Common Entertaining Mishaps & How to Prevent (or Fix) Them

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun. 

Today: How to anticipate and cope with any entertaining-related catastrophe.

It happens to the best of us: You’ve planned your dinner party down to the last detail, but something unexpected comes up. Your chicken burns, or you run out of wine, or your cousin brings an extra guest. In the spirit of making entertaining easier and more fun, we’re talking about some common entertaining mishaps and how to handle them. Life can be messy and surprising, but dinner doesn't need to be!

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The Most Important Tip
The best entertaining advice I’ve ever gotten is to maintain a sense of humor. You can do your best to prepare for mishaps, but you can’t anticipate everything. Hosts who are relaxed and smiling are the key to a fun party: Everyone feels more at ease when the hosts do. If something goes wrong, do not apologize. Laugh about it, move past it, and serve everyone extra dessert.

The Atmosphere
Potential Problem: The party doesn’t take off. People aren’t clicking, the conversation isn’t flowing, and it doesn’t feel fun.
How to Prevent It: 

  • Be proactive about setting a good atmosphere. Make sure you have a good playlist. Pick music that is uplifting and not too jarring, and put on a playlist that has at least 5 hours on it so you don’t need to worry about getting up to change it.
  • In a pinch, or if you don't want to play DJ, use a free site like Pandora or Songza to stream music all night long. There also are multitudes of free dinner playlists out there.
  • Put appetizers in more than one place so that people don’t all congregate around one table. A wonderful tip I’ve been given to encourage guests to eat is to make a slightly messy cheese plate: Cut into the cheeses, eat an olive and leave a pit out, and so on. This ensures that no one feels awkward about being the first person to start eating.
  • Introduce your guests to each other with a short sentence about them to help break the ice, Bridget Jones-style: “Mark Darcy is a top barrister. Perpetua’s one of my work colleagues.” You also can introduce two people to each other by sharing what they have in common, thereby starting a conversation for them.

Problem: People don’t show up.
Solution: If the crowd is a little thin at a non-seated party, that's an easy fix: Mingle more, turn up the music, and serve more drinks. If, however, guests at a seated dinner party or event don’t turn up, handle it subtly. Remove the place setting and put wine, a bread basket, or any other dish in its place. Plus, guests always can use more room to spread out at the table.

Problem: You forgot about a house-related detail, like toilet paper, cups, or space for guests to store their coats.
Solution: To avoid this problem completely, make a list of small tasks to check on the morning of the party: Stock your bathroom with extra toilet paper. Locate spare napkins and cups. Clean out your coat closet or find another space for guests to leave jackets and bags. We tend to focus on the food and drink when planning a party, but making your space feel welcoming is just as important. If you forget toilet paper, pick an understanding friend to watch the food while you run out and get some—or send her to the store. If you forgot to clean out the closet for coats, offer to take your guests' things and put them in another room, like your bedroom. If you run out of cups, resort to mugs and jars. Fill the need for napkins with paper towels or whatever small cloths you have on hand.

The Food
Problem: You burn something.
Solution: Avoid any last-minute disasters by make sure your food is close to ready—if not entirely prepared—by the time guests arrive. But if you do end up burning your sauce or overcooking your asparagus, don’t panic. Either have extra of your original dish on hand (twice as many vegetables, for example, or ingredients for a second batch of sauce), or have a backup dish. Make an extra side so that the entire dinner doesn’t rest on the success of one dish. Or, instead of having so many backups, simply prepare foods that can be made in advance. I can't stress enough how much this will help you. Some excellent ideas for make-ahead party dishes are short ribs, a sausage and kale tart, and roasted potato salad.

More: How to prep the whole party in advance.

Problem: The food is too salty.
Solution: Add acid. A squeeze of lemon juice or a drizzle of vinegar can help to balance out too much salt.

Problem: Your dessert doesn’t turn out.
Solution: Dessert can be one of the trickier courses, since it’s usually supposed to look pretty. If your soufflé falls, or your plum cobbler browns too much, or your cake breaks into pieces when it comes out of the pan, find the silver lining! Trifle it. Very few desserts can’t be turned into a trifle. As long as it still tastes good, just take that “ruined” dessert and crumble it up in a large bowl with layers of whipped cream. In my experience, layers of whipped cream generally make everything taste good. For absolute disasters that can’t be trifled with (see what I did there?), dig out that gallon of vanilla ice cream you've been hiding in the freezer, melt a few chocolate bars, and nobody will be the wiser.

The Drinks
Problem: You’ve run out of ice or limes or another bar essential.
Solution: Again, stocking up beforehand will take care of most surprises. Run through the drinks you’re serving and all the ingredients you need for them. If you’re putting out alcohol and mixers, make a list of basic bar ingredients: lemons, limes, tonic water, seltzer water, ice, juices, and olives. Buy more alcohol than you need. Let’s be honest: If your guests don’t drink it, you eventually will. If you misjudged and run out of booze entirely, just keep guests going with any soft drink you have, water, or coffee or tea.

Problem: Not everyone wants alcohol! I love a good cocktail, but I don’t always drink when I’m out. Plenty of my friends don’t drink at all. Nothing’s less fun than drinking seltzer water all night because you don’t want wine or your host’s signature gin fizz.
Solution: Have a decent nonalcoholic drink option. Non-drinkers are often given only one fallback beverage. Here are some ideas for easy, creative soft cocktails, so everyone enjoys the party with a drink in hand: Raspberry Lime Rickeys, Sparkling Rhubarb Lemonade, or Louisa Shafia’s Watermelon, Mint, and Cider Vinegar Tonic.

I want to know your best entertaining tips! Share with us in the comments.

Photos by James Ransom

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I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.