As we recover from the frazzle, the food and the credit card bills of the holiday season, the beginning of the year serves as a time of reflection and fresh starts.
A blank calendar (one of life’s unsung pleasures, if you are me), a commitment to a healthy diet or less caffeine or a new workout regime seem to be at the top of the list for health and wellness as we close the chapter on one year and look ahead to the next. And I agree with these sentiments and commit myself to them as well. (For those keeping track, I did manage to lose those 15 pounds I wrote about last year.) But I also believe that it is important to widen the conversation around this topic, especially as it pertains to wellness.
I tend to take a mind, body, spirit approach to wellness and strive to make sure that all of those aspects of my being are in balance. (The key word there is “strive.” I am far from perfect in any of those categories, but I keep trying.)
For me, a large part of my mental health and happiness is having a tight-knit group of like-minded friends. And I think it is important to note this has not come to me until I am knocking on the door of middle age. (OK. Maybe I’ve stepped through the door, but who’s counting?) So again, to my point, if you are not where you want to be, keep trying.
One of the reasons I gel so well with this group of friends is that we all have a similar, passionate and favorite way to spend time together — and that is enjoying each other’s food, wine and company around the dinner table.
We rotate hosting dinner parties on no particular schedule. We just seem to gravitate to each other’s homes when we haven’t seen each other for a while.
One of the things I have come to appreciate about these gatherings is the graciousness and effortlessness in which these sometimes epic dinners seem to happen. I know they aren’t effortless, of course, but it seems like they are and there certainly are ways that we support each other in that effortlessness. I have taken away some very important “hosting lessons” from these evenings. So, here are some of those lessons:
Don’t stress. I know, I know. This is about as effective as telling someone to calm down, but seriously, figure out ways to reduce as much stress as possible. This is about connecting with your friends, not making sure every little detail is correct and every speck of dust is removed. One of my friends always has a very specific answer when we ask what we can bring — vegetable salad, apple dessert, gluten-free appetizer. She has an overall plan, then asks everyone to bring something that fits into that plan. That way, she is only making the main dish. Smart. Very smart.
Micromanage the atmosphere. Dim the lights, turn on some music, light some candles — all of these things help create an intimate environment and encourage everyone to slow down a bit and relax into the evening.
Add a participatory creative element. For us, this has been as varied as trivia, poetry readings, impromptu guitar sessions. Or, maybe sports trivia is your thing or show tunes or charades. Whatever. Strive to create an environment where people are encouraged (OK — maybe nudged) to step out of their day-to-day personas. This again serves to create a sort of bubble around the evening and helps people connect.
Assign seats — and be strategic. One of my friends insists on the man-woman, man-woman arrangement and no spouses next to each other. This can really help the conversation flow and you have the opportunity to connect with your dinner partner neighbors.
I’d love to hear your ideas. What things have you learned through the years to help ease the stress of entertaining?
Leslie Shalabi is co-founder of Convivium Urban Farmstead, a Dubuque-based nonprofit organization based on the idea of creating community around food. A life-long lover of food and entertaining, she is dedicated to helping people find ways to connect through the universal languages of food and hospitality.