How To Host A Stress-Free Shabbat Meal, Step By Step

So you want to host your first Shabbat dinner or lunch and you’re shaky on the logistics? Perhaps you didn’t grow up with the tradition but would like to start a Friday night custom to gather with friends after a long week. Maybe you’ve graduated from college and are living on your own for the first time and want to continue the customs you practiced at home or learned at Hillel or Chabad — or start your own traditions.

Great news: I’ve been in your shoes, have made the mistakes, and can offer suggestions for how to entertain on Shabbat without too many hiccups.

I grew up familiar with Shabbat, though my family didn’t regularly observe the rituals and restrictions. I attended a dual-curriculum (both secular and religious-studies) school until 8th grade, and a Jewish sleepaway camp. In college, I was social chair of Hillel and organized a few large Shabbat dinners. A few years later, I moved to Washington DC where I had my own apartment and joined a synagogue for the first time. It was a tight-knit community that was fairly observant, and after being invited to a few Shabbat meals I realized it was time for me to extend some hospitality of my own. It was those first dinners and lunches that inspired me to become a part-time food writer and create a blog where I tell stories and develop and photograph recipes.

Here is my practical, step-by-step guide to hosting Shabbat.

The guests

First off, figure out how many people you’d like to invite. Do you want to serve a meal around a table (in which case you’re limited by the number of chairs you can squeeze around it) or are you thinking of a buffet for as many people as you can fit in your standing-room only space? For a small apartment gathering, I find that six to eight is the perfect number of guests — it allows for a single group conversation or two to three smaller conversations that won’t drown each other out.

Tip: Mix it up at the table

Next, consider the mix of people. Sometimes it’s nice to invite a group of friend who all know one another. Or if you want to mix it up, invite a variety of people and try to make sure that everyone at the table knows or has something in common with at least one person. That way no one feels like the odd man out. Try to balance genders. I like to match interests, so I typically invite a few people interested in the same thing — theater, finance, travel, whatever — which encourages conversation to flow. And there’s no need to limit your invite list to members of the tribe — I find that friends of any (or no) religion appreciate a home-cooked meal, boisterous conversation and the chance to unwind. I enjoy sharing my culture and learning about others, and breaking bread together provides the perfect setting.

The menu

Planning an entire menu can be daunting, especially if you don’t cook very often. The most important thing to remember is that everyone is coming to spend time together, and dinner doesn’t need to be anything fancy. There is no shame in ordering in.

Tip: Mix up the cooking methods

If you do want to do the cooking yourself, this is not the time to try out the complicated recipes that you’ve flagged in your favorite chef cookbook du jour. Make one new dish and then stick with familiar standbys. One thing I learned over time is to use a variety of cooking methods so you can cook things at the same time. If everything had to be made in the oven (e.g., braised beef, roasted Brussels sprouts, challah and cake) you’d be popping things in and out for hours on end prior to the meal.

Before I really knew how to mix and match dishes for a cohesive meal, I relied on different geographies or themes: a Mexican-ish dinner with a make-your-own taco bar and cinnamon-and-cayenne-laced brownies from a box; a picnic lunch of deli sandwiches, potato salad, slaw and watermelon. We’ve provided a few sample menus for inspiration.

It’s tempting to go overboard, but I’ve found that you don’t need multiple courses. My must-haves are a protein, two vegetables (one could be a green salad), a starch and dessert. In winter, I might make soup to start, but otherwise I never bother with an appetizer — other than possibly a dip to go with the challah (guacamole is always well received).

Tip: Say yes

Most guests will ask what they can bring, so suggest items that will help you shrink the size of your to-do list. The worst thing you can say is “bring whatever you want” — this is your opportunity to take a bit of the pressure off yourself. Use it. Wine is always great, and it’s what most people default to. But if your friend offers to make dessert, take him up on it so you can focus on other things. And perhaps your aunt who can’t boil water could pick up some hummus or cut fruit. If people offer to make a dish, ask them to please prepare it entirely at home so you don’t have to search for a cutting board while running around taking care of last-minute details or have someone rinsing berries over a sink full of dirty dishes.

Finally, ask your guests about any dietary restrictions. If there are vegetarians, make sure one of the side dishes contains a meatless protein such as beans, lentils, tofu or quinoa. Gluten free? Don’t add any extraneous flour to dishes (e.g., make grilled or roasted chicken rather than breadcrumb-coated schnitzel) and consider ice cream instead of cake for dessert. If any guests are stricter than you in their kosher observance, ask if any accommodations are necessary for them to feel comfortable.

