En español | After almost 18 months of pandemic social distancing, your hosting skills may be a bit rusty. Where are those platters you always used when friends came for dinner? Can you remember that tried-and-true recipe for a crowd? Are there some changes that may need to be made in light of the fact that the COVID-19 delta variant is still simmering?
While entertaining may be on the calendar for some people, hosting a party or just inviting a few friends for dinner has taken on new meaning and requires a new approach, says Priya Parker, a facilitator, strategic adviser and mediator who wrote The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Parker describes this as a significant and tricky moment of “reentry” when it comes to socializing.
“We have different tolerance levels. We have different vaccine levels,” she says. “And I think as a host, part of it is to understand that your guests may not have the same comfort levels that you do.”
A mix of joy and caution
Virginia Willis, 54, is a professional chef, cooking instructor and cookbook writer, but even she was hesitant to dive into summer entertaining.
For her first dinner party she invited four people to her home in Atlanta. Although she and her guests were vaccinated against COVID-19 and had seen each other individually during the pandemic, they hadn't been together as a group in more than a year.
“It was really exciting,” says Willis, the author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover's Tour of the Global South. “When I have people come over, 99 percent of the time I do all the cooking. But I had one of my friends [ask], ‘I have not been to a dinner party in so long, can I please bring something?’ She was so excited about the opportunity to make and take."
But while Willis was happy to be hosting again, she did make some accommodations in a nod to the pandemic. For example, she individually plated her friend's asparagus salad rather than have guests serve themselves from a common platter.
“I think people are going to be funny about touching other people's stuff for a while,” she says.
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Willis’ mix of joy and caution may feel familiar to many of us right now.
How to be a good host
But these sorts of logistics — the “how” — are guided by starting with the “why” of getting together, says Parker, who consults on meetings and gatherings for multinational companies and nongovernmental organizations, among others. She recommends that before planning any gathering hosts ask themselves these questions:
How do I really want to spend my time, and with whom?
What or who did I find myself truly missing during social isolation?
What did I find myself relieved that I no longer had to do?
If those questions lead to a gathering, then it's up to the host to set the rules or “guardrails.” In her book Parker describes this as “generous authority"— imposing party rules that make the gathering easier for all guests. For example, she suggests asking guests individually in advance if they are vaccinated, and if some are not, asking everyone to mask up so guests are not divided by vaccinated versus unvaccinated.
The number one responsibility for any host is to “do no harm,” says Parker, who just recently attended her first larger gathering ("meaning more than six people") since the pandemic began.
“Basically a good host doesn't put these core decisions on the guests; a good host thinks about the purpose of the gathering,” she says. “And then, what are the lines [so] that I can create enough safety and care so that people can choose to enter or not.”
If you're ready to welcome guests, here are more tips from Parker, Willis and others on how to host a safe and fun post-pandemic gathering:
1. Keep it small. There's no reason you have to dive right into a huge party, says Parker. “I keep saying slow and steady, like slow, small and steady,” she says. “Our social muscles have atrophied and it's OK to begin slowly building them again.”
2. Be an active host. This can be as simple as greeting people at the door and introducing guests to each other, says Parker. Then, orient your guests to the purpose of the gathering by creating what she calls a short “moment of focus.” It can be serious or humorous, but even a 30-second statement gives the gathering shape, as in, “You are the people we've missed the most. And we trust that you will love each other, love meeting each other. And thank you for coming,” she says.
3. Stick to individual servings. Try a “box lunch” style meal or snack so there's no buffet table or shared plates of food, and diners can stay socially distant if they choose. All ages love surprise gifts, so tuck a small prize in each box or decorate the boxes, Willis says. “I went to this party and they had little miniature Matchbox-style [cars]. I have a red tractor. You can be 50 years old, whatever, doesn't matter how old you are and you get a little toy, it brings out the kid in you.” Party and entertaining expert Darcy Miller, author of Celebrate Everything, suggests individual “graze” boards with a selection of finger foods. And, she says, make sure to mark each glass with a guest's name so there are no mix-ups.
4. Pick a theme. Miller suggests evoking an exotic locale that's been off-limits during the pandemic. If it's Greece, that might inspire silly “Olympic games,” a movie or music that evokes Greece, and Greek-style food.
5. Pick an icebreaker. Set out a simple craft, like painting rocks, Miller says, or give people a theme for discussion, such as “I am most looking forward to… ”
6. Break out the lawn games. Cornhole, ring toss, badminton will all get your guests moving, says Seri Kertzner, “chief party officer” for Little Miss Party Planner in New York City. Set out bottles of hand sanitizer at each station to reassure guests, she says.
7. Keep it clean. “If there's one place you want to really clean in your home before hosting a party, make sure it's your bathroom — especially post-pandemic because if your guests go inside, that's the one place they will go,” says Kertzner. Spark it up with fresh flowers and pretty disposable towels. And don't forget the antibacterial hand soap.
Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine as well as her local NPR station, among other outlets.