‘Tis the time to think about entertaining. As a divorced woman, inviting people over to your house expands your social circle — but not necessarily your waistline — and has the added bonus of being cheaper than going out. If friends invite you out to dinner, you have to reciprocate, and entertaining from your home is often 1/5 the cost of a restaurant.
Plus, you want to create happy memories in your home for your children, and just because the Ex isn’t there doesn’t mean you can’t create — and maintain — cherished traditions.
Having been an editor in chief of several magazines, I have learned quite a few tricks for entertaining on a budget. Here are some that may appeal to you.
1. Lights in winter. People may remember the ambiance more than the food. You can make Santa Fe candles (and the kids can help) to line the sidewalk: a small brown paper bag, some sand for the bottom, and a candle set inside. Roll down the top of the bag, light the candles and there you have an inexpensive and charming way of decorating outdoors. As for inside, try paper globes hung from an archway, lighted with fairy lights, or invest in some nice fat candles. Buy them in bulk online (a four-inch-tall pillar is as little as $2.99 at www.candles.com) or try Pier One or Ikea. Use the candles all over the house. Et voila! It’s romantic, cheery, and will make the house beautiful. But avoid scented candles, which could be suffocating.
2. Decorate with fruit. Fill a bowl with polished apples. I have also used one large red bowl and two smaller ones filled with green apples as a holiday centerpiece. Apples can hold place cards for a sit down dinner. And then, after the party, the apples can become apple crisps or apple pies. Oranges studded with cloves are another holiday classic.
3. You do not have to serve red meat. You do not have to serve fish or shrimp. You can serve chicken. You can serve bowls of pasta to be passed around family style. Or try a giant Chicken Waldorf salad as a main course. (Chop apples, chicken, celery, toss in some walnuts, a few dried cranberries for color; dress with light mayonnaise, salt and pepper, serve over romaine or Boston lettuce.) Kids will even love this one. If you don’t cook, here’s a trick: I buy a chicken from Boston Market and serve on a plate surrounded by parsley or watercress. Another time I coated a Boston Market chicken with apricot jam and then lightly coated it with cut up apricots, coconut, and dried cranberries. For Thanksgiving, get a turkey already cooked at the store. Then throw yourself into making sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, salad, olive platters … the kinds of things that take little time to prepare and don’t cost much.
4. If a guest asks “Can I bring something,” say “Yes!” This limits the cost and makes the guest feel helpful. You will have to give some guidance, so everyone doesn’t bring a pie. Best if guests can bring a salad, a rice dish, some wine, and yes, one or two pies. That means you don’t have to cook them, and you don’t have to pay for them. (Make sure their serving dishes are washed right after dinner, so they can take them home.)
5. The Thanksgiving table. Pumpkins and gourds are cheap. Hollow out some gourds or small pumpkins and put small flowers in them at each place settling. Or make a line of them right down the center of the table, interspersed with votives. This kind of centerpiece is low enough, it won’t block conversation across the table. You can also arrange some beautiful fall leaves on a white tablecloth. Gorgeous!
6. The holiday table setting. Fold napkins and stuff them in a water glass at each place setting, or make the napkin stand upright on the plate. Tie napkins with last year’s Christmas ribbons or, for Thanksgiving, with leaf designs cut out of construction paper.
7. More on place cards, which make the dinner table so festive. Try Martha Stewart for a great selection. One Thanksgiving place card that resonated with me was a turkey that had a tail made of four pieces of different colored paper. On each piece of colored paper was some Thanksgiving trivia. You don’t need special dinnerware for the holidays. Just make sure the table is decorated in a way that makes it a special occasion. Place cards can be your secret weapon.
8. Do you know why families love to come to our house? It’s easy. I never forget to entertain the kids. For the younger ones, paper and crayons may be enough. But I also provide cards and games for older children. I set a children’s table and use place cards to put a child next to another child he or she already knows and likes. Because kids are more fidgety than adults, I have a few DVDs they can put on in another room. That way, they can eat dinner and then run off while the adults are still chatting. (You can convince them to press the pause button when it’s time for dessert.) Another trick: I feed the children a large lasagna — inexpensive — and save my money for what I serve the adults.
9. Whether you are doing a sit-down dinner or a cocktail party, make sure you give a toast during the evening. It’s an old-fashioned tradition, but it really works in setting the mood. I have a blended family, and often invite divorced friends whose kids are with their exes for Thanksgiving. I tell them that they are now part of our tradition, which makes them feel they are part of something special. At the Thanksgiving dinner table, we really do go around and say what we are grateful for. (The children are included; since my son is well versed in this tradition, he and my stepdaughters start off the kids’ group, so that everyone feels at ease.) I might say that the autumn leaves were beautiful this year, and that I was so proud when my son finally hit a homerun in his baseball league, and that I’ll always remember the dinner I had with my girlfriends where we laughed all night. I promise, talking about good things will set a great feeling for the evening.
10. If you can’t afford a full bar, create a special drink for the occasion. Punches are one solution, along with wine and sodas. Sometimes I will name a drink. It could be Christmas Cheer: cranberry juice with vodka poured over ice and a raspberry in each glass. For Thanksgiving, I created Cider Apple Martinis. Just hearing the name makes the occasion feel festive.