My last semester of college, I added a new, time-consuming task to my life: invite friends to dinner at least once a week.
After getting married in January, my new husband and I had moved off campus. For the first time in our lives, we had a house of our own. We instantly began wondering what to do with all the space: two living rooms, a big kitchen, and several bedrooms. I committed to regular dinners more as a way to keep in touch with friends on campus than because of a conscious desire to practice the art of hospitality.
My schedule, like any other college student’s, was already packed. Because I often did not have time to both thoroughly clean the house and make dinner, I once mourned to my husband that the only thing I could offer my friends was food. Not a beautifully decorated or organized space…just a table shoved to the side away from piles of papers.
Happily, my vision of the ideal was soon replaced by fond memories of the real. By making time for hospitality, I learned many lessons that I will carry into post-graduation life about providing a welcoming space that fosters community and fellowship.
Invest Time in Hospitality
My mom always says that everyone has time for the things they really want to have time for. In one of my busiest semesters, while balancing the final stretch of our academic careers with major decisions about our post-graduation plans, I could indeed find the time to make a dessert for my husband’s Bible study every week or plan a big party with five homemade dishes right before finals week.
Paradoxically, cooking took both more time than I thought it would (since I always should have allowed 15-30 minutes more than I did) and less time than I thought it would. In fact, once I got into a rhythm of cooking for a group regularly, it seemed to flow naturally as a part of my schedule.
That doesn’t mean that I never asked myself if it was worth it. Planning and making the dinners often took much longer than the time spent actually eating the dinner and talking afterward with friends. Each wonderful conversation around our little table always reminded me, though, why I was investing the time.
While I knew that having people over for dinner would help me to stay connected to my friends, I did not anticipate how much it would benefit my relationship with my spouse.
I once heard someone say that figuring out directions to an unfamiliar place and driving there is a true test of a relationship: The task reveals whether the couple can work together in everyday circumstances that most people will find frustrating. Putting two newlyweds in a kitchen is also a test of how well they work together and can help them figure out how to work together in a deeper way.
Through preparing for the dinners, I learned that my husband has quite the knack for cooking. He turned out beautiful crepes the first time he tried to make them. He’s very detail-oriented and is willing to talk to me about any kitchen dilemma, no matter how small. Some of the most enjoyable, profound, and meaningful conversations we have had happened in the kitchen. Doing something together like making a meal made us feel more like a team.
Getting ready for dinner, I learned, was often as fun and full of fellowship as the dinner itself. My husband and I would talk for hours as soup or brownies or potato salad came into being in the kitchen. Even if the guests didn’t notice, the hotpads, utensils, and other kitchen items that we received for our wedding soon became prized, cherished objects because we were using them so often. I reflected often on how grateful I was that so-and-so had crocheted me a hotpad. When the guests arrived, they would join us for the final minutes of preparation, laughing at our cooking mishaps and maybe helping to set the table.
I learned to throw together small details that create a pleasing, beautiful environment in minutes. We decorated the table with the tablecloth and beautiful handmade runner we had received as wedding presents. My husband purchased fresh flowers to mark highlights of our final semester like our thesis defenses, which greatly enhanced the dinner-time aesthetics. Above all, I cleared our mealtime corner of clutter.
Decluttering proved more difficult than I had expected. Most of the time, I am a relatively tidy person, but certainly not when I am writing papers. Although I had been inviting friends for tea and snacks in my dorm room ever since my freshman year, it was far easier to clean up a concentrated mess on my dorm room desk than books and papers spread across several rooms.
I compressed housecleaning to straightening up the most urgent messes, setting the table in a hurry, and settling down with rumpled hair and apron to the table. I finished with a quick glance around to make sure that, on cursory inspection, the house did look put together.
I realized that my idealized version of hospitality—meticulously cleaned bathrooms, organized living space, and completely neat rooms, along with elaborate homemade meals—was not entirely realistic for my cooking abilities at this point. I take a long time to prepare anything and prefer to make as many things from scratch as possible, compounding the slowness of my cooking. Nor did this vision fit my schedule, which required me to be on campus for basically a workday. My guests routinely arrived to find me racing to finish cooking.
Planning meal preparation takes practice, and I learned that I couldn’t expect perfection right away. Hospitality is a lifelong attitude of maintaining and deepening relationships, especially in small, concentrated settings. And my friends were unfailingly gracious about my lateness.