Monday, August 24, 2009

Be a 'Party in a Box'

For those of us who love to entertain, we envision the perfect setting where great planning, delicious food, fun activities and a clean house converge. Sometimes that happens and life is good. And sometimes we wait. We tell ourselves that we’ll wait until the kids are out for the summer, until the kids are back in school, until the kitchen is painted, until, until, until. But if we wait until these things happen or until our house is ready, we’ll never entertain. I know this is true because I’ve been there.

Our family has lived in Orrville for 12 years, but prior to that, we lived in 12 places in 13 years (yes, that’s right- 12 places in 13 years!). Hard to believe, I know. It’s hard even for me to believe it when I look back on those years, but it’s true. Ken only worked with a couple of companies during that time, but because he was in management, we had to 'move on to move up', as I have referred to that time of our lives. Believe it or not, I don’t regret a single one of those moves; I felt each one was the right decision at the time and if we had to, we’d make those same decisions today. Fortunately, all (except the last move) were prior to our son, Matthew starting school, and many were before he was even born. (Matthew began first grade in Orrville and graduated here earlier this year. Based on our early history, we are very proud of this!)

Because we lived in so many places, much of our early married life was literally life in transition. It seemed that by the time I got the house to a point where I was comfortable having people in, we were on the road again! We made and left many friends in those years. You’ve read my thoughts about how I feel I’ve neglected some of those friends through the years. As Barb, one of those old friends recently said to me, “Vanessa, you can’t worry about that. You were just trying to keep your head above water.” And while true, as one who loves hospitality and entertaining, I have regrets about much of that….

But, I digress! What I want to say is that I have learned the best way to overcome that is to simply BEGIN! Start somewhere! My best friend, Linda, was merely an acquaintance when she helped me to see the importance of doing just that. Although we had once worked at the same place, I did not know her. We actually met Linda and her husband, Brad, when my husband and I were invited to a small get-together at the home of mutual friends (Ray and Wanda) for ‘game night’. We all had so much fun and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Later that school year, all our sons (of the three couples) played baseball together on the high school baseball team. We really got to know each other at the games where we cheered on our sons’ team!

At one of those games, I made the suggestion that we should all get together at our house sometime. While I was trying to think of a good night to do that, Linda, in her ‘act now’ mentality (I call Linda our ‘party in a box’), suggested we get together after the game. That night!... On the way home!... At OUR house! Now, I keep a pretty clean and organized house, but I generally like to KNOW when I’m going to have eight extra people in IMMEDIATELY after a game, with no notice or planning whatsoever!! My friend Wanda, has teased me for years, telling me that I need to be more spontaneous. Well, I shocked them all that night when I said, “Why not?!” So, I ran it by Ken just to be sure. As expected, my husband who is my greatest supporter said, “Of course! Let’s do it!”

So, we did a mental check of what snacks we had at home, stopped by the grocery store for a few more things and then headed home where we were greeted by the first attendees of our impromptu party! Talk about a last-minute gathering! And it was a blast! We all had such fun! Our friendships with these couples only deepened. The next year we even went on vacation together with our families. And it REALLY began that night, when Linda invited herself and everyone else to our home. Everyone should have such a best friend!

I have to admit, these two couples are our ‘go-to’ friends when it comes to ‘easy’ entertaining. Whether we go to one of their houses or have them over at our house, it’s easy and comfortable. We’ve had all sorts of no-fuss events, like a Christmas party where our gift exchange was in the form of a ‘white elephant’ game (where each one brought a wrapped “gift,” something they had been given which was not only no longer wanted, but was never wanted in the first place. It’s a great way to get rid of something and a fun way to do it!) Easy! We have had game nights, and watched videos of Christian comedians, and even grilled pizza for a 4th of July celebration. Easy-to- please, easy-to-be-with friends! We all need those kinds of friends!

So, knowing that we all have some of these fun-loving, impromptu friends, how can we do impromptu entertaining without stressing out? Here are 10 quick suggestions, things I’ve learned to help me (the ultimate planner) with the ‘spur-of-the-moment’ get-togethers:

1. Make the food plan easy. Grill burgers, arrange a quick potluck, even order pizza. It’s the company, not the food that’s important.
2. Keep easy foods on hand. I sometimes joke that I like to visit my friend Sam (a.k.a. Sam’s Club!). At warehouse clubs you can find all sorts of easy foods to keep on hand. Cheese and veggie trays as well as sandwiches and quick-heat appetizers are always available there. Even their desserts are yummy. Bite-size cheesecakes and cream-filled popovers are frozen, but thaw quickly for an easy dessert. Now, I prefer to make all these things homemade, but again, quick is the name of the game for easy, no-fuss get-togethers.
3. Plan a game night. There are so many fun and easy games for a mixed group of friends and families with kids. Try Apples to Apples, UNO, or some of the other tried-and-true favorites. As your friends to bring their favorite games, too. Usually snack foods and sandwiches are easiest for these nights. (We always have potato chips, pretzels and crunchy snacks available thanks to Shearer’s, where my husband is plant manager. BTW, if you live locally and haven’t tried Shearer’s company store, you’re missing out! Lots of ‘seconds’ make for easy – and inexpensive – party snack food items!)
4. Plan a movie night. What’s easier than popcorn and apples for feeding everyone at this easy type of get-together? Add a bag of Junior Mints and Twizzlers and you’re good to go!
5. Set up a tentative time each month or quarter to get together. Then you have time to think about it a little in advance, assign foods, drinks, etc. If you or your friends have specialties or their own go-to foods, have them just plan to bring those. Linda makes a delicious homemade macaroni and cheese and we all love knowing we’ll have that at any gathering where more than desserts are served! Wanda is a terrific baker and anything she brings is always good! (Her cinnamon rolls are awesome and I request those whenever possible for early-day things!)
6. Meet at the park and enjoy a picnic. No one has to prepare their home and everyone brings enough food to share or maybe just items for your own family to enjoy. We live in a small town but we have a couple of places where we can pick up a bucket of chicken and joe’s (oven-fried potatoes) for an easy lunch or supper.
7. Just do dessert. Homemade ice cream and seasonal fruits are real crowd pleasers. How about s’mores? Easy, easy! I sometimes make brownies (homemade sometimes, box anytime!). Serve with Vanilla Bean ice cream and my easy hot-fudge sauce for a yummy dessert.
8. Keep needed items ready. Store paper plates, plastic utensils & cups as well as napkins in a large Ziploc bag for a quick grab-and-go to the picnic table or family room, wherever your party is congregating.
9. Keep homemade cookie batter in the freezer for easy cookies in a hurry. I’ve tried a variety of recipes for use in this way and I’ve never been disappointed.
10. It’s in the bag! Keep easy and fun activities ready to go in a bag or bin. Outside activities like yard darts, bocce ball or corn hole are always big hits. Bottles of bubbles keep the smaller kids happy. Why not add a few coloring books and crayons, too? Inside, a variety of games keeps everyone happy. Board games are a must, although Guitar Hero and Wii are always a blast in a group setting, too. Some group games are useful, but so are individual task-type games and puzzles. Years ago we used to have a puzzle set up to work on as the mood struck. Why not dig one out of the closet today? You’ll be surprised at how many of your guests (and family members) cannot resist placing a few pieces!

Most importantly, be a ‘party in a box’ person like Linda! Be willing to make those calls, invite your friends, and enjoy the time you have with them. Life is too short and circumstances are rarely perfect, so let’s make the best of today by making some memories with those we love and whose company we enjoy.

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