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I love hosting and seeing friends gather around our table. It’s cozy, creative and a great way to deepen friendships. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy or simple: I’ve had sick kids vomit on my couch and encountered dietary requirements that wiped out my entire menu. There’s been a bit of stilted conversation and even an upset band of hornets. Believe me when I say I’ve learned and relearned most of these tips the hard way. Still, I love channeling my inner Martha Stewart, and I hope these will inspire you to try as well.

1. Choose your guest list wisely

If you’re just starting out, go small and choose close friends who won’t mind if the soup scorches. As you grow in confidence, 6-8 is an ideal size. Feel free to mix friends from different areas of your life, but try to make sure they all have something in common: fly-fishing, movies or being from Minnesota. Ask about dietary requirements early on.

2. Tackle only one elaborate dish

Want to try your hand at beef bourguignon (a great make-ahead dish)?
Go ahead and buy your bread, use a salad mix, and serve sorbet in pretty dishes. Your guests will be so impressed with your culinary skills they won’t even notice you chose only one detailed dish.

3. Keep most of your menu make-ahead

I love dishes I can put together in the morning or even the night before and just pop in the oven, slow cooker or grill. A side benefit to make-ahead dishes: if they go sideways — and sometimes they will — you have time to recover.

4.Have a plan for the kids

A shared sitter is great if you can spring for it, toys in the back bedroom, a pack’n’play for the toddler, Frozen cued up. Make sure you have food that accommodates them.

5.Set the ambiance

Cue up some dinner-friendly music, light a few unscented candles out of reach of little hands, and close the doors to rooms that didn’t make the whirlwind cleaning cut.

6.Leave a few small tasks for guests as they arrive

Opening the wine, dressing the salad, even cutting bread can incorporate them into the flow of the evening.

7.Step away a half-hour before your guests arrive

Change out of the flour-spattered clothes and into something that makes you feel pretty. Relax: take a few deep breaths, sip a half-glass of wine, step outside for a minute. Remember you, as hostess, set the tone for the evening. Mindfully move from frazzled to gracious. Your kitchen might still be dirty, but at least you’ll feel comfortable and confident.

And finally, have fun!

Alita Hermansen is an ex-academic, writer, and the wife of a currently deployed Army Reservist. She lives in sunny Boulder, Colorado, with her charming 10 month old son and a golden retriever who thinks shedding is a way of showing love.

Which of these tips will change the way you gather?