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The Entertaining Principle That’s Stood the Test of Time

Created February 27, 2020
collection of heritage betty crocker cookbooks
Whether you’re hosting a formal dinner party or simply having a few people over, you know who to turn to. For nearly 100 years, Betty Crocker has been serving up kitchen-tested recipes and advice to those who love opening their homes to family, friends and new faces. A lot has changed over the years, but not everything.
During talks about what entertaining means today, our editors eagerly flipped through the color-faded cookbooks that fill the Betty Crocker archives in search of entertaining advice that has stood the test of time and is relevant for today’s home cooks. In the process, we stumbled upon pages and pages of generational traditions that your grandmother or mother might have sworn by—wobbly Jell-O centerpieces, bubbling pots of fondue, flaming cherries jubilee, elegant dinner parties with crystal and candlelight—the list goes on. Imagine if we told you today that you’d have to polish the silver every time you had guests over or fold dinner napkins into elaborate designs—crazy, right? It’s fun to reminisce and see what was all the rage way back when, because so much of it really is different from today. But after looking past the gelatin-encased meats, chicken salad shortcakes, sandwich loaves and mayonnaise-smothered sides, we were able to identify one perennial idea that can make us all better hosts and hostesses, no matter the era: Make your guests feel at home.

Back in 1967, Betty said it like this, “The secrets are simple: an air of conviviality, a feeling of spontaneity in the food, the table setting and the service that makes everyone feel happily at home.” For today’s hosts, the ways to achieve this looks different, but the intent is the same: Making your guests feel happy should be at the heart of every entertaining decision you make.

We’re highlighting some common entertaining scenarios, from last minute get-togethers to sit-down dinners, and showing you how to make everyone feel that feeling—call it cozy or hygge or whatever you like—in ways that make sense for today.

Last-Minute Get-Togethers: Always Be Ready!

Across time, generations and geography, one thing hosts of all kinds acknowledge is the value of a well-stocked fridge and freezer. When spur-of-the-moment company arrives, one of the simplest ways to make your guests feel welcome is to present a prepped-ahead dish made just for times like these, without a whisper of imposition. It’s a surefire way to capture the spontaneity of an impromptu gathering while also ensuring your unexpected company feels happily at home.

Here’s a sixty-minute dinner that’s sure to put a how-does-she-do-it look on your guests’ faces. And it comes almost entirely out of the freezer!
Here’s a sixty-minute dinner that’s sure to put a how-does-she-do-it look on your guests’ faces. And it comes almost entirely out of the freezer!
Betty Crocker’s 1967 Hostess Cookbook: Guest-Tested Recipes and Party Plans for Every Occasion

Then: This Fast-from-the-Freezer menu, from Betty’s 1967 Hostess Cookbook: Guest-Tested Recipes and Party Plans for Every Occasion, has a grand total of seven dishes, with a little coffee to round it out.

  • Chips and Garden Dip
  • Herbed Salmon Steaks
  • Potato Balls
  • Butter Italian Green Beans
  • Pineapple-Melon Ball Salad with Celery French Dressing
  • Parker House Rolls
  • Sundae Waffles
  • Coffee

Now: While the concept of having a stocked freezer and pantry for spur-of-the-moment guests is timeless, it’s pretty unrealistic to think that the modern-day host would be able to pull off appetizers, sides, mains and a dessert all at the drop of hat. Even pulling all of that out of the freezer and getting it into serving shape represents a time commitment that most of us can’t make on the fly. That’s why we picked out a few easy, foolproof recipes that offer a personal touch without an overwhelming amount of fuss. Here’s our modern take for always-ready hosting:

By prepping a dish or two ahead, the pressure of figuring out what to make and how long you’ve got to do it will subside and hosting will come naturally, even when you’re winging it. You’ll be able to spend more time hanging out with your guests and less time tucked away in the kitchen, and that’s the key to making them feel comfortable and relaxed.

The Food is The Party: Fondue!

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The flame might have come perilously close to flickering out on fondue in the last few decades, but when we thought about it, the idea of gathering your nearest and dearest to twirl skewers over a melty pot of cheese or chocolate does sounds awfully appealing. Sure, you could reignite the trend for nostalgia’s sake, but even kitsch-free, it’s a great way to create a fun and welcoming atmosphere for your guests and it’ll have everyone feeling relaxed in no time.