Cooking

There’s an urban legend among Jewish communities about the neighbor who has refined Shabbat cooking so that it only takes him or her an hour in the kitchen to whip up dinner for 10. That’s a myth. If you’re planning to do the cooking yourself, with practice you might be able to throw everything together in a few hours, but don’t expect that for your first few tries. In general, I shop one night and then spread my cooking out over two evenings (or a day, if I’m able to work from home). It sounds hectic, but I’ve learned a few tricks to make the cooking part more manageable and less intimidating.

Tip: Make a plan

Once you’ve planned the menu, read through your recipes and come up with a shopping list and a rough schedule of what to make when. Note any dishes that require overnight marinating, or long rising or cooking times, and plan accordingly. Figure out what you can make in parallel, for example make rice on the stovetop while roasting chicken in the oven and whipping chocolate mousse in your stand mixer. If you are going to make multiple dishes at the same time, print out the recipes and stick them to your refrigerator, then cross off steps and ingredients as you go so you don’t lose track and end up with a sugarless dessert. Also, use timers — on your microwave, oven and phone if necessary. Prep for any last-minute dishes in advance. For example, wash and slice all your vegetables (zip-top bags are your friends here) and make a dressing so you can quickly toss together a salad right before serving. Rinse and trim your asparagus, then pop them into a hot oven with some olive oil, salt and pepper 10 to 15 minutes before everyone arrives. Then serve them at room temperature.

Setting up

Enhance the vibe of your dinner with decorations. For my taco buffet, I used as a challah cover a bright serape-style napkin that I bought in Mexico. For the picnic, I filled a vase with a big bouquet of sunflowers.

Decide which serving dishes and silverware you’ll want to use for each recipe in advance — you can even label them with stickies — so you’re not pulling out the ladder to reach the perfect platter on the top shelf while your friends are streaming in. Or serve everything right out of pots and pans and call it “industrial chic.”

Some people set the table the night before, but that’s not realistic for me. I try instead to put on a tablecloth and lay out plates, cutlery and glasses so that if someone wants to help when they walk in, I can give them an easy task that allows me to stay in the kitchen. Don’t shy away from using paper or plastic — the environment will forgive you this one convenience for the sake of your sanity.

Refrigerate white wine, a few pitchers of water and any other drinks you plan to serve. Your home doesn’t need to be spic and span, but do hide clutter in the closets and give the bathroom a once over, making sure there are clean towels and an extra roll of toilet paper. If you have a dishwasher, empty it so you can quickly stash dirty dishes after clearing the table.

The main event

Once all your guests arrive, it’s time to head to the table. Before serving the meal, light the Sabbath candles and recite the blessing. Many people then say a blessing (kiddush) over the wine, ritually wash their hands and then say another blessing over the challah (hamotzei). In between washing hands and hamotzei, some people refrain from speaking. Practice the rituals that are right for you, letting your guests know that they’re welcome to join in or just observe, and conduct there own Shabbat rituals. Those unfamiliar with the traditions will probably appreciate a brief explanation.

Now it’s time to eat! So that you’re not constantly going back and forth to the kitchen, consider asking someone to stay on top of the beverages, refilling water pitchers and opening new wine bottles when they run low. I sometimes also ask an extroverted friends to keep the conversation going — to lead introductions at the beginning and to draw out quieter guests.

Encourage everyone to take seconds (and thirds) before clearing the dishes for dessert.

After the meal

Once you and your guests can’t fit another morsel into your mouths, you might find that it’s way past your bedtime (after dinner) or that you want to enjoy a book in the sunshine (after lunch), but everyone is having such a good time that they don’t want to leave. Luckily, it’s traditional to bentch, to sing a blessing of thanks for the meal you’ve just eaten. You can encourage people to start heading home by explaining that this is the final ritual, then passing around bentchers (prayer booklets). Most people will get the hint — and if not, it’s perfectly okay to be somewhat less subtle by thanking everyone for coming in a way that makes it clear you’re wrapping it up.

If you have piles of leftovers, consider packing them up for your guests to take home. Cake makes excellent breakfast. The last decision of the afternoon or night is whether or not to wash dishes. I typically fill the dishwasher and leave the rest for later, closing the kitchen door behind me.

Because after all, Shabbat is a day of rest and you deserve one after sharing a lovely meal with your guests.

Gayle Squires is a food writer, recipe developer and photographer. Her path to the culinary world is paved with tap shoes, a medical degree, business consulting and travel. She has a knack for convincing chefs to give up their secret recipes. Her blog is KosherCamembert

This story "Shabbat Dinner, Step By Step" was written by Gayle L. Squires.

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