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How To Host a Holiday Orphan Dinner

Last updated 09/25/2020 by

Audrey Henderson
You usually go out of town to visit family for the holidays, but this year you’re stuck, either because of work or because of finances. However, you don’t have to put your holiday plans on ice just because you can’t afford holiday travel. Instead, gather a group of friends, acquaintances or work associates for a holiday orphan dinner. You’ll enjoy the company of people you care for, enjoy foods you might not have had otherwise AND save money by sharing the costs of food and drink.

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Plan Your Orphan Dinner

You can’t expect to pick up the phone or send out an email blast on December 24 and invite people over for Christmas or Kwanzaa – or even New Year’s Eve, for that matter. If you intend to host a get-together over the present holiday season, stop what you’re doing and put your guest list together now. Whom are you going to invite? Friends who also can’t or don’t plan to travel out of town, of course. Work associates that you like. That nice older lady down the hall who seldom seems to receive any visitors. Don’t be afraid to invite people from different age groups or cultural backgrounds either.
Once you’ve put together a guest list, sending out invites is easy. Use an online service like Evite or Eventbrite to create festive invites to send via email. The advantage of this approach is that you can keep a running tally of who is coming and can’t make it. If someone on your invite list doesn’t use email, take the low-tech approach and pick up the phone or plan a visit in person to deliver the invitation.

Plan Your Menu Well Ahead of Time

Since it’s a pot luck dinner, send out requests along with your invitation and prospective menu for contributions – either in cash or in kind. By determining your menu early, you also give yourself time to assemble all the cooking equipment and utensils that you need. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you shouldn’t feel shy about asking your guests to pitch in. Chances are they will insist on helping. If you know that one or more of your guests is financially strapped, allow him or her to perform some small but essential task to help you prepare for the meal rather than contributing cash or food.
Not only will you ease the pinch on your budget, you will also ensure that the basics are covered, and that there will be at least one item on the menu that each guest will actually eat. Of course, you want everyone to enjoy the meal, and it’s OK to make accommodations for dietary considerations. If one or more of your guests is vegetarian, preparing an alternate vegetarian main dish is a nice gesture, but there is no need to lay out an entirely meat-free spread unless that’s how you and your guests normally eat.

Map out the Logistics, but Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Planning the logistics for an orphan dinner can be a challenge. The key is to ensure that everyone has a comfortable place to enjoy his or her meal. If you have room at your place for a large dining room table, excellent. If you don’t, then use whatever seating you have including your living room furniture. Ask neighbors or friends to borrow folding chairs and TV trays. If you’re concerned about stains, buy or borrow cheap washable throws to cover any furnishings that you don’t want damaged.
Time management: Give yourself plenty of lead time to do food shopping and preparation, including sufficient time to thaw the turkey if you’re cooking one. You will also want to set aside at least one full day ahead of time to give your place a good cleaning.
Decorations: Seasonal decorations and a simple centerpiece for the main dining table also make a nice touch, but aren’t necessary. If you do want to dress up the table, check out Pinterest for affordable ideas.
Drinks: Don’t want to load up the table with wine, sodas, and pitchers? Don’t feel like having to serve drinks all night? A centralized “bar” on a separate table lets guests serve themselves drinks and takes the pressure off you.
Dinner: Like the separate drink table, if you don’t have enough real estate on your dinner table for a huge feast (or even a small one), it’s perfectly fine to use your kitchen counters as a buffet. Guests can easily drop off their contribution in the kitchen, and mingle before the meal.
This can be as formal, or as informal as you want it to be. No one will really care that the flatware is mismatched or that you serve the meal and wine with unbreakable plates and glasses. The point is to celebrate the season together, and enjoy eachother’s company at the same time.

Make It about More than You

To add a spiritual touch to your dinner, ask your guests to bring an unwrapped toy or a nonperishable food item to donate to charity. It’s an ecumenical way to invoke the warmth of the season. Who knows – you and your guests may enjoy your “orphan” dinner so much that it may become a tradition in its own right.

Relax and Reflect

Once your guests have left and you have finished the major cleanup, it’s OK to make a mental note of what worked well and what you might have done differently. But you shouldn’t focus too much on the shoulda, woulda, coulda.. Instead, savor the fact that you were to share a celebration with others who might not otherwise have had much to celebrate about.

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Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is a Chicagoland-based writer and researcher. She holds advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. Her writing specialties are sustainable development in the built environment, policy related to arts and popular culture, socially and ecologically responsible travel, civic tech and personal finance.

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