I host Shabbat dinners often, easily a majority of the Friday nights in a year unless it’s one of the occasional but glorious dates when we’re invited to someone else’s house. Yes, glorious. While I love the satisfaction of providing a good meal and Shabbat experience for my family and other families, I can’t adequately describe the joy of having a week off from planning and preparing the feast.
If I’m hosting so many Shabbat dinners, why is my family not invited to others’ homes more often? The comment I hear from guests who don’t reciprocate is something along the lines of, “We’d love to have you, but we couldn’t do this.” They wave theirs arms around to indicate the food, the plates, the candles, and challah. Sometimes “this” refers to the prayers my family does above and beyond the basics. When I hear “this” evoked at my table with a combination of admiration and self-deprecation, I know we’re not getting invited to that person’s home, and I’m disappointed.
Here’s what I want my guests to know about what I expect at your Shabbat dinner: nothing. My husband, the one who likes to do all those prayers (and who learned several as an adult by the way), feels the same way. We don’t care if you use paper towels for plates. We don’t care if you utter one blessing or five. There are only two questions we ask ourselves before entering someone’s home for a meal: Did we cook this meal? Are we scrubbing dishes afterwards? If the answer to both questions is no, then make space at the table because the Badzins are thrilled to attend a Friday night dinner in your home.
I do understand where these hesitant hosts are coming from. I remember feeling apprehensive about hosting after attending others’ seemingly effortless dinners. I was such an inexperienced cook in the early days that the double-headed monster of the meal and the ritual aspects of Shabbat (I knew HaMotzi and the one-line Kiddush) filled me with dread.
When Bryan and I moved into our first apartment, my mother-in-law taught me how to take a match to the pilot light in the oven and she had to teach me how to use a gas stove. She carefully instructed me on the proper cleaning of a skin-on, bone-in chicken, then wrote down directions for how to bake it in the oven. Despite going over the details with me several times, I served chicken that was raw in the middle the first time I made a Shabbat meal. My guests survived the potential food poisoning and I survived the shame.
Fifteen years later, not only am I comfortable preparing many dishes, but I’ve learned helpful hosting tricks, too. Trust me, I truly do not care if you’re serving barely defrosted pizza, but if you do have an inkling of desire to more, I have ideas that will make a big dinner easier than it looks.
1. Let guests bring some of the food. When someone asks, “What can I bring?” do not say “nothing.” My good friend who keeps a stricter level of kosher than I do asks me to drop off grapes and a full pineapple before Shabbat. I ask guests to bring a pareve dessert, fruit, or a salad. A close friend and I have a deal that when she hosts, I bring all three of those dishes to her house and she does the same for me.
2. If you have kids, they should help. I think most people ask too little of their kids. Even young kids can set out cups, napkins, and silverware (or plasticware). Older children can pour water, clear the table, and dry dishes. Some kids would love to cook if their parents would let them.
3. If you have a spouse, that person should help. I like to think it goes without saying that hosting a meal is not the job of only one partner, but perhaps it needs to be stated explicitly. It’s all hands on deck when you’re having guests for a meal, no matter how casual the menu.
4. Let guests help during the meal. Nothing is more irksome than a host who shoos friends away from the kitchen, then complains (even through body language) about all the work it takes to have people over. I put my guests to work. If guests offer to help pour water, I hand over the pitcher. I let people clear the table, put leftovers away, and even carry extra chairs back into the kitchen.
5. Keep glasses at the table until the end. Even if the kids have left the table and are playing in another room (yes, release them as quickly as possible), they will be thirsty, which means more cups. Never clear the glasses!
6. Enjoy your nicest plates. This will be controversial: We put our china in the dishwasher. There are areas that are looking a little faded after 15 years, but the plates are there to be used. We also don’t store our china in any special cloth. They’re plates, not vials of precious medicine. Use them, wash them, stack them. Done.
7. Serve buffet style. A buffet is much easier than family style since hot food does not need to be transferred to passable serving dishes. Less dishes to wash!
8. Repeat recipes. If you’ve figured out a salad that yields good leftovers for days (any salad without lettuce) and you know a chicken dish everyone loves, then make the same meal on many Friday nights. Your meals do not need to mimic professionally rotating menus.
9. Say the prayers in English. Want to do some blessings to elevate the experience, but feel iffy about your Hebrew? Go with English.
10. Banish the word “perfect” from your vocabulary. If you’ve invited guests to share a Shabbat meal, you’ve done a beautiful and generous act no matter what the details look (and taste) like.
Nobody expects your food, your table, or your Hebrew to be the same as theirs. I speak on behalf of other frequent hosts when I say we just want a little break. We don’t care what we find when we get there.