“We suggest sitting like-minded together where possible, and with COVID safety in mind, to consider spacing between seats for those outside of the immediate family group.”
With restrictions on indoor guests in play, consider hosting a series of smaller events rather than one large shindig.
Thou shalt consider the “C” word
Like the testy married couple making endless “playful” attempts to get other guests to adjudicate on their latest battle, COVID has a way popping up all over the party vibe in the room. Resist drawing attention to it, but make sure concessions are made around the home for the health and safety of your friends and family.
“Respect everyone’s comfort levels around being COVID-safe and stay mindful of what the health professionals advise. This means having as many touchless options as possible – napkins instead of hand towels, for example,” recommends King. “Keep doors open where possible and offer hand sanitiser near high-touch surfaces such as door handles.”
Be mindful that the way food is served has also changed this year, adds Kate White, founder of
Katering. “Among families and close friends, sharing platters and grazing plates continue to be popular but at a time like this it’s best to give plated options for guests.”
Thou shalt not poison guests
As any TED speaker worth their salt will tell you, success often lies in recognising your strengths and weaknesses. If your culinary strength lives and dies at spag bol, this is not the time to attempt Peter Gilmore’s famous Snow Egg. “It is advised not to try a new dish for the first time when entertaining,” agrees White. “It’s a risk and will only add to the stress of the occasion, especially if it goes wrong or you are not sure of how many that particular dish will feed.”
Ask each guest for any dietary restrictions or aversions well ahead of time, and if you’re unsure if a dish you’re considering is too adventurous, err on the side of caution. “Unless you know the guests very well, it’s important to serve dishes most people will want to eat,” says White. “Seafood, beef and lamb are always the most popular dishes at events so aim to work around that.”
Thou shalt prep
Appearing cool, calm and collected is easier if you do as much prep as you can before the day of the actual event. So pull out and inspect crockery for chips, polish cutlery and ensure you have enough serving platters and spoons to get the job done in a way that doesn’t involve a last-minute run to the supermarket.
Setting and dressing the table aside, there’s also plenty you can do in terms of food production, says White. “You can peel potatoes the night before and place them in water to prevent them from browning and make all the sauces and gravy to be placed in serving bowls with cling film placed over the top.”
Prepping salad leaves can also help save time on the day. “Simply wash, dry carefully and place in ziplock bags ready to be poured into salad bowls when needed.”
Thou shalt consider younger guests
Whether you view them as beacons of light in a rapidly darkening world, or miniature pirates programmed to destroy your home, children are an integral part of festive entertaining. Hide the sugar and make a plan; they respond to that.
“Should someone ask something like, ‘How much do you earn?’, respond with a polite, ‘Not enough’, then quickly redirect the conversation with something like, ‘How delicious is this pavlova?’ ”
King suggests selecting and screening a fun Christmas movie to capture their attention, or locking in a few activities to help them burn off that post-dinner energy. “Kids always love putting on a show so songs, dances and performances are good to encourage, while board games are also good options to have on hand.”
Unless little Saffron is a fiend for oysters and a Saint Agur board, you will also need to take children’s dietary requirements into consideration, but a fun presentation of kids’ meals can help keep children happy, suggests White. “Why not create a little box filled with food they like and include something to do at the table such as colouring in or crafts?”
Thou shalt consider decor
If your idea of cleaning is to sweep the room with a glance, this could present problems when it comes to your guests’ comfort. While you don’t have to go full Martha Stewart, your space should, at the very least, be clean with plenty of soap, sanitiser and toilet paper in the bathroom and a room to place jackets, bags or umbrellas.
Since we’re restricted in how many guests we can have in our homes this year, White recommends putting in extra effort to make the dining table pop. “Introduce plenty of layering, from the tablecloth, napkins and place-mats to the use of flowers and remember you don’t have to be matchy matchy; haphazard tables done thoughtfully can look great,” she says.
Mix the dining chairs and kitchen chairs to introduce symmetry rather than grouping them at either ends. “The same rule applies with odd glassware, crockery and cutlery. Find one thing to tie them all together such as the same coloured napkin or a ribbon for each napkin.”
Thou shalt consider music
Step away from your Spotify workout playlist; Limp Bizkit might help set the mood then, but this is one area where it’s best to take direction from stylist of sounds (and thus, moods), Ovolo Hotel Woolloomooloo resident DJ, Ricky Albert.
“When I walk into a room, I size up how many and what type of people I believe I might have and then I think of where the level [volume] is musically,” he says.
First, it’d be just quieter than the conversation. “I would also keep it instrumental to give guests a chance to talk without competing vocals in the background, and choose music with a low tempo.”
As guests move into party mode, that’s the time to increase both volume and tempo. “Once I feel the night has progressed past the wining and dining stage, I increase the intensity of the room by usually playing around a 120bpm tempo followed by tracks that are more nostalgic [and recognisable]. Then it’s a matter of increasing to a dancing scenario where I leave people asking, ‘Well, where do we go next?’ ”
Thou shalt not place expectations upon guests
While any genuine offers of help are always welcome, one should never plan to entertain with the hope that guests will help shoulder the load, says King. “A good host ensures guests enjoy an easy, happy experience; we should not expect them to set the table, help with decor or entertain pets. We also do not expect guests to help clean up.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t graciously accept any offers of help or gifts (yes, even that bottle of plonk with a vintage best described as “Wednesday”), only that you should plan to do things yourself. “Of course, if one feels comfortable, feel free to ask close guests to help pour drinks and take plates out from the fridge.”
Thou shalt avoid contentious topics
Got some strong views on abortion/Trump/fluoride/the White Australia policy? We’re going to stop you right there: the discussion of politics, religion, sex, immigration policy and anything else likely to offend or anger has no place at a convivial gathering.
King recommends directing conversation, where possible, around positive topics such as personal achievements, a recent experience such as a meal at a restaurant or a domestic holiday.
“Should someone ask something like, ‘How much do you earn?’, respond with a polite, ‘Not enough’,
then quickly redirect the conversation with something like, ‘How delicious is this pavlova?’ ”
Be nice, lead with a compliment and above all, end each conversation with a positive tone. “Doing this keeps the company you keep feeling uplifted, and it’s the last memory they have of you and of the conversation.”
Thou shalt play Santa
You don’t have to gift guests like a game-show host, but it’s a lovely gesture to show gratitude for
their company with a small, inexpensive present. “This year we recommend individually wrapped chocolates or cookies; using paper bags and ribbon or paper boxes can add a lovely touch,” says King.
Finally, while you’re in the gifting spirit, remember too the gift of patience. It’s been a tough year for everyone and party or no party, we could all benefit from cutting each other some slack.
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Dilvin Yasa is a freelance writer.