Guaranteed to break the ice for even the shyest group is a party where guest do their own cooking. Perfect strangers are chatting merrily minutes as they spear their own meat cubes, then cook and dunk them. And it’s easy on both the host and hostess, for all the preparations are made well in advance—and there’s no carving to do.
Guaranteed to break the ice for even the shyest group is a party where guest do their own cooking. Perfect strangers are chatting merrily minutes as they spear their own meat cubes, then cook and dunk them. And it’s easy on both the host and hostess, for all the preparations are made well in advance—and there’s no carving to do.
Betty Crocker’s 1967 Hostess Cookbook: Guest-Tested Recipes and Party Plans for Every Occasion

Then: In 1967, fondue was a way for the hostess to socialize and enjoy her party without having to run in and out of the kitchen. And although the beef fondue with escargots as suggested in Betty Crocker’s 1967 Hostess Cookbook might seem a bit much today, that doesn’t mean there aren’t modern ways to host a party that revolves around a bubbling fondue pot.

Now: It’s a matter of adjusting your perspective—and your ingredients. Instead of thinking of fondue as a dish to serve at a party, think of fondue as the party itself. What makes fondue so fun is the fact that your guests get to join in on the cooking process—putting their own spin on things. Setting up a meal featuring an assortment of options provides a great talking point that will keep everyone fed and entertained all evening long. Plus, letting guests customize what appears on their plate is a very of-the-moment way to accommodate allergies and dietary preferences.

Here’s how to pull it off:

  • For simplicity’s sake, eliminate foods that need to be cooked. Skip the raw meat in hot oil or broth and serve up a pot of creamy, rich melted Swiss and Gruyere with our Cheese Fondue recipe with vegetables, chunks of sourdough bread, or pre-cooked, cubed meats, to name just a few of the dipping possibilities!
  • Don’t miss the chance for sweet fondue! Nothing impresses quite like a glossy pot of Milk Chocolate Fondue surrounded by mounds of fresh berries, cubes of pound cake, chunks of banana and fluffy marshmallows.

But what if you don’t have a fondue pot? Don’t fret—substitute. Find a centerpiece dip recipe that will stay warm all through the evening in a slow cooker, so all there is to do is replenish the fixings and enjoy time with your guests.

Big Group Gatherings: Build a Buffet and They Will Come

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The more, the merrier—and we mean it. Buffets, family-style, potluck—whatever you call it, it’s is the cheeriest, chummiest way to entertain, whether you’ve invited six people or 60. When the dinner bell chimes, lines form, plates fill and conversations spark between friends and family, no matter how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other. You can set it all up yourself or invite folks to bring their signature shareable dishes, and either way, you’re all but guaranteed an atmosphere of down-home good times.

Choose foods that don’t require a knife for cutting. Avoid main dishes with thin sauces or hard-to-eat salad. And what with everything going on a single plate, keep the food simple—a great casserole, a salad, bread and a super dessert.
Choose foods that don’t require a knife for cutting. Avoid main dishes with thin sauces or hard-to-eat salad. And what with everything going on a single plate, keep the food simple—a great casserole, a salad, bread and a super dessert.
Betty Crocker’s Dinner Parties: A Contemporary Guide to Easy Entertaining

Then: Betty could have told you how to plan a buffet for everything from a wedding reception to a Scandinavian luncheon with menu items like fish-stuffed tomatoes, beef en gelée, potato rings with Brussels sprouts and crab louis in puff bowls. Buffets were flexible, easy to set up ahead of time, and could be formal or informal. For the former, the meal was typically eaten at a fully set table with a family-style set up. For the latter, a simple three-dish menu would have been arranged on your kitchen counter and eaten from a plate almost anywhere. It was a way for guests to feel at ease knowing they had the freedom to serve themselves while mixing and mingling in a warm and hospitable atmosphere. And you can bet no buffet was complete without a sensational dessert to round out the evening. Pre-cut slices of rich chocolate cake, pre-scooped ice cream and toppings that ranged from toasted coconut to drippy caramel sauce let guests create superb serve-yourself desserts that emphasized the beauty of buffets.

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Now: There are a number of easy ways to pull off buffet-style entertaining today. Your 13x9 dish is your trusty sidekick, ideal for big-batch casseroles, shareable desserts and other tasty family-sized recipes. If you plan on inviting guests to bring dishes of their own, keep your focus on the centerpiece dish and offer category suggestions to everyone else (appetizers, sides, desserts), which can take a huge amount of pressure off of you and them.

Grazing boards are another way to spin the buffet, and over the last few years, the internet has been awash in eye-catching inspiration. We’re big fans of this trend because boards are easy to assemble, beautiful to look at and downright delicious when done right. We created a Tex-Mex Grazing Board featuring tortillas and bowls of all kinds—from crunchy corn to fillable flour, a slow-cooked, pull-apart meat of choice, and all the fixings.

