The Slow and Simple Life: Meals and Entertaining
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
The Slow and Simple Life - 10 Simple Things that make Meals and Entertaining Easy and Enjoyable.
This blog continues my ruminations about Slow and Simple Living. I’ve found that this kind of lifestyle is a journey. I have been on it for about 10 years now. Trying stuff. Some things have worked and others haven’t and I am reflecting on my experiences. Today I am thinking about how I have set up my kitchen and dining room aesthetically to set the scene for a beautiful meal. Keeping with my simple ethos nothing is expensive or time consuming. A grand home I do not have. But others have commented that it is homey and welcoming, especially my children, and that’s what is important to me.
The Homey Kitchen
I am not into sparse, designer home kitchens. I think having been a nurse they channel the sterile hospital vibe for me. A good place to work, be sick or injured in but you don’t want to live there. I want an informal, relaxed feel. I hope I achieve this with bright pops of colour and a bit of nature in the form of dried flowers, bamboo furniture and cane woven storage. These add warmth and textural interest. Little pot plants are good too as is growing micro-greens on your windowsill. I got a bunch of rose buds and hung them upside down until they became brittle and dry and put them in a recycled glass bottle. They bring a soft, vintage winsomeness to the space for little cost or effort and I have discovered they are long lasting. I’ve read you can refresh them with hair spray.
I have a fetish for bright coloured tea towels and frequently change them so they look fresh and clean. A comfy old second hand armchair sits invitingly in the corner. It angles toward the verandah and garden but is situated opposite my cooking bench - enticing family, friends and me to sit down and chill out - stealing small moments of peace and stillness. A small, narrow tray above my sink holds a pretty Japanese teapot and cup again on display to evoke a nurturing atmosphere and remind me to take a break now and then.
I can make a cuppa and carry the tray to a small table beside the armchair. Or I can keep cooking and chat while someone else relaxes. Glass jars and natural, woven baskets impart a sense of unity and neatness.
This blackboard hangs opposite my cooking bench for inspiration, contemplation, and encouragement. Another sits beside my stove. When I or anyone else in the family notices something has been used up, we write it up on the board then I photograph the list with my mobile phone for shopping.
The Homey Dining Table
An inviting eating space does not have to be expensive or fancy. For me its all about connecting and sharing food together - not expensive knick knacks. I once read a really sensible piece by Deborah Hutton, an ex-model, Australian media personality that produced her own homewares line for one of our local superstores called Kmart. It was a magazine article about inviting folks over for a meal. She was the epitome of sophistication at the time and I expected her advice to be costly and complicated. I couldn’t have been more wrong. No, she said, you don’t have to cook a fancy meal or serve it up in a fancy space with fancy things. Too many people, she said, get hooked up with expectations of how grand it all has to be with the result that increasingly few of us actually do it. And personally I resent being invited to really elaborate, home-cooked meals in swanky homes because I feel the pressure to reciprocate in kind. It can reduce the whole hospitality thing to an uncomfortable domestic rivalry and competition.
Here are 10 simple things I do to make meals and entertaining easier.
1. Outsource something
I don’t cook everything: I buy the pizza or make the salad - or make the main meal but buy nibbles and dessert. Employ your guests, who often want to contribute - to bring drinks, nibbles, a dessert or even a bread stick. It all helps. Better still make it a pot luck, stick everything on your table and let people help themselves kind of meal.
Get to know your local small food businesses. One of our local Sri Lankan restaurants made some lovely traditional dishes for my birthday one year when I wanted to have a party at home with extended family. Instead of presents everyone contributed a bit of cash to pay for it so the whole venture was thoroughly enjoyable and didn’t break my bank balance. The restaurant even provided pretty, heavy, engraved little serving bowls.
2. Learn to Cook Ahead
Choose recipes that store/freeze well and make sure you understand how to reheat them. If I am making a meat or lentil -“meat” sauce for example for a regular, weeknight spaghetti bolognese and I know I will be having guests, I make a large amount and freeze the excess to make a lasagna up on another day.
