insecurities about tidiness or worries about overcooking chicken. We’re not putting on a show; we’re being fully present for other people, offering them what it feels like we have the least of these days: time and attention.
Niequist sums it up when she says inviting people into our homes is “an act of love, not performance or competition or striving.”
Focus on doing it, not obsessing over it
Don’t wait for the perfect time to have people over for dinner. It doesn’t exist. Unless there is a major problem that makes humans entering your home impossible or unsafe, now is as good of a time as any.
Send an email, call a friend, or text the crappy dinner rules to get the conversation started. Then pick a date and tell your friends to put it on the calendar. Start with people you are already comfortable with and go from there. Practice makes perfect, or in this case a perfectly crappy dinner party.