Dinner For 45: My Family's Commitment to Community Building
Our Call to Deepen Our Friendships
It's so, so much easier to be holy when you have a community to rely on and support you. Parish events can be great, but inviting people into your home invites intimacy and brotherhood. John and I hope to foster a Catholic culture for our children. We don't just want to opt out of the unhealthy parts of popular culture; we want to opt in to something better. I believe it comes down to one thing: massive intentionality. It's easy to let the weekends slide by, but it's better to set aside all those home repair projects on Sundays and, once a month, have a really truly good long afternoon with friends.
If you come to our parish in Virginia and see a parent walking to the back with a small child during mass, you can be nearly sure it's one of our dear friends :) If you saw this video you may already know that the Sumereau clan has been blessed with an extraordinary community. Our friends cleaned our house, grocery shopped, decorated with balloons, and left a kitchen full of presents when we arrived home after 4 months in the NICU.
I've moved over 20 times in my life. I've worked very hard to find good Christian friends in every place. I firmly believe you can find good people everywhere, even in the most desolate dioceses.
Since I've been the "new kid" my whole life, I know the importance of just one special person to bring you into their friend group. I want to be that person. After our massive learning curve in the NICU School of Life, John and I felt called to cultivate our existing friendships even further and in growing new friendships. We always feel happiest with our friends around, and our kids do too.
Additionally, we felt called to make every Sunday an intentionally restful day. (I know that's literally one of the ten commandments... but anyone else only just discovering God meant not only going to Church but also taking the whole day off? Anyone?)
American "going out" culture is generally unsuited to families with small children. Gone are the long, lazy NYC weekend brunches of my single years. I can instinctively feel the waitstaff cringe as they seat our young kids in a nice, quiet, clean booth. Ask me about the time we tried to go out on my birthday this July and baby Nora projectile-vomited all over the restaurant. We took our entrees to go.
We young families have to tailor our gatherings to meet our needs. Parents need to be able to relax with friends like we did in our single years. Meanwhile, kids don't want to sit still; they need to RUN and bop each other with things. (Don't ask me why; I don't make the rules! I just follow 'em.) So with all that in mind, John and I began to dream up monthly Sunday parties for our entire friend group of... *drumroll*:
40 families. Plus any other new families we happen to meet. In our 1,800-square-foot home.
But we went for it. About 60 RSVP'ed yes to our first party. About 45 came. The same number came to our second. We're coming up on our third party and are LOVING this new family tradition. Here's how we've managed to make monthly hosting sustainable, joyful, and cost-effective.
Sundaes on Sundays
I made 3 resolutions right away:
I will only do this monthly if it's truly FUN. If it stresses me out we're not doing it.
I will only do this monthly if we can afford it.
I will not spend all day (or the day before) cooking.
One day the idea of "Sundaes on Sundays" came to me. Perfect! Ice cream is inexpensive and requires no preparation. Set out a slew of toppings in paper bowls (also no baking or preparation required), and you've got a kids' fantasy come true! Plus, it feels like a proper enough treat for a Sunday.
That was a hit for the first 2, and in our next we'll be doing decorate-your-own donuts. I see no possibility of failure :)
Since we all attend Church in the mornings and young children generally nap in the early afternoons, we settled on a start time of 3:30. That time quickly runs into dinner, so did some thinking. I wanted to provide a main dish at a price point we could afford every month, especially with food prices drastically increasing. Then we asked everyone to contribute a side dish to round out the meal. We of course went with paper plates and plastic utensils too. (Please not, I have almost no pics of these parties to share. I'm completely off my phone on party afternoons, and I don't regret it!)
Here are ideas that worked and ideas for future entrees:
Grilled hot dogs & buns- I think we spent about $20-30 in total.
Aldi pizzas- Each pizza is only about $5 and is truly enormous! The gluten free one was about $2 more. We got 8 pizzas and spent just over $40. (We're not Costco members but I hear their pizzas are good value too.)
Meatball subs: Heat up tomato sauce meatballs in a couple crock pots and let people build their own sandwiches. So easy and the only prep is opening some cans! A party-sized pack of pre-made meatballs is $7 at Walmart (I bought 2.) Cans of sauce are $0.94 and we'll probably use 4-6. I scoured the clearance bakery rack and scored 48 sub-sized rolls for just $6! They were very good rolls and only a day old. I threw them in the freezer in advance of the party. We'll also buy mozzarella cheese for topping, which will come to approx. $5. So in total= approx $24-26.
Pasta: A crowd-pleaser. 2 massive trays of pasta came out to somewhere between $20-30. Half was homemade pesto with sausage and half was homemade tomato sauce with ground beef. The homemade sauces with basil and tomatoes from our garden made it feel extra special (and we just happened to have an abundance in our freezer.) But of course it would be just as successful with store-bought sauces. Maybe we'll do a chicken and alfredo sauce option next time!
