Please Be Seated

People often avoid entertaining because they assume it's too expensive, too time consuming, and possibly outdated. But psychologists tell us that it is important for our mental and emotional health to gather friends at the dinner table and entertain. If you keep entertaining simple and fun, it can become a wonderful family tradition.

Getting Organized for a Party Consider the parties you have attended. What made them successful? Make a list of all your friends and people you would like to get to know. Decide if you would like to give a party with a theme. If there is a fun, imaginative theme, no one will mind if you serve simple rustic stew and salad.

Keep a journal of your parties so you can improve next time. At the end of each of my parties, I make notes as to what I will do differently next time and what was successful this time. Did the guests like the food? What were their comments? I also note the dishes, the flower arrangement, and the linens I used. I take pictures for the journal as well.

Making Purchasing Decisions Borrowing: You may have friends and family who will loan you tables and chairs, dishes, and glassware. Go ahead and borrow the furniture, but don't borrow the dinnerware. You will worry all through the party about possible damage - you won't be relaxed, and it will show.

Tablecloths: When you purchase your first tablecloth, it should be white, at least 40 to 60 percent polyester, and wrinkle resistant. These tablecloths come out of the dryer almost wrinkle free, so you can avoid ironing. If you are tired of using a white cloth and napkins, the least expensive way to get a splash of color is to purchase brightly colored napkins and a few flowers (real or silk) that blend. If you would like a tablecloth in a print or plaid, I suggest looking in drapery and upholstery shops. The fabric should be 54 inches wide, so you won't have to cut and seam the cloth. All you would need to do is hem it for a one-of-a-kind background for your dinner party. And be sure to put a sheet under the table cloth; this will give it a nicer look and feel.

The Centerpiece: If you are using a four-person table, a small vase of flowers is all that is necessary. You could also dress up a salad or arrange a bowl of fruit or vegetables and herbs and make that the centerpiece. Avoid creating an arrangement that will block the view of your guests' faces across the table. Have fun with your centerpiece and don't make it too complicated.

Lighting: Even if you are using bright colors, evening party tables can still appear dull without overhead lighting. If you don't have overhead lighting, use candles or anything that can refract light. Water creates movement, so if you place floating candles in a low container of water, the candlelight will reflect off the water. A mirror in the center of the table with candles on top also works well. The light will hit the glassware and plates and make everything shine.

"Painting" the Table Think of your table as you would a room. Consider the different ways people use space when decorating. Have you seen rooms where the furniture is overwhelming? You might have felt as though you were trapped in a maze. The same thing can happen when you look at a highly decorated tablescape. If there are too many glasses, too many parts to the centerpiece, too many candles, and so forth, it will appear like a maze. After putting together your table, step back and ask yourself, Is there too much? Does everything add to the table, rather than distract from its purpose?

I changed my whole outlook in table design after seeing a traveling Van Gogh exhibit. He kept his lines clean and his message simple. He used primary colors extensively. I now use more primary colors, and I make sure the table has clean lines and isn't cluttered.

"Painting" the Plate You have "painted" the table, and now you need to "paint" the plate. Color is very important. Bright colors, such as red, purple, green, orange, and gold, all look wonderful and create a psychological desire to sit down and eat. These colors happen to be found on many vegetables. You can't do better than to emulate nature.

Before choosing your menu, be warned that some foods, such as mushroom risotto, taste wonderful but look terrible on a plate. Avoid serving things that are beige and gray. In this example, choose butternut squash or asparagus risotto instead. If you are serving a main dish that is predominantly white, such as chicken cassoulet, some fresh parsley or other fresh herb is necessary as garnish. That's all you need, because you will have brightly colored vegetables and salad to serve. Elaborate garnishes add unnecessary expense.

Desserts When serving a main dish that has a white sauce base, it is best not to serve a dessert made with cream or cream cheese. Combining the two would be serving too many dairy products to your guests. Instead, serve fruit-based desserts such as cobbler, pie, or cookies and sorbet.

Remember, it isn't much fun for a guest with allergies or medical conditions to watch the other guests eating dessert that they cannot eat. It's a good idea to have strawberries or other fresh fruit on hand, just in case.

First-time entertainers are often surprised to find that desserts sometimes cost more to make than the main dish. Through my experience, I have found that ice cream desserts, cookies, and pies are the least expensive to make.

After working all week, many may not feel like entertaining. Yes, it's a little extra work, but there are many benefits. You have an outlet for creativity, you will form closer friendships and family relationships, and you'll have an opportunity to make new friends. Remember to cook with your heart and record the memories and the recipes for your loved ones.


Adapted from Please Be Seated by Shari Wells. Available at Author House, 888-519-5121.

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