Teeny Tiny Entertaining

Compassion, Honesty, and the Beauty of Individual Cheese Boards: The New Rules of Entertaining During a Pandemic

published Sep 9, 2021
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When this is all behind us, one thing we’ll all remember is the moment we hugged someone outside of our household for the first time in more than a year and then sat down at their table for dinner. We’ll remember the trepidation, the awkwardness (should we be doing this? Do we remember how to hug?), and the absolute relief and joy that washed over us in that moment. It was strange and wonderful, at once. 

As it turns out, strange and wonderful could stand as an accurate description of what the early part of summer 2021 felt like, when it came to entertaining and gathering. Attending small dinner parties and family barbecues and seeing loved ones has been, for most people, a combination of welcomed social interaction and anxiety-riddled hesitancy. But as summer stretched on and the Delta variant ramped up, we found ourselves more confused than ever. 

This fall, with holidays approaching and the taste for gathering together restored, how do we gather together safely? We asked this question to people who are thinking about this all the time, and here are the things we heard over and over — plus some fresh ideas for gathering over food in this in-between time.

There is no playbook for zero-risk gathering — and that’s OK.

As we continue to venture into this unknown, what a large number of us are looking for is some kind of playbook — a guide for how to stay safe and enjoy time with our loved ones at once. With all of the uncertainty surrounding this situation, we know that zero-risk gathering isn’t really possible, but how exactly do we balance caution and the very real need for human connection?

“Everyone has their own comfort level,” says Los Angeles-based event producer Casie Nguyen. Part of gathering now is to accept that all of our tolerance levels for social situations are not the same. “[Hosts and] guests [should] have empathy for how we cope differently during this tough time,” she adds. 

“Holidays and other occasions may feel a bit different this time, but you can still have fun while prioritizing the safety of your guests,” adds Courtney Quigley, reputation consultant, from Chicago, Illinois. All it takes is a little extra thought and consideration — something we’re no strangers to, given the past year. 

Every gathering means trusting people in new and scary ways.

Whether you’re planning a smaller gathering or a slightly larger event, knowing your guest list and trusting people to accurately report their health status is becoming increasingly important. In this pandemic world, we rely more than ever on the decisions that others make in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. 

“I got married at the end of July and that was the first time we saw all of our extended friends and family since March of 2020,” Jeanine G. from Round Lake, IL, told me. “To not hug anyone for 18 months was heartbreaking. It was my biggest joy to see everyone together and hug them all. I cried all day.” She noted that although she didn’t explicitly ask, she knew all of her adult guests were vaccinated because of her relationship with them. 

“You have to trust that your friends are doing what they’re supposed to do and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do so you can get together to have these moments,” Jeanine explained to me. “As a result, my friend group is small. I stick to my circle. The risk isn’t worth it.”

The pandemic has greatly reduced my personal social circle as well, and I know it’s done the same for many of my friends and family. When it became slightly less risky to see people again, we were faced with one big question: Who do we really want to spend time with?

“Transparency is the most important thing right now,” says Thao T. of Columbus, OH, who lives with her husband and young daughter. “I’ve tried to remove any emotion from the equation, laying out our vaccination status and what we expect of others. Is it comfortable? No, not at all. But it’s necessary.”

Use constraints as creative inspiration.

You don’t want to lose the feel of a special event, no matter how small it is. But given the parameters, gathering and hosting the way we used to isn’t always an option. Some restrictions give us an opportunity to think outside the box, though, and the results can be a ton of fun. 

“For a friend’s 30th, we’d have typically done a bar crawl,” says Jeanine. “But since we couldn’t actually bar hop, we created one in the yard.” She and her friends set out multiple tables — distanced, of course — and gave each one a theme: White Claw bar, whiskey bar, wine bar, etc. and guests could “hop” from table to table to experience the different drink options. It allowed each couple or pod to have space from others while still being able to enjoy each other’s company — and the whole thing was a hit. 

“Planners have to be creative with making folks feel connected while staying safe,” says Nguyen. Try challenging yourself to think of some ways guests can mingle that won’t cause additional anxiety, she suggests. 

“For a family with kids, instead of going to an indoor birthday party, they may consider an outside venue for an outdoor movie night under the stars or picnics and games at the park,” Nguyen explains. “Potluck dinner with friends where everything was a buffet is now an outdoor bonfire BBQ with personalized burgers made for every guest.” 

Jeanine offers another idea: “For the holidays last year, we had a distanced gathering with my immediate family and made individual charcuterie boards. I got mini wooden boards from Amazon and laid out an arrangement for each person — it worked perfectly because I could make a separate board for my brother and sister-in-law who are both vegan.”

Avoiding communal foods, like chips and dips, is a practice many have adopted, choosing to instead pack individually plated meals and serving sides and desserts in ramekins. “You don’t want it to feel like you’re living in the time of COVID, though,” Jeanine adds. “No one wants to feel like that. There’s a way to still make it feel warm and thoughtful.” 

Before hosting, pretend you’re a guest in your own house.

As folks who frequently entertained know, details are always important. These days, the details we pay attention to have changed (anyone else catch themselves reading the ingredients on hand sanitizers at the store?), and that goes for gatherings too. 

“The first time I had a few people over, I practiced walking into my own house as if I were a guest,” says Renee L. from San Francisco, California. “I started noticing all of these little details that I wouldn’t have been comfortable with in someone else’s house.”

