It seems like as soon as I hit 30, I looked up and realized that most of my close friends have small children. This means that hosting and hospitality—which I love—look different than our tribe’s childless days. Because many of our friends had children before my husband and I did, we learned a bit about how to accommodate them in our hosting plans. However, starting our own family magnified the importance of making small adjustments so our tiniest friends can enjoy themselves and feel welcome, too.
I surveyed a few women to learn how they navigate hosting and hospitality in a season where tiny humans take over their lives. Their thoughts, example, and encouragement show that good hosting ultimately boils down to four pillars: food, activities, preparation, and overall mantras that keep us from becoming too intimidated to throw open our doors to people we love.
Prepare simple, kid-friendly options
Because there are numerous simple, unfussy ways to feed families, food should never impede our hosting plans. Hayley, a homeschooling mom of four, says: “We try to do meals that are separable—like a chicken, potato, and veggie combination. It’s easy, and it allows parents to make a plate for their kids based on what they like.”
Lindy, a mom of three active boys, says she opts for pizzas with salads for adults and applesauce pouches for the kids. “We have also done a sandwich bar and served fruit and chips as sides,” she says. Simple, tasty, and kid-friendly. Check, check, check.
Keep things on hand for last-minute pop-ins
As Bread & Wine author Shauna Niequist advises, keep a few staples on hand so last-minute visits don’t catch you off guard. I try to keep chips and salsa or cheese and crackers on hand along with some kid-friendly string cheeses and pretzels.
Lindy shares that the key to good dinnertime hosting is to always have the basic staples in the pantry: “I try to always stock my pantry and fridge with the supplies for my favorite Crock-Pot meal for last-minute hosting or if someone needs a meal taken to them.”
Be present, not perfect
What makes hosting feel laborious is the perfection standard we impose on ourselves. Working mom Rebecca shares that when it comes to preparing dinner, “it doesn’t have to be homemade.” When her neighbors invited her family of three over for dinner, their contribution was a salad kit and a box of Trader Joe’s cookies. “People want to enjoy your company, even if you don’t have time to make something extravagant,” she says.
Similarly, Liz, a mom of two girls, shares this advice: when life gets chaotic, make it as easy as possible. “Forget preparing entirely and pick up a platter—or order a pizza!” she says. “Your guests will totally understand, and frankly, they’re probably just grateful to get out of their own house.”
Share the preparation
For fun, hassle-free hosting, make the meal together. Last winter, we hosted a family of three for a taco bar. Our friends brought chicken, vegetables, rice, and beans, and we contributed grilled fish, guacamole, chips, salsa, and cheese. My friend and I cooked the meat while our husbands played with the babies, then we switched. It was a perfect Friday night activity because it required virtually no preparation at all.
Alternatively, opt for a potluck. Both Hayley, the busy mom of four, and Liz, share that they throw potlucks often to keep hosting simple and to ensure that there is something on the table that everyone can eat.
Have a few things ready
While you certainly don’t need to rent five bounce houses or hire a brigade of clowns, have a few basic activities at the ready so the kids don’t start pilfering pantry items or playing catch with the family heirlooms.
My husband and I have a baby, so we don’t have a lot of kids’ toys on hand. To entertain our friends’ kids of varying ages, we keep a Tupperware full of beanie babies, trucks, coloring books, and basic games that we can pull out when the kids get restless.
Hayley offers a few simple, group-oriented activities that keep kids peacefully occupied so the adults can talk. “Being in a group of small kids is chaotic enough for everyone, so having peaceful activities is a big help,” she says. “We’re big fans of playing outside, dress-up, blocks (we have a huge basket so lots of kids can play) or magnets and LEGOs.”
“I’m sure all of us have more toys than we really need,” Lindy adds. “We just let the kids that come over play with our toys or play out in the backyard.” She shares that they also keep a stash of craft supplies and play dough.
Designate a place
If your home offers a separate, designated space for play, use it! If not, Liz advises turning to the sanity-saving measures of a movie or outdoor play. “I’m not above putting on Frozen,” she says. She also says that sometimes, the best option is to meet at a playground with packed lunches or “take a stroller and beer/coffee walk around the neighborhood” (laws permitting).
Accept that cleanliness is a losing battle
You aren’t welcoming the Queen of England, so when it comes to preparing for company, keep it simple. First and foremost, this means that cleanliness simply won’t last.
“We always have all of our kids help to tidy everything before guests arrive, and we teach them this is part of being good hosts,” says Hayley. “But of course once friends arrive, they will play with something, and that is just fine by us as long as they’re following the rules.”
Similarly, Rebecca says: “Expect a mess! Kids are messy and toddlers throw food. Just expect it, provide plenty of towels, and it will be okay!”
Don’t die on every hill
Lindy cautions hosting moms to pick their spots rather than to feel the need to scrub the house top to bottom—which simply isn’t practical (nor is it the best use of time when messy kiddos are about to tear through your home). She shares that her main standard is to clean the bathroom. “There may be toys on the floor, but the bathroom will be clean for our guests!” she says.
I follow a similar rule: I vacuum the floors and disinfect high-traffic surfaces that babies will likely crawl on, light a candle, and put out some fresh flowers. But when it comes to cleaning the fourth bathroom that no one has used in more than a year, well, I accept that that’s just not the best use of my time.
Wise words to live by—or at least host by
If the idea of hosting families makes you sweat bullets, take a step back, and keep these mantras in mind:
First, be willing to think outside the box when it comes to hosting. “A typical dinner time is close to kids’ bedtimes, making it harder to linger and enjoy company,” Rebecca shares. “Try hosting for breakfast or brunch instead!”
Also, try to keep a space available for quiet rest. Welcoming families with young babies means that many hosting times might overlap with nap times. We keep an extra pack-n-play in our spare bedroom, along with an extra baby monitor camera, so our friends can put their babies down for a nap while adults talk.
Citing author Elisabeth Elliot—who wrote at length of her parents’ example of hospitality during the Great Depression—Lindy shares that she abides by the mantra of unpretentious hospitality. “That phrase has stayed with me since the first time I heard it,” she says. “Up to that point, I thought that when I had people over to dinner or lunch I had to ‘flex my muscles’ and make something really good or impressive. But, that really changed my perspective! Also when we set the bar so high for the meal we prepare, we will not want to have people over very often, will we? (I wouldn’t).”
Liz shares a similar sentiment. “I think the truth lies somewhere in the concept of just letting people come in right where you are and letting all the trappings of traditional hosting go: your house won’t be clean or quiet, you might not have all the pretty food and drinks you would have had when you were child-free, and you might be wearing yesterday’s clothes. It’s a humbling stage of life, but I try to remind myself it’s not forever.”
Ultimately, hosting is about carving out space in your life to enjoy time with people you love. As Rebecca, Liz, Lindy, and Hayley share, it isn’t about putting on a show while your guests sit back in admiration: it is more like welcoming them into your actual, real life, letting them experience the rhythms and flavors and comforts of your home. When you accept that this is what hosting is all about, you will feel more at ease throwing open your doors to other families.