3. Set the Scene
Even take-away fish and chips look great if you set the table. Pretty tablecloths (mine are vintage secondhand shop finds) and/or place mats create a sense of occasion. White cloth napkins were also a great, second hand shop find. I’ve had them for years. And you don’t have to iron them. Just go for the rumpled, shaggy chic look. I just throw them in eco bleach when soiled but find most people don’t even use them. It just looks like you’ve made a bit of an effort when you haven’t which is right up my kind of entertaining alley.
Employ all 5 senses in the dining experience. A small pot plant or bunch of flowers or even a few large green leaves from your garden create visual beauty. Mood lighting is great. I have a small lamp in the corner and a couple of refillable aromatic candles on the dining table. I think they make the space pretty and cosy, but you can still see your food which I always find helpful when eating. Lastly: mood music. Spotify rocks for this. I use real cutlery and crockery and enlist guests to help me clean up. Simple white looks elegant. Again mine are second hand shop finds. They don’t even have to match.
I have second-hand couches instead of stiff-backed dining chairs - again to channel a relaxed vibe and when we have long chats at the end of the day - I get to put my legs up - bliss! Of course my dining room is also my living room so I don’t actually have a lot of choice in the matter but it still works well. I think the combination of couches in a dining area encourages folks to relax and take their time over the meal. It channels the coffee shop vibe, inviting conversation and dallying. Sure, mine may be a poorer, daggier version but it is still effective.
If you don’t live alone, don’t prep/serve alone. Each member of the family/household can have their own task. They know beforehand and need to remember that task without being prompted. One can handle drinks and coffee/tea. Another can clear the table. Someone else can organize washing up. That kind of thing. After all, I want to enjoy the experience too. Women are thoroughly modern millies and most of us work and/or parent and feel chronically tired. The family/household can pitch in. With practice we have become a lean, mean, entertaining team. And when our kids grow up they will have some great family and community-building skills.
5. Make Setting the Table an Efficient Simple Ritual.
Even for family meals I have this little tray that sits on my dining table permanently. This is because of the energy thing. That is my lack of it by evening. If I know dinner needs to be on the table in say 10 minutes and I have to set everything up some days I feel overwhelmed and cranky. If I know almost everything is there it seems so much more doable. And because I have this little system going and it is obvious and simple to understand I can grab a member of the family and ask them to set the table. This would be great for kids. I just wasn’t so domestically evolved when I had young children. Learn from me any young grasshoppers who are reading this and you will do well.
6. She who cooks does not wash up. This is a rule in my house.
7. Don’t Cook on Weekends
I don’t cook on weekends unless entertaining. My husband or kids make meals on the weekend, or we eat out, get take-away or heat up a freezer meal.
8. Take a regular Cooking Sabbatical.
I do most of the cooking and shopping in my home so on family holidays I don’t cook. Period. I have found my enthusiasm for domestic culinary adventure is reinvigorated by having the occasional 1 or 2 week respite from it.
9. Invite a Good Conversationalist.
This isn’t someone who hogs the conversation and is interested only in what he/she has to say. Good conversationalists have a natural curiosity about other people. They enjoy having a yarn and don’t have an agenda. They like to take their time sharing and then asking questions, listening and reflecting on what their conversational partner says. They are glass half full kind of people. Added bonus if they have a sense of humour. Such folks are dinner party gold. It means you can allow the dinner party to unfold and get on with kitchen tasks without worrying about awkward silences and forced conversation.
When all else fails alcohol covers a multitude of domestic goddess sins.
What have you learned that makes family mealtimes and entertaining simple? Please feel free to comment in the comments below.
Next week I talk more about my Monday Meals idea. This is my latest simple cooking invention that gets meals on the table every weeknight in about 10-15 minutes - I am not exaggerating! It is seriously easy and fast and has made cooking dinner something I enjoy leaving me with excess energy with which to enjoy the meal and converse intelligently with family and friends rather than sitting zombie-like with tiredness or falling asleep at the table.