FOR most people, "entertaining" means gathering for food and conversation. But these days, the emphasis is not so much on impressing your guests with a lavish spread as on being able to get together at all.
The Monitor talked with a few food experts on why people entertain, how it has adapted to the '90s, and what rookies should keep in mind for successful entertaining.
First, ask yourself "Why entertain?" Maybe you want to welcome a new neighbor, a new baby, or celebrate a holiday, anniversary, or retirement. Maybe you just want to have some friends over to watch the Super Bowl. Did you ever consider that throwing a party was for your entertainment as well as your guests'?
"I personally think we have three or four recreational activities," Lora Brody says about her family. "One is ice skating, one is traveling, and the third is entertaining.
That means anything from having a neighbor over to organizing your sister's wedding reception and everything in between."
Ms. Brody, a food expert currently writing "The Entertaining Survival Guide," says that entertaining is simply making your friends, loved ones, and relatives feel at ease in your company. It can be "terrifying" at first, she says, "but it's so much fun, and it makes you feel great. It's a shared, lovely experience. It doesn't have to be fancy, pretentious, or expensive."
Most of those who entertain come together out of affection for their friends, says Marcia Adams, public television cooking-show host and author of "Christmas in the Heartland." "It does boil down to fellowship."
And if there's any question, "It is better to entertain than not," states Barbara Kafka, author of "Party Food." "I see the point of all this as the enriching of friendships and lives."
Ms. Kafka doesn't like the connotation of the word "entertaining," though. She finds "Food for Friends" a more appropriate description. "Having people over" doesn't always mean a formal, sit-down, multi-course meal, notes Kafka, a columnist for Gourmet, the New York Times, and Family Circle. Keep it simple
Although some people still entertain formally, entertaining in general has become much more informal because of lifestyle changes, notes Kafka in an interview.
"If you're out at work all day, the idea of getting all dressed up and going out is not `fun'.... [People] want to get comfortable; they're getting together in homes rather than restaurants."
In the '90s we're trying not to be so obsessed with possessions and impressing people, says Marcia Copeland, director of the Betty Crocker Publications Center, which just published "Easy Entertaining." We are more informal about how we entertain, she says: "People are more willing to have fun and do it simply."
The best advice for any novice is to start simply, say the experts. "Say you're going out to eat to a restaurant. Offer to have drinks and hors d'oeuvres first or dessert afterwards," suggests Brody. "Have everything made ahead of time."
Deciding what to serve can be a challenge. Often you need to cater to particular food needs, notes Kafka, who recalls inviting for dinner a group that included someone who couldn't eat shellfish, one who couldn't have any cholesterol, one who didn't eat red meat, and another who was a strict vegetarian. Instead of playing "Wheel of Fortune" with your menu, she suggests a vegetarian one as the safest. Accept offers of help
If guests ask "What can I bring?" be specific, says Adams: "Bring that trifle you've made before."
"I'm much more likely to let people bring something," says Copeland, who recalls that 20 years ago she wouldn't have been. "All our friends know how busy we are. The important thing is to get together rather than dazzle each other with our culinary skills."
Some hosts opt to hire help or buy prepared food, or both, saving time but probably not money. Anything that you can buy at the bakery or deli that is high-quality and will free you up is good, says Copeland, whether it's sourdough bread or a wonderful cheesecake. "We've stopped being apologetic that we don't make everything from scratch today."
From the beginning, the invitation - written or spoken - should indicate what type of entertaining you're doing, say the pros. If there is not definite occasion - "You're Cordially Invited to a Christmas Party" - you might like to plan a theme or tradition.
Decor can sometimes "make" the festivity, but you needn't go out and spend $75 on a floral arrangement. Suzanne Slesin, editor of the Home section of the New York Times, suggests using your own creativity. A party she threw a few years ago featured her husband's globe collection. She bought napkins with maps on them to the guests' delight. Children can also participate, says Ms. Slesin. Her five-year-old daughter once made placecards. "Everybody thought it was absolutely adorable," she recalls.
"We need to encourage people to do more with what they have at home," says Copeland. This Christmas she plans a centerpiece consisting of her collection of folk-art Santa Clauses, some greens, and candles.
How do you know if your guests are having a good time?
"When people want to stay, they're not in a hurry to leave," says Brody.
"If you have enjoyed your party it's probably been a good one," says Adams.
Kafka adds: "Laughter - that makes parties work."