The exercise led her to open up her windows and patio door for more air circulation. She swapped the hand towel in the powder room for a stack of disposable towels and made sure there was extra soap and sanitizing wipes available on the counter. She kept a bottle of spray disinfectant on the kitchen counter — something she never would’ve done before —to reassure guests that she was sanitizing commonly touched surfaces frequently. Renee also added some additional temporary seating in the common room to allow people to sit away from each other. And a few hours before her guests were set to arrive, she sent her partner to the store to pick up a box of disposable masks, even though all of her guests were vaccinated — just in case anyone had second thoughts on being unmasked indoors. 

“People told me multiple times that night that they really appreciated the thought that I put into those details and that it made them feel extra safe and comfortable,” Renee says. “We had a great evening.” 

Be ready to pivot.

As we have come to know, things can change at a moment’s notice. This can be hard for people (like me!) who rely heavily on routines and like to know what to expect — especially when it comes to social events. “The constant decision-making is giving me whiplash,” says Penny P. from Raleigh, North Carolina. “Can we have a playdate? Can we not have a playdate? Can I go out to dinner with friends? Should I not go out to dinner with friends? I don’t know what to do anymore.” 

Although the amount of flexibility required in a pandemic doesn’t come naturally to many of us, giving ourselves space and grace for messy decisions is par for the course right now. Plans can change. We can change them. Both are OK. Creating a few boundaries for yourself and your family can be helpful when trying to decide if a certain event or gathering is worth attending.

“I took my kids to our neighborhood fair recently, but gave myself an out, as well,” says Michelle S. from Northbrook, IL. “I told them beforehand that if I didn’t feel comfortable with the number of people that we would have to leave.” Sure enough, as the day wore on and the crowd grew, Michelle started feeling tense. “There were more people than I was expecting and many were unmasked; we left after an hour or so. The kids weren’t thrilled, but after not having been for a year they were happy we went at all. And I was proud of myself for following my gut.” 

Making quick changes and finding cooperative solutions requires honesty from each other. “Ask your guests ahead of time if they have any hesitations or fears that you could address before the party,” says Shelley Grieshop, creative writer and public relations director. “Use their answers and suggestions, along with recommendations from local health officials, to craft a party that everyone will feel [good about attending].”

And don’t forget to ask yourself the same question — both before hosting and before attending another event. “We have so little that feels certain right now; transparency is the gift we can give one another,” says Thao. That goes for ourselves, too.

Think about your guests, do what you can, and let the rest go.

No one is expecting you to throw together a perfect affair in the middle of a public health crisis. All the typical hosting rules are on hold until further notice. What we’ve learned through the pandemic is that it’s a gift to see each other — one that we shouldn’t take lightly nor complicate with unattainable ideals. We know now that it’s not about how pretty a gathering is, but how we care for each other during it. 

Be as straightforward as you can about expectations and don’t feel slighted if someone decides not to come. “It’s important for hosts to remember that they can’t take someone not attending a gathering personally,” says Nguyen. “It’s about compassion. We should put ourselves in other people’s shoes and find creative ways to connect and fulfill our need to be together safely.”

The truth is that there is no one way to gather right now. And maybe there won’t be for some time. Trying to figure out how to get together might take a little more logistical work, but for many, the planning is worth it. Seeing a friend’s face can be just the thing to temporarily lift the stress of these current days.

“One of our dear friends — who’d also gotten vaccinated — came to dinner at our house, outdoors and unmasked in the spring,” says Thao. “We held each other for a long time. It felt like a moment of reliving the past, just as we were celebrating the present.” 

And that’s the thing about gathering. We once lost it seemingly overnight, and now that we’ve had the chance to gather again, we’re unlikely to loosen our grip on it ever again —regardless of the measures we may have to take. It means that much.   

10 Great Teeny-Tiny Ways to Gather in 2021

With all of these new rules in mind, here are 10 little ways, inspired by the Kitchn team and ways they’ve gathered creatively, to see friends and eat good food.

  1. The Power Walk Porch Brunch: Gather a few friends to go on a fall power walk or hike, then meet on someone’s front porch afterwards for donuts (bought from the best place in town!) and take-out coffee.
  2. The Picnic Birthday Party: Meet at the park with a Costco cake, balloons, and a big blanket.
  3. Everyone Bring Cheese and I’ll Make Appetizers: Ask a few vaccinated friends to bring their favorite cheese. Make a couple of your favorite appetizers and crack open some cheap Prosecco.
  4. The Return of the Ice Cream Social: Take a page from every grade-school orientation and invite a few friends to your backyard with pints of ice cream and a ton of sprinkles.
  5. The Night Out (with a Private Chef): For a really swanky evening, for those of us who are vaccinated but don’t feel comfortable gathering in a crowded restaurant, ask a local chef to cook for you and three or four vaccinated friends in your home. It’s often comparable in cost to a swanky dinner, and a great way to support local culinary talent.
  6. The Apple Orchard Meet-Up: Pick apples, drink hot cider, take photos. The best fall treat.
  7. The Soup/Cookie/Granola Swap: Even in the darkest depths of the pandemic, this was a bright way to gather with friends: Stand around in a backyard swapping something good to eat.
  8. The Happy Hour Playdate: Want to meet your kids’ friends and their parents? Put out snacks (peanut butter pretzels are a current fave) and some good local beer. Parents sit on the stoop; kids play. Easy-peasy.
  9. The Outdoor Movie Night: Bring the theater home with an inexpensive projector, individual popcorn bags, movie-size boxes of candy that you can buy at the drugstore — and lots of blankets and pillows.
  10. The Laptop Tailgate: Grab some camping chairs and your favorite game-day snacks and drinks and set up a tiny tailgate in the driveway (or backyard or back porch). Pull the game up on your laptop so everyone can keep up with the action.