Ways to be a warm and gracious hostess that don’t cost a dime

Rules-y overachievers in magazines and stylishly-appointed (and edited!) cooking shows have given the impression that entertaining--major holiday or not--is the sort of endeavor best overseen by a professional staff and creative director. But you don't have to serve dinner on fine (or even matching) china to make people feel cared for and tended to. "To invite a person into your house," wrote French good time guy Brillat-Savarin, "is to take charge of his happiness for as long as he is under your roof." Keep that in mind when you start to confuse serving perfect roast turkey for dispensing happiness. Here, how to make you guests feel welcomed with open arms (and how to have a good time yourself!).

Imagine Guests Are Arriving 30 Minutes Earlier Than They Actually Are
Part of making people feel welcome is being ready when they arrive and not, you know, wearing your curlers and doing a last-minute once-over with the vacuum. Invited people over for 3 o'clock Thanksgiving dinner? Plan your day as if you said 2:30. That will leave you with 30 minutes to take a few deep breaths, put on some lipstick, and have a glass of wine before anyone arrives.

Kick Up Your Heels
This is so important. When the host is having a grand time, everyone else usually is too. And while it can seem like a lot of pressure to hear that you set the tone for the party, think of it this way: what kind of party do you like? One where the hostess is muttering about napkin rings as she beats a trail to and from the table? Or one where she laughs at your jokes and hardly bats an eye when someone spills? Right. If you're relaxed, having fun, and feeling pretty in your party dress, it will create a vibe that fill the whole room with a festive spirit.

Be a Greeter, or Appoint One
You know when you walk into a store and someone is hovering by the door to welcome you and wish you a nice afternoon? Isn't that nice? Replicate the idea at your Thanksgiving. If you have to be in the kitchen tending to last minute details, assign someone the job of greeter. They can take a guest's coat, offer a drink, and introduce them to someone they might not know. Repeat as necessary. It's always nicest if the hostess can do this, but Thanksgiving dinner is so nuts, all the usual bets are off. Don't feel guilty delegating.

Keep to Your Comfort Zone
The quickest way to turn into a harried, resentful hostess is to go beyond your comfort zone. Don't blow your budget on fancy cheese, plan some crazy elaborate menu, or insist on individually shaking each cocktail for a room of eighteen. That's a sure-fire way to guarantee you'll be crying into your gravy at some point during the day. Repeat after me: people don't come for the food (well, not totally). People come to enjoy a holiday and spend time with family and friends. Just ask someone who has been to a super fun Thanksgiving where the stuffing was inedible and the turkey was still frozen at dinner time. Stick with dishes you've made before, delegate what's beyond you, and don't try to impress anyone. You're not trying to recreate a restaurant experience. You're warmly welcoming people to your home for the holiday.

Smile
Whenever you feel yourself going into panic mode--The turkey is dry! The gravy is burning! There aren't enough chairs!--just smile. Not an insane "I'm smiling 'cause I really want to kill all of you people," smile, but one that you kinda-sorta mean. Make eye contact with someone. Grin again. See, you just made someone feel welcome at your party. It took two seconds.

Give Assignments
Keep a list of duties, like setting the table or opening the wine, that you're happy to delegate. People will often ask "Can I help?" and you'll know just what to say. Guests--especially shy types who would rather pitch in than chat up a stranger--love feeling helpful and involved in the process. Have a few tasks that you can easily pass off.

Trick Out the Guest Room
Giving your overnight guests the royal treatment doesn't require a queen's bank account. Add little touches that show you're thinking of your guest's comfort and pleasure, like a branch of bittersweet from the yard on the bedside table, a book of short stories, a decanter with water, a little dish of leftover Halloween candy, and a folded clean towel are all it takes. (You could probably just stick with the water and the towel and be golden.)

Be Present
The worst feeling a hostess can have is when the last guest files out the front door, and she collapses in an overstuffed chair, kicks off her heels...and has no idea what just happened. When a guest is telling you a story about their new job or the date they went on last week, don't let yourself be distracted by thoughts of whether or not the cranberry sauce is as good as last year. Try to be present. Just listen. Aim for one--even brief!--interaction like this with each guest. Settle for a handful of them. Not only will it make your guests feel good, but you'll feel like you actually spent time with them, rather than just slapped some food in front of a bunch of hungry mouths.

How do you stay calm on the big day? And what do you think makes a really gifted hostess?

More for My Family: