Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Making it simple to enjoy your missionary's farewell or homecoming

Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints look forward to the day when their son or daughter will serve as a missionary. Then they anxiously await the day 18 or 24 months later when their precious child will return. Near these bookend events the missionary usually speaks in a Sacrament meeting.

The missionary's family often invites guests to their home following the meeting to celebrate the departure or return. These gatherings can be burdensome for the family. When hosting such a function there are some things you can do to lighten the load and make your get-together more enjoyable.

Simplify the menu
The number one rule is to keep it simple.

Some serve a broad variety of foods to try to satisfy everyone that might attend. They worry that they might be considered ungracious if they offer too few choices. Remember that simply offering refreshments to guests shows hospitality. Overly picky guests are themselves ungracious and can choose to go hungry. Most will survive just fine. After all, we are constantly reminded that most Americans carry plenty of reserve weight.

Offering a broad assortment of foods also encourages guests to linger longer and to overeat. It's nice to have guests visit. But it's also nice for them to go home before they've outworn their welcome. It would be even nicer if they could depart without taking indigestion along for the trip.

Another reason for expanding food selection is to "keep up with the Joneses." It's tempting to feel obligated to do at least what others have done at similar gatherings. This leads to a culinary arms race that can't be good for the church. Do not feel in any way inferior to Sister So-and-so if you choose to be simple on the Sabbath rather than turning your home into the local Glutton Town Buffet franchise.

Following are some ideas for serving simple but sufficient refreshments for your missionary's homecoming or farewell.

Go for less mess
Serve only foods that are easy for guests to manage and that are easy to clean up. Let's face it; there will be spills, crumbs, smears, etc. You can limit these by making food easy for diners to handle and by reducing overt liquid content. The more fluid your dishes are—think Jell-O salads, soups, sauces, puddings, dips—the more messes you will have to clean up.

Some have found that finger foods and sandwiches work well. But keep diners' food management in mind. Corn on the cob sounds fun, but it's messy for diners to handle. Everyone loves ice cream treats, but they melt easily and tend to be an abundant source of sticky drips.

Serve only ice water to drink. Your guests won't die without punch, juice, or soda. Use disposable plates, cups, flatwear, etc. These produce trash, so keep trash containers readily accessible. In fact, set them out before going to church. A family member that needs to be useful can be assigned to make sure that these containers don't get too full during the gathering.

Satisfy the masses, not the individual
Serve only foods that are likely to be enjoyed by at least half of your guests. You are setting up a limited buffet, not a specialty diner. If only a few of your guests will touch a given food, it's probably too specialized.

Resist the urge to cook
Refrain from cooking or even warming up any food on the day of the event. The only exception to this might be something that could be warming in a crock pot while you are at church—think pork and beans or cocktail weenies. But only serve something like this if most guests will eat it.

Go cheap
This might sound uncharitable, but maximize foods that are rich in dense carbohydrates and fats while minimizing foods that are high in protein. Restaurateurs have long known this trick. Meats and cheeses are expensive. Breads, pastas, chips, cookies, cakes, and the like are cheap by comparison. People like them too. You can make it look like you splurged by serving real butter for the bread. While you need to make sure that you have enough of the pricier dishes you serve, you can reduce expenses by offering fewer varieties of these.

If you're concerned about the healthiness of this approach, consider the advice of one dietary expert who says that there are no truly unhealthy foods; only unhealthy diets. After all, this is only one meal, and it's supposed to be a party.

Proper planning and preparation prevents problems
Prepare everything in advance. Before going to church put out everything needed for the gathering except for the foods that must be kept cold until being served. That way you can come home, quickly put out the cold foods, and immediately begin eating.

It would be nice if every guest could dine while seated at a table. But this depends on how much room you have and how many tables and chairs you can get. You may end up with most diners just sitting on the furniture with plates in their laps. Also, consider the fact that the more comfortable guests are, the longer they will linger and the more they will eat. Remember that you're being a conscientious host, not driving guests away.

Keep it moving
Keep the serving line moving. You will need to use the limited space in your home as best you can unless conditions allow you to serve the buffet outside. Set up the serving line long before going to church. Try to foresee and mitigate bottlenecks. You might need to portion out some dishes and spread them out to allow better access.

Put the plates at the start of the line. The drinks, napkins, and utensils go at the end so that people don't have to juggle these while serving themselves. Between starting and ending points, place the main dish items, followed by side dishes, and finally the desserts. The fewer varieties of food you offer, the faster the line will move. Waiting to set out desserts until most guests have been through the line also significantly speeds up the process, but it means that you have to watch and work while people are eating.

Taking tips from the fast food industry can also be helpful. When serving foods that allow diners to add sauces or spreads, the line will move more efficiently if these condiments are located away from the serving table and closer to where the guests dine; maybe even on their tables.

Too much beats too little
Don't run out of food. It's difficult to know how many people will show up and how much food they will eat. Even consulting with friends and neighbors may not help, due to the uniqueness of your family dynamics and your child's popularity. Also, competing events of the day differ from occasion to occasion. Use your best guess. But remember that it's better to have leftovers than to turn guests away unsatisfied.

And finally, RELAX!
It would be nice to relax in Sacrament meeting and enjoy your child's talk. But the reality is that you may be too frazzled for that kind of calmness. Still, your day will be easier and Sacrament meeting will be more enjoyable if you keep the food and preparations for your gathering simple. (See D&C 59:12-13) Just keep thinking to yourself, "This too shall pass." And no matter how it turns out, try to enjoy interacting with your guests. These relationships are more important than any of the food you will serve.

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