Tacos: We haven't done this one yet, but I know a good taco is a crowd-pleaser. The key here will be to buy beef in bulk. 5-lb packages are cheaper per pound than 1-lb. Just add tortillas, salsa (bonus if it's homemade, but if not no one will care,) sour cream and cheese and you've got yourself a winner!
I love cooking my friends special, made-from-scratch meals. But in this instance I refuse to put pressure on myself because I want to be able to enjoy my own party! The most important thing is to just provide a space and a meal that fills up tummies. I know the above ideas work because I felt very little stress shopping for and preparing them. So if you have perfectionist tendencies when it comes to hosting, please allow me to alleviate them. Your friends will be grateful they didn't have to cook dinner that night!
Heaven begins here on Earth, and I look forward to partying into Eternity, starting now, with the people I love so well.
You Don't Have to Entertain Anyone... But Here are Extra Fun Options if You Want To!
The secret to a good party: Just add people. The kids ran around pell-mell until long after dark. No one needed entertainment, but here are some easy ideas that we've incorporated/plan to incorporate according to the season. I hope something in here inspires you!
Picnic blankets: Since there's no hope of seating that many people in regular chairs, I spread picnic blankets on the lawn and under the gazebo in warmer months, and plan to use them indoors too. The kids loved the feel of picnicking indoors or out with their friends!
Twinkle lights: Who doesn't love a good string of twinkle lights? Candles on the tables would be a bit dangerous with so many young kids, so this added instant atmosphere.
Cornhole: We accidentally invented "Catholic Cornhole:" As the game progressed we realized every dad was playing with his youngest baby in an arm. That made for adorable pictures!
Rosary: Depending on the age of the attendees you could go for a decade or a full rosary. We did a decade and I shed a little tear of joy watching my toddlers lisp our their prayers alongside their friends. This is the stuff dreams are made of.
Fire pit: Nothing original, but it had to make the list. Just add s'mores.
Music: We've done this at other parties and plan to do it at our next one around the fire pit. My husband is a guitarist and y'all know I love a showtune or two :) "Down by the Bay" and "Baby Beluga" are favorites of the toddlers, and we parents love seeing how excited they get to sing them. Let me know in the comments if you'd like a list of songs to get your party singing sessions started and I'll add it on!
Whiskey/wine: When your pastor requests whiskey, how can you turn him down? If you're going for wine, I buy Winking Owl wine from Aldi for $3/bottle. I really like their chardonnay and the cabernet isn't bad. And you simply can't beat the price.
Glow sticks: They're cheap in bulk from the dollar store and SO exciting for littles. Plus it helps you keep track of them in the dark.
Got talent? One of our party attendees is a magician so he graciously did card tricks for the kids. Your chance to pull out those dormant skills that deserve some applause ;)
Cookie exchange: Holidays, or whenever!
Coloring pages: We are big fans of the Lacy of Catholic Icing's resources for liturgical living. Her blog is a wealth of knowledge for celebrating feast days (and remembering which ones are coming up because, frankly, I usually forget. It's quick and easy to print out 30 or so coloring pages for an upcoming feast day and set them out on our kitchen table with washable markers.
May Crowning: In the month of May we plan to sing a Marian hymn and crown a Mary statue in addition to the decade of the rosary.
Catholic Cornhole...a new classic. All the littles happened to be girls which was extra cute!
Christmas deserves its own paragraph because it's the most elaborate party of the year. As a child I loved reading Tasha Tudor's book of family traditions called A Time to Keep. One of their family traditions on Christmas Eve was to follow a trail of candles through the woods to a near life-size creche in the woods.
We decided to attempt our own version last year and it was magical for all of us. It happened to have snowed the day before (thank you, God!) as an extra special touch. I bought a bulk package of electric tea lights to make the trail through the woods behind our house. I think I did something to protect them from the moisture of the snow but I can't remember what... possibly squares of cardboard underneath. I got a pack of 50 and we used nearly all of them.
Before setting out I read the poem "In the Bleak Midwinter." I had asked the moms to have their children make a card or a gift for Jesus with a picture of a heart on it. The final verse reads:
What can I give him?
Poor as I am
If I were a shepherd
I would give a lamb
If I were a wise man
I would do my part
But what I can I give him
Give him my heart.
And I explained to the children that the best gift we can give Jesus at Christmas is our hearts, because he loves us so much.
As we walked we sang Christmas carols. When we reached the creche, we sang a few more carols and each child presented the gift of their heart to baby Jesus. You can see in the picture above that my daughter also chose to drape her beloved blankie around baby Jesus. We finished up with a short prayer and then headed inside for eating and more partying. The whole thing only took 15-20 minutes (perfect for short attention spans!) We'll definitely be doing it again yearly.
Below I'd love to hear your thoughts and get inspired by my fellow community-builders!
1) What are some initiatives you're doing to build community?
2) Can you share more ideas for entrees, desserts and party hosting? I love getting inspired!
3) Would you like to host parties like these but are encountering obstacles? Let me know below and I'll be sure to address it in a future blog post!
Thanks so much for reading!