When I graduated from college a few years ago it became quickly apparent how difficult it was to keep in touch with friends as we all entered this crazy new phase of our lives. Moving to a slightly more out of the way part of the city with no car of my own and a brand new 9-5 type job meant getting creative about finding ways to maintain these friendships.
Enter the weekly potluck dinners at my house, complete with wine and beer, fun themed nights, and more laughter than I can recount. It served a dual purpose as well, given that by the time I finished school I was incapable of making boxed cake mix to save my life. (Side note: If you ever accidentally add twice as much vegetable oil to your Betty Crocker batter than what the recipe calls for, turn back now. It’s truly more gross than I could have ever imagined.)
If this is where you’re at in life, I have a few tips for what is essentially herding cats:
1. Try out a few days and times for the first few dinners, but once you hit upon one that works try to stick to it. It’s much easier for everyone to incorporate it into their schedules and plan for it. Motivation gets you started but habit is what carries you through and all that! We’ve happily settled into Wednesdays at 6:30, so don’t be afraid to have it on a non-weekend day too.
2. Maybe this one is more of a 1a. You will never be able to work with everyone ‘s schedules and you should accept that now. If you’re like me, this will kill you at first but it’ll be okay Figure out which people are a top priority and make sure you’re working around them. Other than that, I suggest having a large enough group to reach out to so that if only half can go any given week, you still have a fun dinner.
3. Make your friends do some of the social legwork! My college was a definite bubble even though we were located in the middle of a big city. Oh, and did I mention that the whole student body was smaller than my high school’s? Social psychologists have even done research to show that it’s tough to make new friends once you leave school. Encourage your guests to bring new friends, significant others, coworkers, roommates and anyone they think might be a good addition. Heck, I’ve even had over three of my friends’ parents! if nothing else, they usually provide new topics for conversation.
4. Be flexible. I have a friend I love to talk with but he usually can’t show up until at least an hour into dinner. I’m not giving up my chance to chat, so you better believe I’ve figured out how to make his sudden addition go as smoothly as possible. The best way I’ve been able to manage this (and the constantly changing number of people) is to switch to eating in our living room, much as I love our dining table.
5. Start potluck, but be aware of the pitfalls. Many of my friends still don’t own cars (neither do I, though my boyfriend does) so keep in mind that biking with a casserole dish may be out of the question. In this day and age people tend to view commitments a bit more flexibly since all they need to do is fire off a text to cancel. If you assign a main dish to a person and they can’t make it last minute, your dinner is suddenly rather stressful. If you have any guests with eating restrictions, you need to be a little extra vigilant in getting the word out as well. One of my closest friends is a vegetarian, so I’ve gotten pretty handy at finding work arounds without making her feel awkward or bad about it. The upside for you with potlucks is that you’ll be cooking less, likely spending less money, and you can explore fun themes (“your fave comfort food” and “a dish from your childhood” were two good ones that sparked a ton of conversation) easily.
6. Once I had the means, the time, and the skills, I switched to cooking most or all of dinner for those evenings. This meant that my friends could look forward to a night of relaxation without having to worry about logistics. Some people picked up fun hobbies (Homemade bread or a bottle of red from a birthday winery tour? Yes please!) that really added to the party. Mostly though, I learned how to cook for a big crowd quickly, healthily, with minimal investment and maximum enjoyment.
7. Taco bowls. Sushi bowls. Buddha bowls. Teriyaki Bowls. Bowls where you can make the components and let everyone put the final product together with little effort is just A+ in my book. Vegetarian? Check. Starving? You load up on what you want my friend. Extreme dislike of bell peppers bordering on an allergy (true story)? Easy to avoid! Plus it’s so simple to make an inexpensive and healthy dinner with brown rice, veggies of some sort, and a protein. Other examples? Salad bar, baked potato bar, waffle bar and DIY pizzas.
8. Too much food is better than too little, so make extra of things you don’t mind eating later or freezing. I tend to make plenty rice and freeze the leftovers for quick lunches and dinners. Don’t be afraid to send people home with food too! I’ve made some of my guests that are still in school some very happy campers that way.
9. This is a great time to get rid of the random food lingering in your fridge or in your pantry, so take advantage of that! Roasted assorted “aspirational veggies” always go over well at my house.
10. The crock pot is your best friend. Always.
Here’s an example of a relaxed dinner party for 5:
Brown rice (a Costco bag of it goes a long, long way)
Roasted bell peppers, onion & garlic (Leave the 4 peppers whole, quarter the onion, peel the garlic, put on a pan at 400 for 40 minutes & flip halfway through. Spray with some sort of oil if you’re feeling all fancy.)
Crock pot Mexican beef (Hunk of beef. Whatever spices you have that are vaguely Mexican like chili powder and adobo in a totally eyeballed amount. Water to almost cover it. Set to low until you get home. Separate with forks.)
Lettuce (Chop those leaves up a bit. Tear ’em if you’re super lazy.)
Spiced black & kidney beans (Two cans of beans rinsed + those same Mexican spices in a pot for a few to warm them up.)
A loaf of to-die-for bread my friend made (Find some rad friends!)
Altogether, it was 2 minutes of prep in the morning, 10 when I got home, and ready an hour later. Plus lunch the rest of the week!
Now, if you’re looking for how to host an elegant black tie dinner for 8, I’ll be posting about that down the road. 😉