When it comes to homemaking, I’m no Martha Stewart. I love taking care of my home and family but there is no inherent joy derived for me by the means, only the end. I cook and clean happily but there is no euphoria involved. With my limited domestic skills, I used to be deterred from having guests for dinner. I would be too concerned that my home isn’t spotless and my cooking isn’t spectacular. But after being reminded of the tremendous blessing in hospitality, we decided to make hosting our habit in spite of our shortcomings. At times, we underestimate the bounty of a simple meal shared with sincerity, but we always find that these gatherings and moments are the tastiest. So, here’s our strategy.
Select your guests wisely
I personally find it easier to have more frequent meals with a few guests at a time, as opposed to hosting a large group seasonally or annually. For us, we have the natural limitation of space and utensils. It took a bit of coordination to host a family of five for our first Ramadan iftar (fast-breaking) meal this week. When we host even more this weekend, we’ll have to ask them to bring their own spoons. But once you know how many people and who to expect, you can assess your supplies and plan accordingly.
Also, consider the chemistry between the guests you invite. Don’t pair strangers unless you have some reason to believe they will get along and don’t assume that buddies are always on friendly terms. I was grateful when a guest I invited informed that she was no longer on good terms with another who I was about to invite. Instead, I invited someone else which made for a smooth evening without creating an awkward conflict. Thankfully, the two later resolved their tiff.
Match your meal to your guests
As I mentioned before, it’s a good practice to inquire about food allergies and preferences before you plan your meal. Consider which meals you can prepare confidently and capably without too much risk involved. If you want to try new and complicated recipes, practice on your family first. Evaluate which dishes in your repertoire best suit your dinner company. Take special effort to accommodate diabetic or hypertensive guests who might be tempted by the sight of sugary or salty foods. If you’re hosting guests who are free of health challenges but have poor eating habits, your meal is a great opportunity to showcase how tasty and nourishing a healthy meal can be. Some of our most carnivorous guests have been pleasantly surprised and inspired by our vegan pizza, fruit smoothies, and raw desserts.
As for cuisine-matching, I personally feel self-conscious when attempting Arab food for Arab guests, Indian food for Indian guests, and the like. Instead, I prefer to use the opportunity to introduce my non-American friends to some of our Afro-Caribbean cuisine. Why? It’s like throwing seven different types of smoke. They generally have no idea what to expect and it makes for good cultural exchange.
Start your prep early
Don’t wait until the big day to clean the whole house and start your meal. Start your cleaning 2-3 days prior. Cleaning the floors, dusting the surfaces, and tidying your home can be done well in advance. Unless you have a bathroom designated for guest use only, you might want to freshen up your sink and commode on the day of your engagement. Desserts—whether baked or raw—should be prepared first either the day before or the morning of your dinner. Dips can be prepared the day before and salads earlier on the same day.
Tag team the effort
Enlist your family to help out where possible. Sometimes, Urbndervish and Lil’ Z will welcome our guests and serve refreshments while I finish last minute dinner prep or clean up the kitchen before dinner starts. Whoever finishes eating first will usually clear the dinner dishes from the table while the other chats with guests. Then, the other might serve tea and dessert. When Lil’ Z and her dad are ready to walk our guests to their cars, I’ll jump in the kitchen and start the first round of dishes. After the little hostess is readied for bed, we’ll switch places again—I’ll put Lil’ Z to sleep and Urbndervish will finish up the dishes. Sharing the load means that we can all enjoy the company of our guests, savor the food, and not feel burdened by the clean-up that follows. If we’re particularly close with our guests, whoever is washing dishes will invite a friend to join them in the kitchen so the conversation can continue while washing up.
Set the aesthetic
I have difficulty making my food look really enticing and presentable, so I compensate by combining dishes of varied hues. For example, our iftar last week centered around black-eyed peas, which are a bit bland in color, so I added yellow rice and steamed okra and tomatoes to brighten up the plate palate. You can also serve your food in decorated plates and dishes, set a nice tablecloth, and burn incense in the home to satisfy sensory appetite.
Minimize your waste
We can’t stand the sight of wasted food, so we generally start our guests with a modest plate and offer refills. When we’re guests in the homes of others, it’s uncomfortable to be pressured to eat more than we normally would or be served increasingly more food when we’ve already expressed we’ve had enough. My Omani friends, for example, explain that they want to make sure their guests are not being shy and taking less food than they desire but this can get frustrating when you feel like you’re being force-fed. We don’t encourage our guests to overeat but we offer them as much as food as they would like to eat.
It’s also common to buy disposable dinnerware when having guests but please don’t give in. In college, I would carry a box of dishes and utensils to potluck dinners and volunteer to wash the dishes every time. I felt tremendous guilt drinking from red plastic cups and eating from Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils while calling ourselves activists and revolutionaries. Yes, some water is saved but I believe the energy and waste consumed is not worth the convenience. Feed the people but don’t neglect the planet in your hospitality. Consider the use of a large, shared platter of food or use paper plates, if you insist.
Remember your intention
Sharing the gift of food is an honor. It implies that you have the means to share and the friendship of others worth sharing it with. Intend to serve for the sake of God and you may find facility in your efforts as I often do. My food almost always taste better when we have company but we often attribute this to the blessing they bring with them when accepting our invitation. When you keep the close companionship of upright people and serve them pure and wholesome food with love, there’s very little room to fail. Even if your guests are not the most inspiring or positive people to be around, try to set the tone for an enjoyable evening, free of backbiting, ill speech and negativity. Whether during or outside of Ramadan, try to keep your home illuminated by service to others.