And for dessert, the vintage serve-yourself cake sundaes we saw in those old pages inspired us to create a modern version. Meet our build-your-own dessert bar featuring cookies, brownies, cupcakes and all the toppings of your over-the-top dessert dreams. We recommend serving at least two types of ice cream, plus hot fudge, toasted nuts, crushed Oreos™, maraschino cherries, colorful sprinkles and gummy bears—at the very least.

Your crowd-pleasing buffet menu might not have crab louis in puff bowls or beef en gelée as main dishes (and that’s more than fine) but the idea of setting up a spread that invites your guests to dig in at their leisure is really what matters. Armed with your 13x9 or your eye for a beautiful grazing board, you can relax, knowing your buffet built for a crowd will instantly make your guests feel right at home.

Sit-Down Dinners: Go for Friendly Over Fancy

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Crystal and candlelight used to be key ingredients in executing a successful dinner party. But entertaining, like everything else, has evolved over time. When you want to pull out all the stops for a wow-worthy sit-down dinner, brunch or holiday feast—aim to keep it impressively easy while still upholding that party-time charm that helps everyone feel at ease.

Entertaining! Like the old gray mare, it’s not what it used to be. When our grandmothers, or even our mothers, gave parties, the table was set with service plates, finger bowls and three kinds of forks. This is pretty much a thing of the past. So are the four and five-course menus that a dinner party used to call for.
Entertaining! Like the old gray mare, it’s not what it used to be. When our grandmothers, or even our mothers, gave parties, the table was set with service plates, finger bowls and three kinds of forks. This is pretty much a thing of the past. So are the four and five-course menus that a dinner party used to call for.
Betty Crocker’s Dinner Parties: A Contemporary Guide to Easy Entertaining

Then: Even in 1967, Betty knew it was time to let the dust build on sparkling silver and fine china. Entertainers and party hosts were starting to gravitate towards ease and simplicity. Meticulously crafted menus with five or more courses were slowly becoming things of the past, but there was still a sense of formality.

Now: Over the last decade, people’s attitudes about dining continue to evolve, and we’ve seen changes in everything from the kind of plates we dine on, to the sizes of our kitchens and homes, to the common understanding of what’s “formal.” For today’s hosts, the first step to ensuring that your guests have a great time is to make sure you’re set up to show them a great time, in the style that you want to cultivate. That means taking stock of your resources—the size of your kitchen and dining space, your budget and what you already have on hand, from ingredients to decor—and assessing your needs for the event: the mood you want to set, what you need to shop for, and so on. A formal dinner party can be fun, but a sit-down dinner can be a simple, cozy event with friends, too. So, before you send out the invites, consider:

What’s the occasion? This one’s important. A causal Tuesday dinner party is far different from Easter brunch or Thanksgiving dinner. Take note of the occasion and craft a menu based on the season and the time of day you’re hosting. Consider whether you need or want drinks and appetizers, what your main dish will be, what sides will complement it, and whether there will be dessert.

How big is your kitchen? If space is limited, consider making a dish that cooks in one pot, pan or casserole. Or utilize your outdoor spaces and fire up the grill!

How many people are you hosting? When you’re hosting a larger dinner party, say for eight to 12 people, one of the best ways to pull together an impressive meal is to use your slow cooker. This frees up oven space so you can have a few things cooking at the same time. Serving drinks? Keep in mind you’ll need enough for each guest to have at least two. Will there be appetizers? Plan for each guest to have 4 to 5. You’ll find more info on how to feed a crowd in our entertaining primer, All the Secrets to Simplify Hosting.

Now it’s time to pull out all the stops! Once you’ve taken stock of what you’re working with and what you want to create, the real fun can begin. These are our suggestions for a modern sit-down dinner:

  • Choose 1-2 dishes that require a little extra effort—you want to wow them, after all.
  • Choose 1-2 dishes you can make the day before—prep makes it easier for you to be relaxed when your guests arrive!
  • Invite a friend to bring a dessert, or do it yourself if you want to have a tighter hand on how the flavors of the different courses flow from one into the next.

At the end of the day, entertaining can be whatever you want it to be. It can be as simple as having a few friends over after work or as elaborate as dressing up and sending out dinner party invitations. Making your guests feel at home is truly what matters—not the plates you use or the layers in your cake!

Tell us, did you have any of Betty’s hosting and entertaining books? We’d love to hear about the recipes you’ve relied on—then and now—and all you’ve learned about hosting!